The independent path

Opting out of the default

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The independent path

The pandemic overturned society temporarily, and we have mostly snapped back to normal. I was wrong in thinking it would lead to wholesale changes across the economy and society. But we are seeing a lasting shift in the relationship many have with work. Like all changes wrought by disruption, this is an acceleration.

The deindustrialization of the American economy, accelerated by globalization, was a sign. So was the rise of the so-called gig economy in the service sector. The end of the zero-interest rate policy era and widespread application of AI promises to accelerate these shifts even more, as many “bullshit jobs” are replaced.

All this will combine to lead more people, willingly or not, to take an independent path to their career vs the traditional corporate route, which has already been exposed as frequently a sucker’s game. The corporate bromides about being a “family” and the idiotic nicknames for employees, as if their employer is their individual identity, were always idiotic. They become even more so when executives announce mass layoffs in a drive for efficiency. In “The Pathless Path,” Paul Millerd writes about ditching the default career path for the uncertainty and freedom of a different direction.

The collapse of trust in institutions is typically focused on areas like government, media and elite institutions like higher education. You can add in the corporation, which has lost its allure for many. The corporation itself is a fairly recent phenomenon, first coming into effect with industrialization and then retrofitted after World War II. Millerd notes that, “Seeing the job as a central element of a good life and employment rates as a metric of a successful society was not a common assumption until after World War II.”

I think about this a lot because I made that break. I was last in an office in mid-March 2020. I took a photo of the empty office as I left for what would be my final commute. I never went back. Maybe I sensed that somehow at the time.

Taking the independent path wasn’t something I necessarily wanted. It was a choice I had to make because ultimately, no matter your role at a company unless it’s owner, you are expendable. I will never begrudge any worker, at any level, using their leverage to get what they can. Companies use their leverage vs workers all the time.

The hustle threads and quotes from “Man in the Arena” are off putting, and I believe misleading. The binary choice of being some swashbuckling entrepreneur vs accepting a sweaty climb to middle management is a false one. The explosion of LLCs registered in 2020 and 2021 will likely not prove a blip. Very few of these are VC-funded enterprises.

Alexis Grant has a great micro media company, They Got Acquired. Earlier this summer, I wrote to her to tell her I was glad she was telling different types of stories of those who took an independent path.

“I'm glad you're telling stories of different types of people who start businesses. I don't like the word entrepreneur because it's pretentious and come to mean someone usually young and in tech, trying to hit the lottery. That caricature has led too many people, whether of different ages or backgrounds, to think starting a business is something that requires a particular gene. It's just a job.”

The drive to do more with less is only going to accelerate. The revival of unions is a reaction to the precarity of white collar work, something physical economy and service workers felt for generations. Back then, of course, the comfortable office workers were content to elect politicians who trotted out “retraining programs” to explain away what factory workers would do when the factory relocated to another country with cheaper labor. The gig economy transformed service work. The tune is different now that it’s white-collar jobs.

Rishad Tobaccowala has written about “the company of one,” a shift in which many will choose what until now have been considered non-traditional paths. Much of that will be driven by necessity. When I entered the workforce, in the late 1990s, the prospect of staying at one company for decades, like my father, was already gone. We’ve been heading in this direction for some time.

There will be many who, for various reasons, will fight within companies to reallocate power and money. The revival of unions is often overstated – it’s at a little over 10% of the workforce vs nearly 35% at the peak in 1954 – It’s just that they’re more common in different types of companies.

The alternative to fighting internally for a bigger piece of the pie and protections is to exit to take the independent path, which is increasingly an option for a larger group of people who have honed their skills and expertise. Evan Armstrong has written about leaving his tech job to set off on his own independent path and what he calls “the unoptimized life.” He’s expanded on how this choice is very different than the hustle paens you see regularly on Twitter.

“The point of work is doing the labor, not delegating it away. When we focus excessively on productivity, when our biggest concern is on how to ‘scale ourselves,’ we miss the point of work—and, really, life—which is to find meaning in the daily tasks that consume our time.”

Many more workers will operate in a liminal space between the unhelpful labels of freelancer and entrepreneur. The Hollywood model of groups of skilled workers coming together for specific projects will become more common. Jared Dicker was right that the future media company will be more like a record label, putting talented individuals at the center – and having flexible arrangements.

What I’ve noticed since I set off on the independent path in October 2020 is that you can piece together teams. I don’t work alone. I have a podcast producer (Jay Sparks), accountant (Justin Spiegel), podcast collaborators (Troy Young and Alex Schleifer), and sales and account management (Melissa Weil and Michelle Fernandez). I collaborate with designers, and for this research project and our Cannes event, I’ve collaborated with my former colleague Mike Shields.

This approach, necessitated by running a completely independent business without financial backing, allows for all kinds of different collaborations with others who want to remain autonomous. It allows for flexibility on all sides, and also lets me focus my energies beyond the daily grind of management. I have far fewer meetings than pre-October 2020, and that is a gift. It’s this flexibility that’s allowed me to work this month from Serbia and Croatia.

I’m interested to see how companies attempt to unbundle or at least change to adapt to these needs. Like the climate transition, there is a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built, particularly the penalties incurred by those on independent paths with necessities like health care and retirement savings.

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