Have you ever imagined that your ideal life is one free of stress?  Maybe you daydream about dozing in a lounge chair on the beach while your online business passively rakes in the bucks. Or maybe you’re working your tail off now so you can just put around the garden after retirement.

Sonia Simone, a founding member and Chief Content Officer at Copyblogger Media, will tell you that’s not the life for her. At her keynote at BlogWorld, where she discussed her transition from corporate job to entrepreneur, she said, “I traded boredom for stress.  And it was so worth it.”

I asked Sonia to talk about her experiences and lessons learned in career design. Here are just a few of the highlights from our chat:

  • Why you shouldn’t be trying to eliminate stress from your life
  • How to overcome your fear of entrepreneurship, even if you are the primary breadwinner in the family
  • The danger of worst case thinking and how to get beyond it
  • The key to learning how, and when, to say no
  • Why you should cultivate your restlessness, not fight it

This is my first interview intended for a listening audience.  Sonia and I covered such a wide and dynamic range of topics, I can only include a partial transcript below.

So take the time and listen to the audio.  Sometimes the sound isn’t great and I’m breathing right into the mic (lesson learned!), but the ideas here are essential for anyone wondering about the secrets to designing a more fulfilling life–without excuses.

Download MP3 file

Partial transcript

JG: I thought your comment at BlogWorld was really interesting because at first glance you might say, “Gee, I don’t want to be bored or stressed.” For those that weren’t there, can you talk a little bit about the circumstances that led you to that realization and what you meant?

SS: I was working in corporate marketing position. I had what any rational person would call a very good job. It was creative, it was interesting, and I had a great team. I was working for a luxury travel company.

But I was bored out of my mind with the constraints of working in… I find that about 20 people working in a company, you get sharply constrained in what you can and can’t do because the company just doesn’t have the flexibility that it might have had when it was smaller.

You’re meant to be autonomous. You’re meant to make your own decisions. You’re not meant to go check in and turn over everything about your future to some other person, who is frankly, as we know from working in the corporate world, usually not smarter than you.

So I went out on my own. It’s important to me to talk about the stress. It’s important not to paint some kind of fairy tale image because there are so many people out there who do that. They say “You’re going to be a millionaire and you’re going to have so much money and it’s going to be so easy.”

The reality is when you’re on your own, when you are taking care of yourself, when you are making your own decisions, when you are truly autonomous and truly deciding your own path, that is stressful. All the responsibility is on you. You make the decisions. If you make a decision that is not the right decision you pay the consequence. For me it was a little more sharper because I’m the primary bread winner in my family. My little boy was three when I went out on my own. My husband is a stay at home dad.

The last thing in the world I want to do is to use an expression that is, and it’s very appealing, but not one of my favorites, which is leap and then the net will appear. That is not true. Often we leap and we build a net, but the net doesn’t just appear. You make it and it’s stressful. It can be very difficult. However, that stress is really what I think as a human being you’re meant to do.

JG: I know for a lot of people working or writing about lifestyle design and career design most of them have gone on the route of entrepreneur. Do you think that that is the best route? Is it possible to work for somebody else and still be happy in your job?

SS:So I think small organizations are great. There are people who just love being part of something bigger. I mean, I think that the people who work for Pixar, probably most of them just absolutely adore what they do. You can’t create Toy Story with four people. It just cannot be done.

I think that going solo or not going solo, but maybe forming a very small company with two people, three people is appealing. I’m in a company now that has five partners. I think that is going to be the most meaningful and enjoyable work set up for many people. That just seems to be a good, natural way to organize work.

JG: I recently wrote about Chris Guillebeau’s idea of managing your energy levels instead of your to-do list. Somebody brought up one of the key concepts is the ability to say no. How do you do that as an entrepreneur?

SS: When you start out one of the things that makes it stressful is you just have to get cash flow in. You just have to get money in the door. You do have a little bit of a hunger mindset. You don’t feel confident enough to say no. It may not be a good idea to say no. If you need to make your mortgage and you have a job and it pays what you need to make your mortgage, it might be smart to go ahead and take the job.

So getting through that is really a key part of that first year that you’re out on your own. Figuring out where your own sweet spot is, your best customer, your best projects, where you deliver the most value and where you get the best return on your time. You kind of figure that out what you’re best at and what’s going to give you the best money in exchange for your work. Then you start seeking those projects out, speaking more to those clients, putting out marketing that resonates more with that ideal client that you want. As you start attracting more of your ideal situation that’s what gives you the confidence to turn down things that are not so ideal.

Sometimes you do have to do a little bit of a leap of faith and say, “I just am not going to do any more work for which I’m grossly underpaid. I’m not going to do any more work for people who are nasty or disrespectful.” It robs you of the energy you need to do your best work. So sometimes you do have to kick it out the door. I think that most of these processes we’re looking for the one tip or the one kind of technique that’s going to make it all better. What I found is that it’s much more evolutionary. Over time you learn how to sift the good from the bad. You learn how to focus on the kind of work that gives you energy and you learn how to say no to the kind of work that drains your energy. So either delegate it or just don’t do it. There are a tremendous number of things that you can just not do, which is one of the nice things about being on your own.

JG: You wrote a post about leaving your day job for being called naïve. What kind of behavior got you branded as naïve?

SS:First of all, for me being naïve basically boiled down to a value that I hold that there is nothing more important than people. Your quarterly results are not more important than people. Goals are good. Goals help us and they’re good sign posts, but the map is not more important than the human beings who are traveling on the map, who are using the map to get somewhere. I would typically be called naïve for any one of different behaviors trying to put people first and get good results by treating people well, both employees and customers.

The other one that I was always struggling with was that our legal department had a really hard time letting us talk to customers like they were people. They wanted us to talk to customers like they were antagonistic parties in a lawsuit. It’s very hard to convince your customers to do more business with you when you are treating them like they’re suing you.

A variation on that was we were managing, as many companies do, to the worse case scenario. I was always fighting for, look, if we don’t take care of people as people we can’t ever get to the best case scenario. There is an opportunity cost here. We’re wasting our opportunities because we are narrowly focusing on the worst that can happen. The best that can happen is just flying away from us. In a nutshell, that’s kind of my eternal struggle.

For more of my interview with Sonia, check out the audio version above.