When I was about eleven, I learned how to make my favorite cheese sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise, American cheese. Yes, I grew up in the midwest. Shortly after I learned this special skill, I developed a fun game to pass the time: I would play “restaurant.”
More precisely, I would play short order cook. I would pretend I was a cook at a diner, with lots of orders coming in. Only thing was, everyone ordered the one thing I could make — an American cheese sandwich. So I would make sandwich after sandwich, as fast as I could, pretending I was a cook deep in the weeds during a big rush.
I got to thinking about this the other day as I reflected on my own career arc, current strategy, and future plans. I wondered, “Am I playing ‘restaurant?'”
A lot of my friends are solopreneurs — lone people plying their trade on a project-by-project basis. I have been working independently since 2003, and proudly so. But sometimes, I see other friends who are happily ensconced in organizations, managing, meeting, memo-ing. Then I look at my own workstyle, in which I write from about 6:30 am until 10:30 am, have a stretch of less productive time, and then come back hard from about 2:00 pm on. Sometimes I go deep into the night.
The things that rarely occupy this time are the things that routinely occupy my office-working friends’ lives. I have few meetings, the phone rarely rings (almost everything is email, txt, Twitter, and IM). There is zero office politics. The way things are right now, I can get a ton of stuff done. It leaves room for lots of possibilities.
But, sometimes, I worry. Should I be doing more? Am I just going through the motions of “working?” Am I treading water? Am I pretending?
I think these kinds of questions are ones that other solopreneurs also face. Twitter has given many of us a window into some water cooler cultures that we are not part of. I see lots of my friends “going into meetings,” or “having conversation with the boss,” and “talking to HR.” If I don’t do these things, am I just, in the end, making a bunch of cheese sandwiches and pretending I am the real deal?
I think the key lies in whether I have a direction or not. What’s my path? Having few in-the-flesh coworkers means I can get a lot of strategizing done. It also means I can succumb to one of two temptations. I can not write down any of my plans, in which case they are just dreams. Or, I can spend so much time on my planning, developing fancy slide decks for no one but myself, that I can fool myslef into thinking I am already GE. There’s a happy medium to be struck.
But I need to have plans, a direction. And they need to be written down. Otherwise it’s just cheese sandwiches.
Sometimes this planning can raise self doubts about how far I have come, or not come, but that’s OK. As solopreneurs, we are still writing the rules and for now — we are where we are.
Maybe you can tell I’ve been thinking about my own direction these days. There are some exciting things in store. But I always need to remind myself to keep it real. Don’t pretend I’m bigger than I am.
Nor should I pretend I’m smaller than I am: Maybe, I will look down and notice that those aren’t cheese sandiwches I’m making, but whole meals. A sub. A steak. Mashed potatoes.
Maybe I’ve been feeding people all along.