I entered the atelier of half-a-teaspoon: millions of sunbeams gathered in the room with white bricks, a bunch of young ladies in summer dresses seated at the large table, lemonade and freshly baked quiche invitingly placed in the middle of the action. The atelier was hosting a meeting of the Moscow Startup Women club and by pure coincidence I joined.
Earlier that day I was sitting at home and grieving over my miseries with the painstakingly long UK visa application which kept me stuck in Moscow away from my Istanbul kitchen, its bustling markets, the blue Bosphorus and the lush green hilltop not far away from it. In a wonderfully serendipitous way a long-time-no-hear friend showed up in my inbox with a rescue plan. I was going through the newsletter from Masha Kicheeva, inspiring entrepreneur who elegantly turned the idea of baking boxed cookies into the out of the box corporate presents. Among the other upcoming events at her atelier she mentioned the meeting of Moscow Startup Women Club. That very night. “I am coming” – I shot. “You are in Moscow? Hurra!” – Masha replied.
So in the evening I joined a bunch of ladies in their early thirties, some with the aspirations to start “their own thing” or already doing “their own thing”, mostly online. I was ecstatic about the upcoming discussion, exchanging ideas and getting inspired by other women who quit corporate jobs to pursue a true passion and real freedom. As the ladies were gathering most pulled their IPhones and Ipads on the table. I now remembered how before quitting I appeared at the office of my colleague victoriously holding the newly arrived MacBook Pro. My colleague said, “Everyone who starts their own thing buys a Mac”. As if to get free from highly inconvenient, angular and corporate IBMs. But now the meeting of the startup ladies felt just like good old times when we had office gatherings and many colleagues would not appear without a Blackberry and an IBM laptop, voluntary enslaved by the technology which puts you online for work and offline from the real life. As the startup ladies got into the discussion of putting 16 hours a day I really started wondering how different this self-empowered IPhone gathering was from the corporate powered Blackberry one. Does quitting your corporate job brings a true freedom?
During my recent visit to Moscow I did some catching up with the friends and former colleagues. I found quite a few feeling exhausted and trapped as they have been sacrificing their hobbies, aspirations, time with dear people and own sanity – all on the name of the professional development and its monetary outcome. And resulting freedom.
I remember myself being the believer before I quit a year ago. Fresh after my business school and a gap year I spent in India I submitted to the demands of “finding proper work” – when you are 25 and Russian it definitely feels weird not to. So I joined the army of ambitious and hard-working young professionals and started my climb for freedom. There was never a lack of senior colleagues around showing the way to get to the next level – either by being great role models with the attributes so attractive to the freshmen or by openly appealing to your ambitions with luring professional opportunities. Chasing those role models and opportunities kept me busy 12 hours a day at least 6 days a week. By the weekend my physical and brain capacity was so exhausted that my bravest undertakings would be to venture for shopping, movie and dinner with friends – urban freedoms of an overworked.
I had no time for vacation – there was always a client deadline, an existing project or a next project which would require your presence. Within my first year I used just one forth of the allowed 28 vacation days which you are not encouraged to use at once anyways. Instead you ration them into a few breaks. Tiny installments you can pay to your sanity to restore it if ever at all. Nothing really destructed me from the project work and professional development.
The doubts began when I started socializing more with the senior colleagues with families and kids. One of them confessed once, “My kid comes by my bed every night and feels it to see if I am already back from work”. This was about the time when I started doubting the role models I had and vaguely realizing that any prospect of freedom in my life was highly questionable.
Maybe this it really what it takes to live in new and hungry for development and still Soviet Russia. 83% of Russians believe that having a profession and work comprises a real meaning of life, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre. At the same time only 15% said they would continue working if they had been were financially provided. I can understand how having a profession and working hard is becoming a survival strategy in many Russian cities which are not blessed with natural resources of the Ural and Siberia or with financial powers of Moscow. Yet when it comes to highly educated people making well above the country average and still finding the primary meaning of life in their professional development I find it a horrifying trend.
A friend of mine who was a convinced multi-sportswomen just 5 years ago venturing into windsurfing, rafting, mountain skiing has told me recently, “I can’t think of any really big aspiration besides professional development that I do not have time for right now”. Later on she added excitingly, “Oh, ya! And I am going rafting with my friends after so many years! We used to do elaborate planning for such outings before but now there is no time for it. There are just a few weeks left and no plan yet!”
Freedom starts with giving yourself space and time on regular basis. I believe that the more trapped you feel in your work the more critical it is to urgently start taking time off to do what you like. Any activity, any hobby goes for starters – this does not have to be a big thing. I believe it should take a few hours a week and require a reasonable effort from you (watching TV and aimless internet surfing do not count).
