Is it time to rewrite your career rules?

Mar 02, 2020

They’re building a new house across the street from us.

Not sort of across the street. I mean directly across.

So close that you could stand on my front step and, with a really good heave, toss a chicken leg into the hole where they just poured the foundation (not that I’ve ever done this more than twice).

And so, as you might imagine, there are often a number of construction-type vehicles around. Such was the case yesterday afternoon when I left home to drive to my office.

There was a huge dump truck filled with gravel parked on the road. Next to it, moving back and forth with each trip, was an even bigger excavator on tank treads picking up scoops of gravel and dropping them into the foundation.

It was very noisy and very cramped out on the street. I knew I had to be careful as I backed out of the garage.

So I went slowly, eventually getting past the commotion and heading on my way.

I hadn’t gone more than 50 feet when I thought, Wow, it’s amazing how noisy it still is.

I kept driving, but something didn’t seem quite right. So I stopped. Uh oh… so did the noise.

I got out, walked around the car, and saw a big box of food my wife had ordered stuck beneath the rear bumper.

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but as far as I can tell, the box must have been sitting outside the garage behind my car. I backed over it, pulled it down the driveway, and dragged it up the street with me (fortunately, we like our eggs scrambled).

It did leave me wondering, though: Why did it take me so long to notice, let alone do anything about, such a loud and unusual noise?

Easy. Because I had already accounted for the presence of loud and unusual noises coming from the construction site.

Once I saw those big trucks in front of my house, I stopped thinking. Any noise I heard from that point on was subconsciously classified as “construction-related.”

We do this kind of thing all the time, in our lives and in our businesses.

We categorize things or make decisions—about the way we work, the services we offer, the people we work with—and then we follow them blindly, sometimes for years.

That adds a certain efficiency, of course. But it also keeps us in a narrow lane—a lane that only gets narrower over time.

Here, for example, are three “rules” for my business that I made up long ago and have only recently begun to question and, in some cases, modify:

1. I don’t collaborate. After spending years working in a huge company where every decision required endless meetings and approval, I made the conscious decision when I started my company to work alone. No compromises, no meetings, no guy who keeps offering to “play devil’s advocate.”

It’s served me well for the most part, but it also means I’ve turned down plenty of opportunities to work on interesting projects with terrific people.

2. I bill a flat fee for everything. There are many advantages to this approach; I’ve been writing and speaking about it for years. But it also means that I’ve had to walk away from people and projects that, for whatever reason, don’t fit neatly into a package.

3. I only work with professional service firms and individuals. Coaches, consultants, financial planners, recruiters, trainers, etc.—people who sell themselves as opposed to things.

It may have made sense when I began, but today, I’m not so sure. Most of what I focus on applies to any small business. And yet, somewhere along the way, this became a line I don’t cross.

Those are just three examples. I’m sure I have more—I’m sure you do, too. And I don’t mean to suggest that everything (or even most things) you do in your business are misguided.

But I bet that like me, you’ve stopped thinking about many of them—they’re just part of the “construction noise.”

At some point—particularly if you work alone—it’s easy to fall into the very human trap of thinking, That’s just the way we do it around here.

So try this: Give some fresh thought to how you work, who you work with, and why. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if your experience is anything like mine, it just may open up some new and exciting doors.

Michael Katz

Michael Katz is the founder of Blue Penguin Development, where he helps professional service firms talk about their work. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette, above.