Is Employment Always a Bad Thing?


I love entrepreneurship. I’ve said before that anyone in their twenties with the itch to start a business should be doing so now. Because you have the time, energy and probably don’t have mortgage payments.

Moreover, I believe now is the ideal time for anyone to start a business. The internet is still a teenager, and with it the opportunity has come to start a huge variety of businesses all with one commonality: zero start-up costs.

This throws away the old playbook that said starting a business meant risking your life savings. I strongly support writers like Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferriss or Ben Casnocha, who, in their own ways, are each encouraging people to lead more entrepreneurial lives.

But Is Traditional Employment Really the Enemy?

Just as a magnet can’t exist without two poles, it seems no movement can exist without an enemy. In this case, that enemy is traditional employment.

I don’t really feel this demonizing of more traditional career choices is justified. Not only is it unnecessary, I feel that the excessive blame placed on regular jobs can be an obstacle to people who want to lead a fully entrepreneurial life.

Why Jobs Still Matter

The first reason is obvious: because they pay the bills.

If your side-business can’t support you full-time–you shouldn’t quit your job. Building a business has a sharp learning curve. Unfortunately, the first part of the learning curve earns you almost no money for your efforts.

I’m not here to glorify a quick-rich path of starting a business. I’ve run this business for close to four years, part time. I have earned a full-time income, but that only came in the last two years. Even today, earning that full-time income reliably is the chief goal of mine.

For most of us, a job will provide the necessary bridge to your ideal career.

Some Businesses are Hell Too

The idea that unconventional jobs are necessarily easier and more enjoyable than traditional work is also a big, fat myth. Many businesses suck too.

I know of franchise restaurant owners who needed to work 8-12 hours, every day with no holiday time, in order to keep their businesses afloat. Whenever there was a crisis, they had to be there to clean it up. From my view, their business was far worse than any job I’ve had, or even seriously contemplated.

You can build yourself a cage if you aren’t careful.

Jobs Provide Experience

The one caveat to my twentysomething-start-up suggestion was suggested to me by Ramit Sethi: jobs still matter because you can actually learn a lot at them.

As Ramit explained, “if you work at a company for a few years, you can understand the business environment, customers and skills necessary to succeed. You might be able to find gaps not handled by your current employer, and start your own company to fill them.”

It’s the same as university vs self-education. Sure, you can teach yourself almost anything. But, there are certain types of knowledge that are easier to learn in a school, even if universities aren’t terribly efficient.

Boldness isn’t a business plan. Having some industry experience can put you far ahead when starting a new venture.

Skill is the Currency of Life – Not Your Job Description

My point isn’t that you should shelve your entrepreneurial ambitions to get a “real” job. If my business is earning above my poverty threshold consistently when I graduate, I won’t be on the job hunt.

Then again, if it isn’t, I will get a job to support myself. That wouldn’t be a failure, just another necessary step in pursuing my ideal lifestyle.

You can be a part-time entrepreneur, at least to start. So, entrepreneurship and employment don’t need to be incompatible.

The whole demonizing of regular work, in my mind, seems to miss the point: that skill is the true currency of life, not the method you currently earn an income with.

Or, better said by my friend Cal Newport, “Be so good that the world can’t ignore you.”

“Be So Good that The World Can’t Ignore You”

As Cal explained to me, Thomas Friedman has a nearly unlimited travel budget for his writing at the New York Times, as well as close to a license to write and research whatever he chooses. He may be “employed” but his skill allows him to dictate the terms of his lifestyle.

Even if you account for the precarious fate of the newspaper giant, Friedman isn’t likely to fail. As a best-selling author, he could undoubtedly find work or earn an income, despite his employer.

As an opposite example, consider the franchise owner I mentioned earlier. Here is someone who “runs” a business. Yet, he has to work back-breaking hours, under strict control of his franchisee overseers.

The difference between these two lifestyles isn’t simply the path they chose “business” vs “employment” but that one person has cultivated reputation and immense skill, while the other may not have.

Sure, even with incredible skill, you could still be in a crap job. Skill doesn’t make hellish working conditions better. But, if you have a valuable set of skills the world desires, then the chances you are truly “stuck” there, go down dramatically.

Its unlikely Friedman would be trapped in his position, but the franchise owner may easily be.

The Real Villain is Impatience and Mediocrity

Instead of painting one form of income generation as the enemy, I’d argue the real villain is not investing time to build skill in the first place. Without mastering a skill society values, it will be a struggle to dictate your lifestyle terms to anyone.