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Slaying the Fear of Starting Out on Your Own

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Here’s an email I received recently from a reader. Does this sound familiar?

“I have a cushy, Dilbert-style cubicle job. It pays very well, but it sucks the life out of me. I want to strike out on my own, but I'm afraid: afraid of the unknown, afraid of The Client From Hell, afraid of interruptions to our household cash-flow. Afraid of a million other details I can't even foresee. Are these legitimate fears? Are there other things I should be afraid of? Am I biting off more than I can chew? Is the reward greater than the risk?” – Jeff

I LOVE this question because Jeff hits on a lot of universal fears.

Jeff’s current job is “life sucking”, but if you read between the lines, what he’s afraid that by starting his own consulting business, his life will actually get WORST than the current Dilbert-esque nightmare.

Let me take a shot at what his mind is conjuring up:

- He (and his family?) will run out of money, have all their possessions taken away, and end up eating cheese doodles and living in a cardboard box.

- He’ll get a ball-busting client that will force him to work for $2/hr, regularly call at 3am, and refuse to pay when the job is done.

- He’ll suffer misfortunes that he hasn’t dreamed up yet, so he needs to devote extra time worrying about these just in case!

Jeff's situation isn't unique. He's experiencing the same fears that many people, maybe even the vast majority, experience when contemplating a big life change.

But are these fears “legitimate”? Should we fear running out of money? Finding the wrong clients? Cardboard housing? 

Let's work through the problem together and find out.

Fear Slaying Exercise #1: Define the Worst Case Scenario

The most helpful advice I've ever been given when faced with fear is to sit down and write-out the worst-case consequences of my decision and actually play the scenario out.

Let’s consider the question of switching from employment to consulting. My fear might be:

"If I quit my job and decide to consult full-time I might not get enough business to support my family."

So what’s the worst that can happen?

"If I run out of money, I will have to suck up my pride and find another job similar to my old one. But I might not find a new position right away."

So what’s the worst that can happen?

"If I don't find a job right away we'll probably have to cut back significantly on our expenses and live lean for a while. If things get really tight then I may need to borrow money, apply for social assistance, or take on a lower paying position."

So what's the worst that can happen then?

"Well at that point I better throw in the towel and get back to my old job. Either at my old employer, or with some job searching I can find another cubicle with my name on it and be back on track."

And we're back to the cubicle, and no one has died.

Are those consequences really so bad that it's better to stay on a course you already know you don't want?

When you actually force yourself to define the worst case scenario, you will almost certainly find that it isn't nearly as the vague thoughts of failure that your mind delightfully conjured up to keep you “safe”.

Total catastrophe is unlikely and is usually recoverable.

Fear Slaying Exercise #2: Minimize the Downside

Realizing that the consequences are reversible doesn’t mean recklessly taking unnecessary risks.

Now that you actually understand what you are afraid of, you can also figure out how to mitigate the possibilities of those outcomes.

Yes, one way to start your consulting is to jump-in full-time right away. Cut-off your current income source entirely, burn the bridges, and jump into the deep end.

But as heroic as that sounds, there are other ways to reach the full-time consulting goal without the “do or die” consequences:

- Moonlight. Find clients and consult on the side until you have enough work to quit your job or go part-time (note: you may need to get your employer's OK due to how some employment agreements are written. If they refuse, it's time to look for another employer). This is an incredibly common path to full-time consulting.

- Negotiate a part-time or remote work arrangement to create the flexibility in your schedule to consult on the side. Sell it to your boss as an experiment that can easily be reversed, rather than a permanent scenario. The Four Hour Work Week has a great chapter on how to do this.

- If you really want to dive-in head first, put your job on hold. Arrange an extended holiday from work (1-2 months), by maxing out vacation and taking some unpaid time-off.  At the end of your time-off assess your results and either return to work or quit.

- Proactively cut down your expenses. Then save up several months of (now reduced) expenses so that when you are ready for the transition to full-time, you have a strong financial foundation. You can always go back to buying lattes and nice things later.

In short transitioning to consulting can be done without financial peril, and is reversible if it doesn't suit you.

Fear Slaying Exercise 3 - Do Your Homework

In today’s startup-driven culture, there is a huge push to act first, then correct course later. Unfortunately this often gets butchered into “Screw planning. Let’s just do stuff and hope we can figure it out along the way”.

That’s like going to camp in the wilderness without bothering to check a map - a HORRIBLE idea.

Do your homework before you get started. Learn from those that have already done what you’re trying to do. Implement the top advice. THEN get started.

For example there are two critical pieces of advice that I always give to those who wish to start out in consulting:

1) Determine exactly how you’ll position yourself in the market (my guide on landing higher paying clients goes deeper into this, and is free).

2) Have a crystal clear plan for getting your first three customers (more on this in future articles).

Complete the above two pieces of homework and you will be FAR ahead of the people who just jump in and “hope” that their new consulting business succeeds.

The Motive for Not Giving into Fear

Fear is wonderfully convenient. It’s the root of every excuse to not take action, every rationalization that “now is not the right time”, every decision to complain about the status quo instead of taking action to change it.

Unfortunately giving in to the convenience of fear also robs of us our time and consequently the ability to pursue the dreams.

Every day that we let fear stop us doesn’t just create a delay in achieving our goals. It’s literally one less day (out of an uncertain number of days) that we get to enjoy the fruits of our labors. And one less day to live the life that we want to create for ourselves.

How’s that for scary?

Leave fear behind and take action today, whether that means starting a consulting business or tackling something else that you've let fear stop you from doing.

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