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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.

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28 Responses to Why Sonia Simone Is Stressed (And Happy)

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  2. Stressed because we are happy with what we’re doing is good stress. Stressed because we are working on boring tasks that don’t benefit either the customer or the company is bad stress. As employees, we usually can’t stop the bad stress directly; the boss makes the assignments. We can learn to cope with it or move on. Entrepreneurs are in the ideal situation with the ability to drop clients who create bad stress and add those that create good stress, happiness and fulfillment.

    • Sonia would agree with you 100%. Thanks for the recap, David!

    • To keep it real, I was also stressed because I wasn’t quite sure where the cash to pay my bills was going to come from. :) I wouldn’t trade it, but I also wouldn’t want to paint it as being some kind of wonderfully challenging hike or something. :) There were some tough moments for sure.

  3. These are such important insights. I’m really glad you shared this interview. Being an entrepreneur does not, will not, and probably should not mean living stress-free — although as David points out, it does mean that the ball’s in your court in terms of choice of stressors.

    I can relate to the corporate boredom vs. personal stress, too. I’ve never been happy in a 9-to-5 except when I was at very small companies where I could lead my decision-making and there were fewer chain-of-command issues. Sonia is dead-on: in that environment, someone else judges your work, but not because they’re smarter or better necessarily. They’re just higher up the food chain, and this can really diminish your spirit.

    Although that said, I would love to hear from someone in a corporate role who has had a wonderful experience. I know there are large corporations that believe in nurturing their employees, building loyalty through a constant feedback loop. Where are you guys? Maybe not reading this blog… but I’d sure like to hear from them too. Through my corporate copywriting I have heard of many C-levels who get high marks for creating a vibrant culture even in a large organization.

    • Lindsey,

      You raise a terrific point and I’m going to take that challenge on. I’d love to interview some folks who love working in the corporate world–they surely exisit and I think their stories would serve as an important counter balance to the entrepreneurship push. As Sonia points out, folks from Google or Zappos would be obvious suggestions, but she also talks about how happy people are in the military, which is quite a mixed bag, I assure you!

      Anyway, thanks, as always, for bringing such terrific ideas to this blog. Couldn’t do it without you!

  4. Jennifer, I’ll listen to this on my drive home. One of my main goals in life is to minimize stress, and that includes making as many situations as possible not be stressful, usually be choosing how I will view the situation and deal with it.

    I’m looking forward to getting Sonia’s full take on the subject.

    • John,

      It wasn’t that long ago I would have said the same about trying to reduce or eliminate the stress in my life. It wasn’t until my interview with Sonia that I realized that wasn’t a good goal for me, and even if it were, I was going about it all wrong! I think you’ll really enjoy what Sonia has to say. Not surprisingly, she brings real clarity to this subject.

      • Just loaded it on my mp3 player to listen to as I drive home into the mountains.

        I do have to give a presentation tomorrow to a lot of people with Ph.D.s, so I’m looking forward to what Sonia has to say.

        • Eager to hear what you think, John. And what’s the presentation? Now I’m doubly curious. :)

    • I definitely don’t enjoy stress, and I do a lot to mitigate it, but I also think that stress is a very natural (and to some extend good) part of being alive. We didn’t evolve to live a housecat existence of always knowing what would happen next and never worrying about anything. :)

      I do think there’s a huge difference between powerless stress and stress that’s more of a challenge we can rise & react to. Stress without autonomy is, IMO, the dangerous kind that gives us heartattacks and makes our lives horrible.

      • This is a good distinction, Sonia. I’m glad you clarified that.

  5. Great interview Jen! I think some of us are just born entrepreneurs, and I know I am. I have a low tolerance for b.s. and I found way too much of it when I worked for large companies. I learned that some people get promoted before they really deserve to be and then they spend their days trying to make others looks bad, so they’ll look smarter.
    There is definitely a difference between that kind of stress and the good stress of working for yourself and your customers.
    Thanks for sharing this!

      • On
      • December 14, 2010 at 12:36 am
      • Farnoosh
      • Said...

      Hi Barbara, how is it that we have had similar experiences at the corporate world. I hope it’s not as prevalent as it seems. I liked the interview too, thank you Jen! I just had to respond to Barbara here and let her know how much I feel her frustration with large companies …. although less so lately as I am focusing more on my passions, which is all that matters.

      • Yes, I think the frustration is far more prevalent than we’d like to believe. But I will take up Lindsey’s suggestion and see if I can find some happy corporate people to interview as well. I know they’re out there!

    • I completely agree that people are born entrepreneurs–you either have the strengths and interest in it to stick with it or you don’t. I think the hard part is figuring out if you’re one of those people are not. I still haven’t quite decided myself! I suspect I am not (even though I really dislike bs, bureauacracy, and bad promotions), but would do well in a small company.

