How to work for yourself (even if you’re employed by someone else)

Charlie Munger, billionaire and long-time partner of Warren Buffett, had a revelation when he was starting out in his career. Buffett describes this in The Snowball:

Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”

Munger was still working as a lawyer, but began to take ownership over part of his day and work for himself during this time. And it eventually turned him into a billionaire and one of the most respected businessmen of the past 100 years.

Anyone can do this – carve out certain times, projects, or niches for themselves. James Altucher argues that choosing yourself isn’t just preferable – it’s critical and necessary due to changing technology and ways of working. And he’s not the only smart guy to make the argument that you need to move towards working for yourself. In fact, it’s exactly what Robert Greene recommends in the The 50th Law:

If we succumb to the illusion and comfort of a paycheck, we then neglect to build up self-reliant skills and merely postpone the day of reckoning when we are forced to fend for ourselves. Your life must be a progression towards ownership – first mentally of your independence, and then physically of your work, owning what you produce.

Greene offers four steps to achieving this:

1. Reclaim dead time.

Almost all of us must begin our careers working for others, but it is always within our power to transform this time from something dead to something alive. If we make the determination to be an owner and not a minion, then that time is used to learn as much as we can about what is going on around us – the political games, the nuts and bolts of this particular venture, the larger game going on in the business world, how we could do things better. We have to pay attention and absorb as much information as possible. This helps us endure work that does not seem so rewarding. In this way, we own our time and our ideas before owning a business.

2. Create little empires.

While still working for others, your goal at some point must be to carve out little areas that you can operate on your own, cultivating entrepreneurial skills…What you are doing is cultivating a taste for doing things yourself – making your own decisions, learning from your own mistakes…What you really value in life is ownership, not money. If ever there is a choice – more money or more responsibility – you must always opt for the latter.

3. Move higher up the food chain.

People are political creatures, continually scheming to secure their own interests. If you form partnerships with them or depend upon them for your advancement and protection, you are asking for trouble…Your goal in life must be to always move higher and higher up the food chain, where you alone control the direction of your enterprise and depend on no one. Since this goal is a future ideal, in the present you must strive to keep yourself free of unnecessary entanglements and alliances. And if you cannot avoid having partners, make sure that you are clear as to what function they serve for you and how you will free yourself of them at the right moment.

4. Make your enterprise a reflection of your individuality.

Your whole life has been an education in developing the skills and self-reliance necessary for creating your own venture, being your own boss. But there is one last impediment to making this work. Your tendency will be to look at what other people have done in your field, how you could possibly repeat or emulate their success. You can gain some power with such a strategy, but it won’t go far and it won’t last…There are ideas unique to you, a specific rhythm and perspective that are your strengths, not your weaknesses. You must not be afraid of your uniqueness and you must care less and less what people think of you…The world cannnt help but respond to such authenticity.

I’m still a long way off this yet – I’m trying to do step 1 and 2, but I’m a way off step 3 yet, and I’m still not sure I fully understand step 4, but I guess I will when I’m at that level. Anyway, when three smart guys all tell you something is a good idea, I’m going to listen to them.

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