Prefer to listen rather than to read? The audio version of this essay is on the podcast.
Today is part 2 of 4 in my series on the core values that Simple Prospering orients as its True North, and values that I think can be mighty helpful for all businesses.
I talked about value 1: how to make progress, in the last two articles and podcast episodes. Today we are talking about value 2: keep it simple!
Simple is in the name of my business, so obviously it's important to me, but “Keep it simple” is often thrown around like trite advice and it’s easier said than done when you are in business for yourself.
So I would like to focus on 2 common barriers I see to effective simplicity in one’s work. Really I am sacrificing two sacred cows in this week’s episode (eek!), meaning that people often hold these things as dearly important.
So while I may step on some toes, my intent isn’t to be needlessly combative or opinionated. Rather, my hope is to investigate if these things are actually dearly important (i.e. are they actually useful in reality) or if they are two main gateways that needless complexity enters your business. So investigate along with me, and see what holds up as true for you.
Barrier number one, aka Sacred Cow number one, (especially in service-based businesses): Workism and The Passion Principle.
Barrier number two, aka Sacred Cow number two, (for nearly all entrepreneurs) Frankensteining your offerings until you’ve created, you guessed it, a monster.
Let’s start with Workism and The Passion Principle because these concepts have basically become a religion in modern culture, making it a bit thorny to untangle them in a thoughtful way.
Workism and the Passion Principle are two interrelated ideas that have become so much a part of the assumed-norm/air-that-we-breath, (at least in first world economies) that we often don’t notice when we are unconsciously applying them to the decisions we make around our work lives, our incomes, and, flowing from there, our personal lives and even our senses of self-worth.
My intent in bringing this up is to make those unconscious calculations more conscious, so that we can make decisions in our work lives that serve us better, rather than serving an idea we probably can’t live up to anyway… Let’s start with some definitions of terms.
Workism, as defined beautifully by Derek Thompson in his article for The Atlantic titled Workism is Making Americans Miserable defines it as:
“The belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
The Passion Principle is defined by Erin Cech (Sek) author of the book The Trouble with Passion as
“A cultural narrative that elevates self-expression as the most desirable (and perhaps most moral) guiding principle for career decision-making.”
There is a lot to say about both Workism and The Passion Principle and in this episode I’m not trying to cover all the large themes embedded within it as either an economist or sociologist of which I am neither (though I can recommend Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article as a great place to start if you want to read more).
Instead, within an article for people who are self-employed, small business owners, or those who are service oriented and heart centered entrepreneurs I want to talk about it in a more practical way as to how it affects people like us- and the decision making we have around our work.
The way I have seen it play out- particularly within any service-providing businesses (fields which I have been a part of for over 20 years) workism and the passion principle combine to create the belief that all of who we are; The entirety of our beings, our hearts, our souls, our imagined legacies, our absolute most calling-est callings of fulfilling our purpose, even our very sense of self, must be able to fit into and to be represented by our work lives.
That’s a pretty tall order!
In heart centered self-employed folks, that often comes with an extra dash of trying to save everyone from everything. Perfectly. Because if we know our calling is to be of service to people- to provide something that makes our client’s lives better which we genuinely want to do- we can go on internal wild goose chases to determine what the One True Thing is that is going to really help everyone.
That’s a doubly, or even triply tall order!
To take that out of abstraction and ground it in some examples, Here are a few ways it can show up:
It can take the form of doing lots and lots of trainings to find the ultimate best thing we could provide in the world.
It can take the form of overgiving and underreceiving, i.e. undercharging for our services, or not charging at all, in a way where we can’t sustain our business or ourselves (because if we are prioritizing “passion” we feel we shouldn’t think about things like if we are managing to earn a living. In other words, passion or purpose trumps paying the bills).
It can take the form of agitating things like imposter syndrome by making a pervasive sense of never-enoughness worse until we feel like we are never providing enough to our clients, never quite pinning down what our most true, or our most moral work might be.
This can lead the the 3 P’s, to recap from the how to make progress episode, Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Paralysis. Because we are holding ourselves to an impossible standard!
Perfectionism creeps in first- am I giving the absolute best thing to my clients? Maybe I should do that other training, and then 3 more? Maybe I should abandon what I’m doing and start from scratch again on what I’ve decided is a more perfect offering?
