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Big Ideas

Do Your Own Thing: The Battle of Internal vs External Motivation

No one is going to tell you “it’s time to act, so get up and get moving.”

It was a couple months before Christmas. I was working with an agency managing two-dozen clients while personally making a fraction of the value I was bringing in. I loved the people I worked with, and I loved working hard. But I felt stuck.

You know the story: I was bringing in lots of value for my agency. But I started to think I could do this on my own. I was getting results, but seemed to be going nowhere. I didn’t love the lack of growth working for someone else gave me. I didn’t like the freedom I wasn’t giving myself. I didn’t like working for someone else and not pursuing my own thing. Mostly, I was ashamed that I was standing still, not pursuing what I truly wanted.

I wanted to work for myself. To have my own business, to answer to myself, and gauge feedback from the people I respect. To call my own shots, and to choose my own direction. To work with the clients I’m excited to report to. To make changes that I would be proud to put into a detailed case-study. To focus on the work, and not my place in it. But for some reason, I was waiting for something – something that I felt I was missing, approval.

I wanted to focus on the work, and not my place in it. 

This was all rolling through my mind on my drive home when I heard my phone chirp. A new direct message, like the future had heard my thoughts and decided to pull me via Twitter.

“Hey! I’ve got a friend who is looking for help with a domain migration, you interested?” 

It’s small, but I’ll take it. Emails were exchanged; I got the client, and started working with him. It was a taste of freedom, affirmation that I could do this for myself.

Less than a week goes by.

“So, I have another client lead for you. A well-established startup looking for an ongoing consulting project.”

I was ecstatic. Bigger, more meaningful work. This is what I needed; this is the kind of work I wanted so badly. This was an awesome new startup, and I would be working with someone who I admired. This would move me closer to potentially pursuing my own thing. I was almost there. I graciously thanked him for sending these clients my way. Then he ended the exchange with: 

“Pretty soon you’ll have enough clients to start your own agency. That’s where the money is. Step 1: set up your own damn email alias. Intro coming.”

This was a swift kick in the ass for me by someone I really respected. This was what I needed.

I had thought this all through a thousand times; how I should set up my own business, email accounts, go for clients on my own and trust my instincts. I just never acted, despite what I wanted.

I was waiting for something, some kind of approval. I’m not sure why I was, but when he literally handed me the keys and told me to drive I finally committed.

After that moment a switch was flipped. 

We let ourselves sit in a stagnant spot for too long sometimes. We wait for an outside force to give us that nudge in the right direction – but what if a nudge never comes? What scares me is: what if that person never offered me work out of the blue?

We wait for an outside force to give us that nudge in the right direction – but what if a nudge never comes?

Why do we sit still, surviving but letting our thoughts live in turmoil –  creatively getting by but not truly thriving? Why do we scratch by while our creative angst eats away at us inch-by-inch?

How do we cast that static aside, and give ourselves the kick that we need? Do we stare fear in the face and laugh? Do we move forward in spite of our inhibitions, our fear, and our doubt?

Here’s the truth – we don’t need anyone to validate what we believe in. Our fear will control us, and often keep us from believing – but if you have an idea and it’s compelling you to act, then act is what you need to do. If we wait for an outside force to act on us it may never come. If we want to overcome our own circumstances and do something incredible we have to move, we have to set that foundation ourselves.

We have to give ourselves that freedom, to push forward, to do our own thing – and see where our ideas take us. No one is going to do this for us.

Now? Thanks to a careful nudge, I know my path, I knew I could do this, and I got started. My brother and I joined up and started our own firm, and together worked to bring awesome marketing that we believed in to the businesses we wanted to work with.

I wrote this to tell you what I wish I had heard years ago, when I was frustrated and not moving closer to my goals. No one is going to do it for you. No one is going to tell you “it’s time to act, so get up and get moving.” There is no “right” time. If you’ve been wanting and waiting to do your own thing, and running in circles over the possibilities, start now and don’t look back.

How about you?

Think of your greatest professional achievement. Did it come from internal or external motivation?

Comments (56)
  • Chris T.

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. It feels like I’ve just settled for the career path I am on, instead of making that jump into where I really want to be. I too have just started my own business. The words from this post help me strengthen my decision.

  • Sarah Peterson

    “…but if you have an idea and it’s compelling you to act, then act is what you need to do.” <— I feel like most great work is created from this. Thanks for this excellent "kick in the pants"!

