Guest post by Annabel Hertz & Rachael Post
Entrepreneurialism is challenging at any stage, but at a mid-career, when the need/drive for self-actualization and financial security are the greatest, it creates an unsettled condition that lacks resolution. Here we find ourselves—to use a once powerful metaphor—at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: we’re self-actualized. We know what we want. We know our skills, our talents, our purpose, only to find that launching a company has its challenges that put us in financial peril, testing our security (the bottom of the pyramid). We launch businesses of transcendence that help our communities. But we cycle back and forth between certainty of purpose and uncertainty of financing. Soon we realize, much to our dismay, that we can be both at the top and the bottom of the pyramid at the same time. In fact, all the time. Thus, as others have noted, the pyramid has metaphorical limitations. We’re not climbing a pyramid at all. We’re canoeing down a river, moving through the water towards our destination while simultaneously docking in order to sustain and pace our journey.
Our safe harbor is the “gig economy,” which will supposedly soon support 30-40% of Americans who want to work on discrete projects that employ their unique talents. This bodes well for entrepreneurs at mid-career, when the desire to play to one’s strengths and be engaged in that ‘sweet spot’ of our expertise is matched only by our intense drive for greater self-actualization through new, more personally meaningful and self-created endeavors. Having part-time (and often, remote) work as a source of income and professional mooring allows us to pursue our own businesses and dream projects without risking our entire life savings.
After all, we’ve been in the workforce for decades and we advanced up the ladder or applied our expertise as specialists. We had nice salaries; we networked; we developed our careers. But then something happened—a family emergency, an unexpected layoff, a health crisis—and we stopped in our tracks. We re-examined our lives, our purposes, passions and immediate priorities. While we’d made it to the executive level or reached a professional apex in our careers, we realized the only company we wanted to be president of was our own. So we left the security of land (full time jobs) for the unsteady and exhilarating waters of entrepreneurism, joining the ranks of women starting businesses across the globe.
And if the wind is moving in our favor, the reward for our risk-taking could be consistent with that of women “olderpreneurs” in the UK— whose business have a 70 per cent chance of existing five years after inception, compared to 28% for those started by younger entrepreneurs.
We’re not up a creek without a paddle; we’re good at captaining our own canoes. However, starting and growing a business requires a lot of back and forth — both being in the water, taking risks, and being in a safe harbor of gigs, from where we can ground the risk-taking, steady our finances, mitigate the rough spots.
But the banks of our safe harbor are made of quicksand and it’s actually very difficult to dock. Ostensibly, the digital age makes it easier to match our skills with employment in a gig economy. But it’s also transformed the nature of the gigs themselves: roles based on experience are disappearing while roles based on technology are exploding. What was the core of many mid-career professionals’ work has become a small “content” sub-component of other people’s work. In addition—or perhaps partly as a result—the nature of most full-time jobs has also changed: in order to compete with employers who offer gigs (it saves them money), employers offering full-time work now roll six jobs into one. These catch-all positions require so much time and attention, they’re unsustainable for anyone at mid-career trying to start a business and maintain their health and personal relationships. Plus, they remind us of why we left the world of full-time work in the first place.
As a result, we expend considerable entrepreneurial energy and time looking for— and marketing ourselves in new ways to accommodate—these ever-shifting gigs that, only theoretically, provide some security. In fact, they often take us further away from our strengths and past earnings, and certainly from our dream projects at hand. Yet we cannot afford to abandon them entirely until our own businesses and projects come to fruition, and because we remain highly trained and increasingly self-motivated to seek out our ‘sweet spots’ where we can excel and deliver results: we are geared towards the general concept behind and the demands of a gig economy. Moreover, if we leave the gig economy for any length of time, we risk being unable to re-enter since it changes so quickly that our training, or the sectors we built our careers on, become obsolete. Take, for example, the transformation of the teaching and publishing industries, which have reduced the viability of gigs for writers and adjunct professors.
This means that even as we move forward in both the gig economy and with self-actualization, we’re constantly hedging because we cannot know which of these strategies will pan out in the long run, all the while remaining palpably aware that at mid-career, our “long run” for creating more meaning and prosperity is getting shorter.
We’ve given up on idea that we can simply be “in the zone” performing at our highest capacity for both gigs and in creating something entirely new. Yet we cannot willingly give up either because of their mutual interdependence: to give up one is to give up both. Because we cannot resolve this mid-career conundrum we must also give up on feeling settled. We must split our time looking for meaningful roles while creating the same for ourselves. We’ll always have one foot in our canoe and the other on shaky land. Whatever we achieve, our lives will always remain an uneven with inherent tension. The idea that many of us once subscribed to, that one day we (and our canoe) will have somehow “arrived” is a myth.
Rachael Post is the founder of Elemental Good http://elementalgood.com
Annabel Hertz is the founder of Goodbuy Sugar https://goodbuysugar.com/