Which would you rather be; a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond?
I’m working onsite this week with a very small accounting firm in, well, sort of the center of the universe. I’m in Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco. My hotel is in the shadow of the great and mighty Oracle. I’m a few miles from Facebook headquarters, and a hundred other huge and notable tech companies.
In my classes, I normally have multiple participants, up to fifteen. To be able to provide adequate guidance and excellent customer service, we limit our class sizes to fifteen. Usually. This week, a rarity; one participant. The class I’m teaching is in audit methodology and a related software and this particular class usually has enough participants that we can break into discussion teams and play games and award prizes. Which is kind of hard with only one participant.
My participant is a young man, born in Hong Kong and reasonably new to the accounting field. He has a girlfriend in Hong Kong and will, in all likelihood, return there some day. His life in the U.S, most of his life, has been centered in this world; Silicon Valley. To this young man, the American dream is to become the Corporate Controller or Chief Financial Officer of a company, and to him, “a company” means something like Oracle, Facebook, or Hewlett Packard. With only the one participant in today’s class, we finished a bit early. The class is timed to allow for plenty of questions and answers, technical difficulty and other delays that just don’t occur with just the one attendee. After we covered our planned curriculum for the day, we chatted, for about an hour. I’d given my standard introduction at the beginning of the session, outlining the highlights of my impressive sounding, but truthfully, very mundane and really, unimpressive career. When I mentioned I’d been a corporate controller for two companies, the young man’s eyes lit up. No, I was controller for two very small, very unknown companies. Oh, I’m quite proud of my accomplishments, but I was not at the financial helm of anything close to an Oracle or a Facebook. In fact, the annual revenues of one of the companies I controlled probably wouldn’t even pay for a minute of operating expenses of one of these Silicon Valley giants.
I’ve worked for larger companies, I work for a larger company now. And that brings up the question; would you rather be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond? I favor the latter. When I worked in the accounting department for a very large company, my entire accounting responsibility consisted of overseeing and reconciling the transactions for one, single asset account. Just one. One general ledger account. Okay, it was a big account with a very large balance, but that was all I knew of this company. I was a guppy in an ocean. When I was controller of a much smaller company, I knew the details of every account that comprised every line item on the balance sheet and income statement. I oversaw the entire process, I reviewed every transaction and produced those financial statements each and every month and I knew every detail of the financial position of that company. I dealt with the bankers, the auditors, and the attorneys, the insurance agents, did the hiring and firing in my department, and I generated any and all reports, on demand, for the shareholders, upon request. I was a whale in fishbowl.
This brings up another question; to work for a company and facilitate someone else’s dream, someone else’s wealth, or to be the entrepreneur and make your own way? My dad was self-employed. My former husband was self-employed, during the better years. The love of my life is self-employed. My son is an entrepreneur while still in college, and while he’d like to gain experience under the umbrella of a large automotive giant, in the end, he is determined to be self-employed. I yearn for that as well, but find myself cowering under the perceived safe umbrella of a steady paycheck and ever diminishing benefits. It takes a certain amount of bravery, tenacity, wisdom, and, well, balls, to “fall out of the airplane”. I have all of that, why do I resist being in charge of my own destiny?
I consider myself an unusually brave, or perhaps daring, woman. I take risks, in adventure, like backpacking, kayaking, horseback riding, snowboarding, wakeboarding, etc. This past weekend, I completed my first tandem “jump” in skydiving. Okay, so I wasn’t at all in control of exiting the airplane, I was firmly strapped to the man who did the exiting and even if I did scream and shout in objection, we would have exited the airplane anyway. That’s what I paid for. But it was fun! And I’ll do it again! I may even seek to become certified to solo jump, who knows? So how is it I am afraid to let go of the W-2, salaried employee, airplane?
I have always been a bit of a non-conformist; in fashion, in education, in musical preferences, in my career path, in sports and leisure activities, in many, many things. And yet, when it comes to what I do for a living, I find myself following the path of the lemming; work for someone else’s wealth and benefit until the appropriate and ever increasing age for retirement, then exist, barely, on an extremely fixed income for the remainder of my days. Every cell of my being is in riot against this plight! And yet, I cling. I conform.
I realize that I am blessed, that I am fortunate, lucky, even, to have the fantastic job that I currently have. And to walk away from something with the semblance of consistency and stability would be crazy. But, with the semblance of consistency and stability, ever decreasing benefits and the regular paycheck, there is a trade off; the limitation of potential advancement, the limitation of residency in certain states or more rural areas, the limitation of personal time off to travel or attend to family matters. And this must always be carefully considered and reconsidered as life changes. Is it wrong to want stability and more freedom?
The freedom I yearn for exists just a few steps from where I am. The freedom to work my own hours, my own schedule, from wherever I choose. I have the expertise, I have the experience, I certainly have the energy, I have the tenacity, I have the work ethic. I have a plan, a vision and a timeline. I just don’t have the guts to let go or to even to set the plan into full motion. I pick at it, I poke at it, but I don’t’ deploy it. Only steps away, and I can’t seem to lace up my sneakers. Are you in a similar situation? Are you a cog in someone else’s wheel? Do you get by and work like a slave for someone who is able to set their own hours, vacation more than work and retire at 50? I know we can’t all be successful entrepreneurs, but what is it that separates the dreamers from the drones?
This is not about amassing wealth, it is solely about freedom. I seek the freedom to live where I want, to work at what I love, and to love what I do so much that it doesn’t seem like work. That’s what the dream should be about, not net worth. On the day of judgment, don’t you think it will be better to have lived a life of passion and purpose than a life building the net worth of someone who’s only motive was amassing wealth and power?
What kind of fish are you?