Then we get procrastination- it’s hard to move forward with all that hedging. We’re afraid- or just too tired- to put anything out into the world because of the sense that it might not be the capital R Right thing to offer. So we keep delaying…
Leading us to the final P: Paralysis. That place where we have so much grit in the gears that we can’t move forward on anything. Often in paralysis we feel fearful, burnt out, and frozen in second guessing ourselves.
Once we get stuck in that kind of paralysis- delivered courtesy of the twin myths of workism and the passion principle- then we can’t provide anything to anyone. Including ourselves.
As Derek Thompson says in The Atlantic
“The problem with this gospel [of Workism which says]—Your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling—is that it’s a blueprint for spiritual and physical exhaustion… this makes people stressed, tired and bitter.”
If we’re not going to be chasing the perfection, and therefore the needless complexity that workism and the passion principle demand, how do we look in a more grounded way at what we do?
In other words, if we don’t provide the entirety of our souls and the absolute One Best Thing to our clients through the vehicle of our work, what do we provide in our types of businesses? Put simply: A useful service that people want and/or need. That’s it!
Does it help people? (Even if it doesn’t perfectly cure or resolve all things for all people which is an impossibility anyway.)
Does it pay your bills? (It’s very important that the thing you do to earn a living actually earns you a living.)
Does it do this without relying on hucksterism or doing harm to people or the environment?
Well if it passes those simple benchmarks, then that’s Great! Do that! Screw the passion principle we could use more of that!
We also don’t need to swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme of “It’s just a job” and grind out our days in a fog of barely caring what we’re doing. I’m not at all advocating for that opposite extreme as the end goal, or even as beneficial if the goal is ultimately about you having a sustainable and humane worklife. And, that is the goal as far as the intent of my business is concerned.
That said, If you want to take other trainings, by all means, do. But take them out of interest and ability to spend your time, energy and money on a new training rather than out of striving to finally find the perfect offering or the perfect overlap of trainings that’s going to make you a worthy practitioner or business owner.
It’s also worth noting that we can train in, study, and deeply immerse ourselves experientially in many things and we don’t need to make them a part of our work lives. In a workist culture the word “hobby” is minimizing, but if we instead acknowledge that many of us have deeply meaningful, enjoyable, and engrossing things that we do that aren’t a part of how we earn a living- those things are hobbies but are much more meaningful than what the word has come to convey. Again, we don’t need to fit all of who we are into our work lives.
Or If you decide that your work is no longer in alignment with what you want to do, or with something you still believe in, again by all means deep permission to make a change! We certainly don’t need to resign ourselves to never changing our work especially if something affects us and we don’t have any love or belief in the work anymore.
But make decisions and changes from the point of view of work, and passion for your work, being only one part of your life- not the entirety of who you are. This can be an excellent guardian at the gate and make a massive difference by keeping needless complexity out of your business.
It can free you up to make decisions in your work life about what’s best for how you provide for yourself and your family financially.
Or to make decisions based around your work schedule being as free as possible to contain time off for pursuing non-earning related interests. And time off for enjoying the people who are important to you and who have nothing to do with how you earn a living.
Work is one aspect of who we are. I happen to find it a deeply fulfilling and meaningful aspect of my life. You can even say I’m… passionate about it! But it’s not everything. Not even close. And if you accept that work is only one part of you- what does it free you up to consider? What does it free you up to let go of? Or to enjoy more? It’s worth taking a minute to consider what that might look like in your life and how that might simplify the design of your business and your offerings.
Speaking of which, let’s get to that second Sacred Cow: The proliferating offerings. The Frankensteining of your business.
Obviously this is never sold to us as a good idea under the phrase “Frankenstein your business” so let’s look at how it typically goes:
It all springs from one idea that more offerings must mean more revenue. If you are coming up short financially, come up with another offering and launch it! If people don’t seem to be hiring you for something, add 3 new things to your menu of services!
Be everything to everyone, have something for everyone, just keep hustling until the math works.
In truth, having a successful business requires strategic simplicity. You need a core offering, and all roads need to lead to your core offering.
About a year ago I was sending most of my clients a newsletter I had received from Kelly Diels in which she’s talking about this as the bad habit of scaling horizontally. Something women entrepreneurs more often do. And something, in my opinion, that service-providing entrepreneurs more often do. So props to Kelly Diels, you can check out her work at kellydiels.com. I’m quoting here here: [the “rocks”in this quote are a metaphor for the proliferating offerings in a service based business]:
“Imagine a woman with 47 large rocks on a steep incline. Maybe she gets a few to a little plateau; then she has to race down and roll some more up; then some roll backwards and she has to roll them back to a resting place; and there are still 38 unrolled rocks in various locations all over the hill. She's up and down and all over the place and after two or three months she's still nowhere near the top. And the landscape is a mess of semi-rolled rocks. That's what scaling horizontally looks like when you're only one person. A lot of time and energy expended, a lot of rocks, a lot of skill and capacity developed, AND NOT A LOT OF PROGRESS.