    • Sean Smith

      You bet! Glad it helped you! Onward and upward!

  • Andrea Goulet Ford

    That’s exactly how my agency was started, too. I say listen to your heart and follow its call. If it takes you to a place where there is no path, blaze your own trail. 🙂

    • Sean Smith

      Amen, that’s perfectly said!

  • Rich Savill

    “It was a taste of freedom, affirmation that I could do this for myself.” This is exactly what happened to me a few months ago. Such a great feeling!

    • Sean Smith

      Completely agree! It’s truly up-lifting.

  • Susan Owens

    I started my own consulting business years ago and am happier for it. Now, I am ready to transition from business consulting to becoming a professional artist. Calculated leaps of faith are still scary at any age but worth it.

    • Sean Smith

      I completely agree! My mother just did the same thing at 63 years old, funny enough. And she is happier than ever.

  • Richard Bland

    In a similar position right now. Love my full time job no doubt and it is stable, which is even more meaningful now I have a 3 week old daughter and a wife, house, car to support. Trouble is, I want to do this myself, and the timing is never quite right, I never quite have enough clients, and now my time is even more limited I am finding it hard to go out there and get more clients on my own.

    • Sean Smith

      Yeah, my normal recommendation would be to hustle as much as you can in your nights and weekends (and even when you can while at work when you have your other stuff done) but I’m obviously in a bit of a different situation, not having a kid etc. I think finding a channel though where you can get a steady stream of clients, ask for referrals, etc. can help boost your income enough to leverage leaving and getting more clients while you work from home. The time you get to spend with your kid at the house will be worth the effort it took to get there.

      • Richard Bland

        Agreed. I am trying to hone in on one particular service that I can excel in which I am truly good at and that seems to be email production. Web and content production always brings in some pocket money but like you say to really start getting the revenue stream I think picking one channel will work best. 🙂 Thanks for your inspiration.

      • Sean Smith

        You bet! Let me know how it goes on Twitter @snsmth, I’d love to know!

  • Barney Lerten

    Great thoughts as I write 2 books, mentally kick around a side biz but also realize just how all-consuming my ‘day’ (and night and weekend) news job is, and how I don’t want to give it up. Well, can’t afford to either;-)

  • Melisa

    “We wait for an outside force to give us that nudge in the right direction – but what if a nudge never comes?” Wow. So true.

    I think the most difficult is this stage where you want to get started but somehow you’re standing frozen, confused, and the thoughts that happen to buzz around are the negative things you strongly dislike about your current situation–you want it changed first before you act. And deep down you know it might never happen.

    So, how do you give yourself that nudge you really needed? How do you get started? It’s so easy to say, “Just do it” or “Just get started,” but perhaps you could give us some specific things we can actually do to get started. I mean, how do you break that ice block you’re encased in?

    • suzie w

      Having also made the leap from corporate cubicle frustration to self-employment as a marketing and graphic design consultant a couple of years ago in my early 40s (and about to leap again to life as a self-employed textile designer) I recommend doing ‘starter’ tasks, some of which Sean alludes to – registering a domain, setting up email addresses, getting a business card designed and printed. It is a damn sight easier to procure business when you have these in place. Plus registering your business with your relevant government department for tax purposes.

      These all brings the thing to life, and allow you to confidently take project offers, or seek them out. It IS hard work doing double time in a day job while you crank things up sufficiently on the side to step away from the cubicle, no about it. But SO worth it in the end. I feel I can actually reach my potential now.

    • Sean Smith

      I would recommend exactly what Suzie W said, the little things that amount up to seeming official as a business. Get a website, set it up using Squarespace or something of the like, get a registered LLC, get an email alias set up, get business cards set up, etc. Start blogging or putting out other creative work targeted to your vertical on places like Medium etc. Start trying to get some clients while still having the security of your 9-5 and then when you have enough you can take that leap off to your own thing.

  • Sean Smith

    Right on, it sounds like you have a ton of potential though to branch out and start your own thing! I would recommend finding something that interests you now, and start while you still have the security of your job. Hustle your ass off in the nights and weekends, and then try and make it into something you can fall into full time!

  • Sean Smith

    Thank you very much!

