Don’t Worry If You’re Not Following the “Rules” of Working For Yourself

Like most things in life, there's no play-by-play guidebook for being your own boss. But that won't stop people from trying to give you advice about it.

Some of that advice may be absolutely worthwhile, of course, because it comes from someone who has been-there, done-that and they know what to do (or waht not to do) to really play ball.

But the trouble with even the most seasoned advisor, is that they're not you. They don't have your personality, your quirks, your habits, your lifestyle, your goals and your work history.

They don't live in your city, pay your bills, or face the challenges you face on a daily basis. While someone else who has tested the tried the independent life can certainly give you suggestions for how to handle everything, their "10 Rules for Becoming the Best at What You Do" will never really solve all of your problems.

Ultimately, your business is up to you, and that can be terrifying.

The good news is that you can pick and choose what you want from the rule book to apply to your situation. For everything else, there's innovation.

What the "Rules" Say You Should Do

There are many recommended best practices for running a business, like separating your finances and paying your quarterly taxes. There are also plenty of unspoken rules that others will tell you about that you don't have to follow to the letter.

Rule 1: You need someone to idolize

Having a mentor is a great idea -- you can ask questions, bounce ideas off of them, and find inspiration when you need it the most. But for many, there can easily develop a subconscious motivation to become exactly likethe person who inspires you.

You see someone who has all their stuff together, who is bringing in great money doing exactly what you're doing. You think to yourself, "If it worked for them, it will work for me."

You may even be tempted to copy everything they're doing, attend all their seminars, and basically stalk them until you're doing what they're doing.

The biggest problem with this approach is that they're not you. They're already doing their own thing, offering something of value to their clients. If you really want to set yourself apart in your industry, you have to be you.

To top if off, you may find that you spend a good portion of your time comparing your results to their results, which is a serious buzzkill if you don't have perspective (they've been doing this longer, they have a different audience, etc).

As Kobe Bryant once said, "I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant."

It's not that idolization is wrong, it's just that sometimes you truly have to plow your own path to be successful.

Rule 2: You have to think big

Everyone wants to make an impact, and certainly the drive for those who follow a self-employed career path is to make as big of an impact as possible. We see that the "big names" of our field are doing and we assume we need to follow step in order to be successful.

But the trap in always "thinking big" is that it's easy to forget why you started doing this in the first place. Did you really start your own business to become a multi-millionaire? It so, awesome!

Or, did you start to enjoy some more freedom with your family and have some wiggle room in your budget to travel more? In that case, you don't really need to hustle 24-7 and land the biggest client in the sea in order to be successful.

It goes back to that idea of comparison: Just because success looks one way to someone else doesn't mean it should look that way to you. You have to prioritize your goals and really think about why you're doing what you're doing.

Your goal is be successful, whatever that means to you. So rather than following a well-trod path, spend time to think about what you want yours to look like. And be wary of thinking you have to build a bigger business or hire employees unless that's what naturally feels right to you.

Rule 3: You have to do something in your wheelhouse

An alternative title for this rule is, "You have to do this forever." There's plenty of blood, sweat, and tears that go into building a business, so it's probably a good idea not to give up the second you feel bored or anxious.

But one thing that many independents face over time is increasing job dissatisfaction. Part of this may be feeling pigeonholed by the business you built. Maybe at the time the projects you took on felt like something you wanted to do forever, but not you feel restless. It happens!

The good news is that if you got yourself into this, you can also get yourself out. There's no written rule that says you have to be doing what you've been doing forever. Building a career is a lot like building a lego house. Sure, it took time to get there, but you can always tear it down and rebuild it into something new.

Erin Pickard had a successful career in marketing and social media but wasfeeling stagnant and wondering what to do next. In the midst of all this, her father suddenly died, leaving her a 2,500 acre farm. Instead of selling the land, she kept the it, making an instant career transition to working for herself.

Sandi Metz worked for Duke University for two decades as a programmer and software architect before striking out on her own. Sandi now teaches courses all over the world and is the author two books: Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby (POODR) and 99 Bottles of OOP. Although becoming an author wasn't something Sandi had considered, she's now very successful at it.

Full disclosure, Sandi is one of my clients. I included her because she's a great example of taking your existing skills and finding a new way to use them. 

How to innovate for your situation

One of the biggest reasons that many independents don't question these unspoken rules is fear. Maybe you're not sure you have what it takes to start over or to plow your own path, or you're worried what others will think if you "settled" for a different way of doing things.

Breaking the rules while still remaining carefree is all about innovating for your situation. It's about understanding what you want, what you need, and what's the best way for you to get there is going to be.

You have to tap into the creativity center of your brain to overcome any nagging self-doubts that say you can't do it. Here's how:

1. Create a vision, set some goals

Set immediate and long-term, vision for your career that reflects where you truly want to be. If you have a dream to sip cocktails on a beach in Hawaii in 10 years time, then plan your goals accordingly.

Or honestly, if you want to be doing that next year, then forge your own way to do that. There are no rules about where you want to go, so there are no rules about how to get there. Isn't not having rules part of why you went out on your own?

Don't get stuck on technicalities. Set goals for your dream.

2. Separate your identity from your success

This goes back to the idea that the concept of "success" is universal. Its not. If you're too hung up on being a "successful developer" for example, you may not step back to assess if it's what you really want to do, you might miss the opportunity to become a great teacher, speaker or author.

It's important to realize that what you do and who are you are two different things. It's also essential to remember that you can take elements of who you are and put them into your business in a way that's meaningful to you.

Just remember that if you have a business failure, it's not a reflection of who you are. Think of it as an opportunity to innovate new ways to reach your goals.

3. Take your time (or don't)

There can be enormous pressure on solo business owners (and entrepreneurs) to produce results quickly. While financial obligations are certainly a concern, the reality is that if you're working for yourself, you get to set the pace of how quickly your business grows.

You don't have to become a billionaire tomorrow. Alternatively, you don't have to wait five years to do what you love. You get to dictate how much time, energy, and effort you put into your business and you get to determine the timetables.

Don't let anyone make you feel bad for taking an extra vacation, for taking time to refine your processes or for jumping head first into new territory.

Final thoughts

The whole point of ditching the employee lifestyle and starting your own business was to have more control over what you do, so don't waste a second playing by someone else's rules.

While there will always be good ideas and inspiration you can pull from other people, at the end of the day, you get to decide what your business looks like ad what results it will produce.

Make sure you don't fall victim to the notion that you have to do what everyone else is doing. It's your business, your rules. Never forget that.