      It seems obvious now that there’s good stress and bad stress, but really, I hadn’t seen that so clearly until talking to Sonia. Glad you enjoyed this!

  6. WONDERFUL interview, Jen and Sonia! I loved the philosophical conversation. Much as I enjoy learning nuts and bolts, sometimes it’s nice to just listen to an awesome conversation between two thoughtful people. Thank you both!

    And Jen, you are a GREAT interviewer. :)

    • Thanks, LaVonne. It’s no exaggeration to say this interview would not have been possible without you!

      I loved the philosophical nature of this too. It’s my natural tendency, since I’m an idea person, but maybe a little out of the mainstream. :)

      Thanks for the kind words, truly. From you, that means A LOT.

    • LaVonne, she *is* a great interviewer, isn’t she? I really enjoyed doing the interview, and diving into some topics I don’t often get to talk about. It was great fun.

      • Thanks you guys. You’re making me blush! :)

        This is one of the things I like about interviewing–hitting topics people usually don’t talk about, and giving them a little depth. A conversation takes you in directions you never would have come up with just writing your own blog post.

        Thanks for all the great ideas!

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    • On
    • December 21, 2010 at 4:38 pm
    • Vanessa
    • Said...

    Thank you so much Jenn and Sonia – what an insightful, thoughtful conversation.
    @ Barbara – I have also experienced what you described in the corporate world regarding promotions and seniority. I think if the ppl matter concept Sonia discussed permeated every pore of an organization, this may be less of an issue.

    I liked Sonia’s practical approach to establishing solid relationships with seemingly untouchable, well respected, popular bloggers. I think finding the right partners with complimentary skills is essential i.e. the small world vs. big world approach.

    I really liked the idea of reframing in this interview, in terms of calling failure an experiment. The fear of failure is real for me, and so taking big risks that could lead to what we label as failure makes it very difficult to commit to a decision, which is where I am at.

    Have you ever been in a situations where you had so many new areas/industries you wanted to explore (without professional experience or real insight) and how would you explore the decision process?

    Also, as a young person, in which scenario do you think working for free as an intern would be a worthwhile move? And for how long? I find it very mainstream in any function in the arts/entertainment industry or smaller companies with uncertain budgets.

    • Vanessa,

      Yes, I’m a curious person by nature, so when I decided to leave my science job, there were many possibilities I considered seriously. The trick is to find a way to narrow them down. So I asked myself, what am I willing to commit to? What qualities are nonnegotiables in my new career? Think about that hard–the answers may not be what you think. Once you have even a handful of commitments, you’ll be able to narrow down the list of career possibilities significantly.

      I also highly recommend talking to someone in the field you’re considering, if you don’t already have experience. Ask them what their life is like. Go back to your commitments and make sure the new field will deliver (or under what circumstances things fall apart). Read blogs from those working in the field. One of the options I looked at was becoming a college dean or president. I read a blog from a guy doing the job and realized it wasn’t a good fit at all.

      Working as a free intern depends a lot on your financial situation and goals. In general, I try to avoid those situations because I think my talents are valuable enough to warrant pay. There are exceptions of course, but I think if you value yourself highly enough, you’ll find others will do the same.

        • On
        • December 23, 2010 at 8:22 pm
        • Vanessa
        • Said...

        Hi Jen,
        thank you so much for the thorough response on both the book publishing and the question above.

        I am going to redefine what I think is important and really try to find those that are in roles I am considering. I was happy to take a pay cut from the job I left in order to explore new territory where I lack experience, but after receiving a free intern offer, I realized I have to be 1000% sure and into the opportunity to work for $0 because I agree my value deserves some type of compensation. It was a really tough decision nonetheless and tested my faith that something else suitable will come along in the near future.

        • Good luck, Vanessa. Feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss more privately.

  8. As a women entrepreneur this interview really resonated with me. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and the opportunity just presented itself this year.

    My father came to this country risking his life to give his children a chance at a better life. He once walked through the entire night to get to a lumber mill in northern British Columbia only to find there was no work available. He said that the only thing that got him through the first few years of being in Canada was his children.

    My father is my inspiration, and one of my greatest supporters. To have the opportunity to become an entrepreneur in this country is magical.

    Is it going to be hard, most definitely, but what an opportunity!

    Thank-you for the inspiration.

    • Fascinating story. There’s a similar story of how my grandfather eventually got a job helping to build the Hoover Dam. He didn’t have a lot of experience, but he had a pregnant wife and two young children, so the foreman took pity on him. I like to think that dogged determination has been passed down through the generations.

      Best of luck on your own journey. Having a source of inspiration is so important, but it sounds like you’re committed to change. Let us know how it goes!

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