This is the longest job I’ve ever had.
I have no idea whether to be proud of this, ashamed, or feel weird about it. I’m 39 years old, I’ve been on my own consulting for 6 years as of today, and my next closest job in terms of duration was my corporate gig clocking in at four years and five months. In some ways, I suspect being on my own will never not feel at least a little bit weird, and as a weird guy, I’m very much okay with that.
It certainly beats the alternative where a gnawing sense of greater fulfillment seemed to exist beyond the walls of my offices tantalizing me, but always just out of reach. I used to feel like I was wasting my time when I worked for others, which wasn’t exactly wrong, but imprecise. I understand the value of teamwork, almost always recognize my role on a team immediately, embrace it and work my ass off to maximize my contributions to that team. It’s just that I almost always felt like the institutions I represented had no idea how to properly maximize the value of their teams and frequently got in their own way due to misdirected energy, untenable size, plain incompetence, arrogance, or some unholy combination of the previous. Live with those feelings long enough, and resentment grows inside you like an unchecked virus, which was destroying me from within.
As a consultant, I work lean. I work hungry. I work unorthodox. I know that I can be dropped in an instant, which means I wake up every single day thinking about how I ensure that I bring value to the people who hire me. I suppose it’s true enough that any company you work for can choose to drop you at any moment as well, but there’s something about the immediacy of working as a consultant that throws the fears into sharper relief.
Some consultants aren’t wired this way. I’ve met many of them and I’m always agog they keep getting hired. And, it bears mention, I hate their fucking guts. Getting anyone to hire you for anything is always an exercise in trust, and when consultants – particularly communications and PR consultants who have a knack for slinging meaningless bullshit – waste a client’s money, the walk uphill becomes longer for folks like me. This business is frequently a hall of mirrors and finding people you trust isn’t always easy.
I didn’t plan to launch my company on Rex Manning Day, but sometimes life has its little artistic flourishes. I had wanted to leave my corporate gig for 14 months before it actually happened. For a multitude of reasons that I feel like I’ve covered extensively elsewhere, I stuck it out during that time and slogged my way to the finish line. I was finally (and gratefully) laid off on April 7, 2015.
In the months prior, I had worked in the background setting myself up to launch my new venture as soon as that interminable Sword of Damocles fell. On April 8 I woke up slightly hungover, switched my website from dark to live, and sent out a press release announcing Deft Communications. I got it picked up by the Denver Business Journal and a handful of other places which meant it would show up in my old company’s media monitoring, which was exactly the thumb to the eye I intended it to be. Damn the man.
Symbolically and thematically, launching on Rex Manning Day ended up meaning a lot to me. For those of you wondering what in the hell I’m referring to, Rex Manning Day is the backdrop against which the entire plot of the movie Empire Records takes place. In short, Empire Records tells the story of an independent record store that’s threatened to be bought out by the big corporate chain which will sandblast off all the charm, quirk, and ephemera that make this place special. The employees – kids in their late teens and early 20s – contrive a way to save it through resourcefulness, unconventional thinking, and pure scrap. Why yes, this movie did take place in the 1990s before the internet shoved the heads of brick-and-mortar stores of all stripes into the toilet. How did you guess?
I’ve always adored this movie because it effortlessly transports me to one of my happiest times – working for the radio station in college. I was surrounded by people who cared deeply about their shows, the station, and the music we played. Problems that arose there almost always were as a direct result of two or more people’s passions putting them at odds with each other.
I fucking missed that.
My entire professional existence – minus a few bright spots like working with nonprofits or creating the Employee Ambassador Program – had turned into a game of run out the clock. I couldn’t wait until the end of each day, each week, and each second I was no longer obligated to think about work. In the words of Peter Gibbons, “You can only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” That’s no way to live.
At the radio station I once called up my Program Director on a Friday night to yell at him when I found out my show was pre-empted so the station could broadcast a live volleyball game. (Possibly interesting sidenote: That Program Director is now anchor on cable news channel Cheddar.) I came into the station when I didn’t have to. I worked on my show extensively. I cared about it. I labored over it. I adored it. At my corporate gig, by the end I spent not one second longer than was absolutely necessary to accomplish the absolute minimum required of me.
I had to save the empire.
Even if they didn’t lay me off, I had to leave anyway or drown in mediocrity. So on the morning of April 8, I was free. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I slowly figured out my new rhythms. I was energized. I was brimming with creativity. I was ready to take on the fucking world, not just for me but for my wife who watched me joylessly play out the string and for my then 6-month-old daughter. This gamble had to pay off.
And in 6 years, I can tell you there have been far more highs than lows. My biggest client was Vital for Colorado, and I dedicated more brainpower to them than anyone else for nearly four years. I miss them dearly, and still have nothing but loathing for the fat skidmark who torpedoed their funding in favor of lining his own pockets. They’re not all like that, though.
Some clients I’ll do literally one thing for. I once wrote one op-ed about non-prescription hearing aids for a client that paid me more than $1,000. I recently spent one hour of my time offering guidance to a client thinking of starting their own podcast for $100. For four months I subcontracted at an ad agency that required me to be in their offices for 30 hours a week. They come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s my favorite part.
I never know what’s coming, but I know that I, and I alone, have the agency to accept or reject whatever it is. When you work for someone else, you don’t get that luxury. And my own choices create the reality in which I exist. Do I work with cool, passionate, good-hearted, creative people? Or do I work with pricks? If you’ve never worked with them before, sometimes it’s impossible to know, but my bullshit detector is pretty good (notwithstanding the asswipe who dicked me out of $14,000 to close out an absolutely miserable 2019, of course).
I have no idea how long I’ll be at this, but I can tell you that after 6 years it still feels like I’m getting away with something I shouldn’t be. Waking up everyday with that feeling is one I’ll never take for granted. I don’t have to trudge into an office. I don’t have to answer people I don’t like and/or don’t respect. And I know that my rewards are pretty much always directly tied to my efforts.
Damn the man. Save the empire. Happy Rex Manning Day. And always ask, “What with today, today?” Thanks for being a part of the Deft story, wherever you are.