  • Dayna M. Mathews

    I feel like I just wrote this…literally! This sounds exactly how I had been feeling for the past 2 years in my field. And then one day someone gave me the kick in the ass I needed to get started. Of course, I wish I would have started even earlier, but I thank goodness for that proverbial kick in the ass every day now because I’m finally on my way to creating my vision. Thank you for writing and posting this, Sean! I plan to share this with all my peeps 😉 The kick in the ass I received propelled me to name my business after it too! Haha. Your Kick-Ass Career (biz name). Funny how life works, isn’t it ?

    • Sean Smith

      Haha that’s awesome! I’m glad to hear you had a similar experience! It’s an incredible thing to reflect on, I’m really humbled to have had it happen to me!

  • Jess

    So strange. I had two people approach me in 2 days, asking; “could you do this for me as a contract?” And I started to think, what would my life look like if I could say yes to those (really interesting) jobs (that I care about). Instead of “I can’t I have my job to do.” And how many other people I know that might want something done: enough to sustain me? Enough that I could leverage open space to work on more projects related to my passion, and supplement with other interesting work? Could I live with the ambiguity of maybe not having lots of work easily available.? Maybe? Would it be worth it? Yes. And then opened Feedly and saw this. Thank-you for sharing your experiences.

    • Sean Smith

      I would whole-heartedly recommend you take those offers and do them in your free time or wherever you can fit them in and see where that takes you. It becomes addicting, and you will love the freedom it gives you. I would highly recommend it!

      • Joseph Feliciano

        I definetly couldn’t agree more !

  • Chi

    I could so related to the first two paragraph, it was exactly how I felt when I was in an agency. Luckily, I also came to a realisation that it’s up to me to stay and carry on or leave and try to create my own path. Now 3 years on with many ups and many more downs, I could at least so what I do feels right. Thanks for the reassurance, it’s good to know there are others in similar situation out there.

  • Joseph Feliciano

    Loved reading this as my partner and I have recently taken an office space in a leap of faith and it has been working out wonderfully so far.

    We are a strategic design and marketing consultancy and having a dedicated physical environment to strategize, work from and hold meetings has definetly been a nudge of external motivation for us.

  • Simphiwe Nkosi™

    Thank you for this .. really!!!

    I needed to hear hear someone else ‘s story. 🙂
    Thank you.

  • Simphiwe Nkosi™

    Thank you. you’ve just inspired me.

    • Sean Smith

      Glad to hear!

  • Atul Sehgal

    Very well articulated Sean. Inspiring stuff..

    • Sean Smith

      Thank you, glad you liked it!

  • Tim Lee Chen

    Really loved this. Thanks for the great read and inspiring words! I was lacking a bit of motivation on some of my side projects recently and had a lot of thoughts about how to push my work and career path into the right direction. This is the perfect nudge!

    • Sean Smith

      Great to hear! Onward and upward!

  • Roderick Woods

    Like a really good cup of Starbuck’s Coffee!

  • Lucia Bisbee

    In the process of taking the plunge! So helpful to hear of others who have ventured out as well! Thanks for sharing!

  • Jose Nissan Cohen

    Great motivation!!!

    I did the same, and its very good to be independent.

    Is a unique inner growth experience

    Thank you!

  • Shivani Raithatha

    Loved this article, very motivational, makes you think what you have been letting go and what you should do. We should follow our instincts! Wishing you all the success Sean! 🙂

    • Sean Smith

      Thank you! And same to you!

  • sonatina1

    Thank you, comes to me just when I need it.

  • Joe Nicklo

    While this is awesome advice, I think a lot of people out there who have started their own businesses make it sound much easier than it actually is. For those of us with children, a mortgage, car payments, student loan payments and the many other responsibilities of life – it’s not so easy to just drop what we’re doing and strike out on our own.

    Leaving behind a 401K, a nice salary, health insurance and other benefits is pretty tough to do. My advice to anyone even considering striking out on their own is SAVE YOUR MONEY before you do it.

    • Sean Smith

      I completely agree, and I would also add that you shouldn’t just quit and start cold turkey. It should be a gradual movement, you can take on clients, or start your business while you’re still under someone else’s roof. You can strategize, lay out the foundation, plan out the details, then gradually start taking on side work, until you have the nuts and bolts figured out to the point where you can sustain and grow with your own direction, and once you can match your current salary, or take just a slight pay hit, then make that leap. But get started, now.

  • Sean Smith

    Right on, that’s the exact step I would take (and did take) as well, onward and upward!

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