When I worked on an international assignment at the consulting firm I started feeling trapped in the setting with so many hours and days being spent in a way and at a location I had not really chosen. My freedom ride started with horse riding – initially I planned a few classes to get prepared for my trip to Kyrgyzstan. I found a good club and understanding coach and agreed on two morning classes a week. Initially, the whole venture was out of my comfort zone: I never thought of myself as good in sports, I was fearing those big commanding animals, I was not sure I would be able to wake up so early and keep the routine and I had no idea how my boss, colleagues and clients would see my coming to the office much later on the days of the training. So I needed to find a way to make it work and have a few conversations with people around, including my boss.
Over and over again I hear from people who have recently quitted about the conversations they had with their bosses. This is really the time when they were offered a whole bunch of things in case they had decided to stay – things they would not dare to think possible when they worked. Why is that? Because once you have decided to quit you have an amazing confidence and this confidence boosts your bargaining power tremendously. Would that not be useful to have the same confidence while you are working and why to wait until quitting?
After the failed attempt to get a week off for my week long yoga retreat earlier I thought it was only right to inform instead of discussing this time. So I informed the boss and my team about the horse riding practice and its implications for my working schedule. I got away with it! Exercising your personal freedom starting with small ways makes you more aware of the things that matter: you start doing things that matter, terryfying but at the same time gaining respect from the people around you who realize how free this sets you. Horse riding was a wonderful exercise of my personal freedom: I grew more confident and energized as my horse riding skills improved, I felt great about spending the mornings with myself in a very enjoyable way and I became more effective in the negotiations with my boss – if I could get that freedom, what I could not do?
As I started my own business later I realized people in the corporate world romanticize entrepreneurship freedom as lot: they think it is fun free of stress, pressure, imposed demands and definitely, free of hard work. The truth is most entrepreneurs put longer hours than they used to in their corporate jobs. According to TD Bank survey conducted in 2010, the majority of the small business owners in North America, put over 50 hours a week and about 40% put over 60 hours a week. This data is no surprise. When you start working for yourself often time you biggest insecurity is whether your new venture will help you make the ends meet plus you tend to believe that reaching the bottom line is the direct result of your own effort. It comes even harder for the entrepreneurs who have not mastered the art of delegation and outsourcing before or have not honed the skill of “drawing the line”, or identifying what is exactly enough and when your additional efforts are simply a waste of time.
I was miserable when I started: I spent a few months glued to my computer screen designing and making a good copy of my website which I thought would be the major selling vehicle for my Istanbul food walking tours and cooking classes. One day I did time tracking exercise and found out – much to my shock – that on that very day I was anybody – a code programmer, a copy writer, a proof reader, a researcher – besides an aspiring business woman. With this breakthrough realization I eventually hired help for my website. On the other instance as I was planning a cooking class in Moscow I found myself turning recipes into shopping lists with self-made Excel sheets and then actually going to buy and deliver all the goodies to the cooking class venue myself. I mean, I really thought it was an integral part of my business until I found the courage to admit it was not! So I automated the menu planning through Plan to Eat and started using grocery delivery service so I did not have to care about spending time for picking and delivery myself.
“How do you feel about your free life?” – a friend of mine asked recently.
“What do you mean by the free life?” – I was puzzled.
“Well, you not going to the office!” – it was so obvious to her how free and merry that must make me feel.
There is some freedom in entrepreneurship for sure. “Why do you want to make a startup?” – a lady with experience asked the one who is enthusiastically inquiring about what it takes to start. “I feel I want to make my own decisions”. I thought I was clear about the decisions I wanted to make when I started my business – you know, set the horizons you aspire and get ahead.
Since the launch I was setting monthly goals. Goals of enough money to support myself. Because this had been the point I have been feeling most insecure about. Even though I was sure that with the savings I had and the living stardard I aspired I would be just fine not making any money for the two next years I was still freaking out every time my corporate friends were asking, “Are you least able to cover your expenses?”. After 3 months since the launch, for God sake! This is like pitting a young mother that her 3-month old baby still can’t walk!
So I started setting monetary goals. Extremely ambitious for that time. I have outdone my cash targets by 1/3 in April. I doubled the target for May and still outdid it. I then increased the target for June and reached it within the first 10 days of the month. You would not believe how easy it is to make your own decisions and reach the goals once you are very specific about them! Yet I still felt miserable.
I eventually sat down for a small exercise of mapping things that really matter to me, that set me free. The decisions that would matter at the end of the day. I figured that for me those decisions are how to create happiness in my life and share it with the people I love. I l wrote down my definition of happiness: traveling, making and sharing good food, writing, creating something with my hands (photography, arts), feeling healthy and in contact with my body (yoga, horse-riding, running), enjoying sun, fresh air and nature and being financially secure. I also made a list of people I love – those I had and those I I had not got yet. It became so clear to me that all this time – even after I started my own business – I had been chasing only one of my happiness drivers (financial security). And have done very little on the sharing front.
I could not really feel happy because I simply did not bother to make sure that those things which make me happy are in my life. I was not free in that sense, either. Giving myself time and space to come up with these confessions has been one of the greatest things I have done to my life to date. With the right decisions and right bottom-line I have not left my choice to myself but be happy and free. Leaving yourself only one choice is sometimes the biggest freedom you can grant to yourself.