We- people who have found their way to Simple Prospering- have micro businesses. One person, maybe two or three, maybe as many as five, but none of us are running giant corporations. Nor do any of us have the desire to create that.
We don’t have a marketing team of 100 people working on that 40 to 60 hours a week, and another team for product development and another team for customer service and on and on.
We’ve got to consistently let people know our offer exists, aka we have to do the marketing, help those who are the right fit for our offer sign up- aka we have to do the sales, and then we have to actually deliver all the things we promise!
So for every “rock” or every offering, you’ve got to do marketing, sales, delivery, customer service- all of the things! Which can actually be really great and have so much less needless complexity than corporations, but only if we are using strategic simplicity.
Let’s say you are a photographer, and you really love being a wedding photographer in particular. It pays really well, people are in good moods at a weddings (except for the occasional bridezilla and groomzilla and even then you’re only stuck with them for a little while), you love the settings that weddings are held in because they have great light and color, people are always getting hitched so there’s a solid pool of clients to draw from, it allows you to work 2 weeks a month and have the other 2 weeks to dedicate to your personal photography fine art work…. It’s just a good gig!
But you don’t want to (here’s a phrase I hate) “leave money sitting on the table” so on your website you indicate that you are a hired photographer for whatever people want. You create a long list of services: “I can photograph your wedding, baby showers, family reunions, corporate events, fashion shoots!”
And since people keep telling you that you also need to have an online course (because it creates passive income right? Right!? Side note: there is no such thing as passive income except if you’re talking about investing and I’m not really an expert on that) so you throw a digital course in the mix too. You have a web page about your “digital photography school”. So now in addition to catering to anyone who wants to hire a photographer, you have this whole other audience of amateur photographers too. Who will never want to hire you as a photographer, but they’d love to take your class!
This is many rocks. Each rock takes energy to roll up the hill. And the attention each rock takes diverts attention, energy, and resources from every other rock.
To figure out what your core offering will be, your main rock, this is what takes strategic simplicity. Dumb simpoicity would be just narrowing down to one thing and being super rigid about it; Like a person who runs a fruit stand that only sells bananas, “Because if you don’t want bananas, you can go somewhere else!” When, in reality, people shopping for bananas are also shopping for other foods, hence, grocery stores.
Strategic simplicity is a craft: It takes really knowing what your clients want and need which takes deep listening to others. It takes really knowing what your own strengths are, what you deliver well, which takes deep listening to the self. And it takes really knowing what you need to earn and what you can reasonably expect to charge for the service, and the math to make sure that matches up.
When we bring strategic simplicity to our businesses, we get less pushing of rocks up hills, and more wind at our backs.
To circle back to our photographer example: the obvious thing is that their website and marketing and sales would all point to wedding photography. The less obvious options are things like the ability to take on a, say, corporate retreat photo shoot if it falls in your lap and meets your interests (like it’s being shot in some beautiful location with great light and color, and not the conference room of the Hilton, and you like this company and it seems like a cool event so why not?). You don’t have to say no to things that fall into your lap and are a fit. You just don’t expend energy trying to woo work that isn’t your core offering.
And maybe you do want to run an online course because it seems genuinely of interest to you. But it can’t divert from your core offering, so maybe it’s a course for people getting married about how to prepare for the big day, what to expect, what makes for great wedding photos, how to put together a great album… then it’s part of your marketing materials instead of another rock.
Or maybe you’re thinking you want to do less client work in the future and so you want to create a digital course that trains other wedding photographers as an experiment to see if you want that to ultimately become your “one rock” depending on how it goes…
These are some ways we can be strategic about our core offering. We can still experiment and explore fun opportunities when they arise, but we aren’t hustling to keep pushing many rocks up the hill at all times.
I realize I made the advice “keep it simple” in this episode not, er, the most simple. I like to peel back layers. And sometimes (often) we need to deconstruct things before we are able to “keep it simple”.
But once we understand some of the frames we’ve been told to accept (and even revere), we can start pruning away what does not work. And that’s the heart of simplicity: Get to know what works, prune away the rest.