I first saw the Fisher-Price My Home Office playset cross my Twitter feed on Saturday.
I thought, surely, this must be a joke! This dystopian image was an attempt at cutting cultural commentary via Photoshop.
I saw others express the same logic in the reply thread. But before I quote-tweeted it with my favorite emoji 🤣, I decided I better give it a Google.
The results made me queasy. It wasn’t a clever visual joke; it was available at Wal-Mart. The set includes a red laptop with a felt screen you can attach different “windows” to, a headset for doing conference calls, and a phone with a Zoom-like app on the screen. It also includes a to-go coffee cup. The description reads, “Better grab a latte to go, that report is due this morning and there’s a call with the dog across the street after naptime.”
Years ago, when my daughter was four years old, she had a little pink case—maybe a makeup compact or jewelry box— that was shaped similarly to my laptop. One day, I found her seated in front of it at her drawing desk. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I’m typing and making money!”
I don’t think I had said those exact words to her before. But I knew I had tried to explain when I was working, how I was providing for her, and why the hours I spent on the computer were necessary. She had internalized that into typing and making money. Not my proudest moment as a mother. I was queasy then, too, and even now, while I’m typing and making money (sort of), I still feel queasy about it.
But enough about my working parent anxiety, let’s get back to Fisher-Price. What disturbs me the most about this playset is not the idea of children playing at work. Children have always pretended to work—or, at least since there have been child labor laws to prevent them from actually working.
Kids pretending to be firefighters, chefs, makeup artists, pilots, or doctors has never made me queasy. (Kids playing as cops— now, that’s a different article entirely.) These modes of work-play are attached to clear outcomes that benefit someone. But the Fisher-Price My Home Office set is just work. Work for work’s sake—or, at the least, dematerialized, performative work. Appointments on your calendar, conference calls on your phone, reports on your printer—but why? To what end? When I shared the image of the My Home Office playset with our community members, a few folks talked me back off the ledge a bit and pointed out that the way the toy’s design might lead to more open-ended play. And yes, that’s good.
However, the nameless, nonspecific work that allows for open-ended play might also be reinforcing the narrative that the purpose of work is work, as opposed to being a way to meet needs or contribute to the community. I’m not at all suggesting that you have to be a firefighter or a chef to have work that meets needs or contributes to the community—I think any kind of work can be seen through that lens. But to see work that way, you have to know why you’re doing it—why it matters. When they don the plastic headset and say hello to the Dog Boss, is that what kids are playing at? Or is their play based on “typing and making money?”
In her essay, “The Complicated Reality Of Doing What You Love,” Marian Bull writes about the hobby—pottery—that turned into a business without much planning or strategy. Work colonized each aspect of her life before she took up pottery—socializing became networking, cooking became research, reading became raw material to manufacture essays and columns. So her therapist told her to get a hobby, and pottery was what Bull chose. At some point in the process of churning out pieces—first as practice, then to meet grassroots demand, and then as a business and her full-time job—she realized that hobbies (or adult play) still have the quality of work. She writes:
“The capitalist value of a “work ethic” has always been present in the world of the hobbyist. We love hobbies because they are something to do that isn’t work, something that we choose to do. But they still so often require toil; we are still proud of ourselves when we perform our hobbies efficiently, competently. Pursuit of mastery is implied, if not always present.”
Today, as the My Home Office playset reminds us, the line between work and play is fuzzier than ever.
My daughter was much too young to understand the work I did and how I was helping people. She was too young to know why I loved my work wasn’t that I was typing and making money. I think more preschool-age kids would have a hard time wrapping their little heads around how spending hours on the computer every day pays the bills. But Fisher-Price’s My Home Office playset is listed as a toddler & preschool toy. The kids playing with this toy have little capacity for comprehending what that 30-minute conference call is about. Of course, our options for pretending to work don’t have to stop at the home office! A friend pointed me in the direction of the Vlogger Kit from PlanToys.
The quease-factor goes ever upward.
Now kids can also get that “always be making content” feeling that keeps you up at night. They can sit in front of the faux ring light with their faux lav mic and practice saying, “Hi, guyyyys!” The description—which I can only describe as a bit awkward—explains that the Vlogger Kit “will let the kid experience one of the top career choices that many of today’s kids aspire to be.”
The Vlogger Kit makes me queasy for sure—but I can see the appeal of this one in some ways. Becoming an influencer seems fun. Though again, do kids under 5 know what an influencer is? Do we want them to? Depending on your interests, being a vlogger or influencer might look like luxury travel, great food, or stylish clothes. Maybe it looks like being an athlete, a musician, or a memoirist. But there’s a difference between performing these roles and actually doing the work of those roles.
In her brilliant book, Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino puts it like this, “On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.” And Chris Hayes, writing for The New Yorker, puts it in even more stark terms, “Being known by strangers, and, even more dangerously, seeking their approval, is an existential trap. And right now, the condition of contemporary life is to shepherd entire generations into this spiritual quicksand.”
The performance of work is all-encompassing and unrelenting.
This has always been true to an extent—but it’s taken on a more urgent quality in the last decade. There’s always another picture to be taken, another caption to write, another DM to respond to. The time it takes to act out the work creeps in on your time for doing the work. Further, the performance extends beyond the job listed on your LinkedIn profile. We’re playing characters—mentor, guide, bestie, bro. We’re not just performing the work; we’re performing relationships. Performing like this is promising everything to an indefinitely increasing (hopefully) audience at all times. And to Hayes’s point, the unknown performance of self and work for an audience of strangers comes at the cost of knowing who you are when all the toys are put away. At this point, we have to ask: Is it worth it?
I’m not at all suggesting that this kind of work doesn’t matter or that it might not matter deeply to you. But I do question whether the way we’re working now (including providing free labor to content platforms) is how we want to be working for years to come—or the kind of role we want to pass on to our kids.
Now that my kid is a teenager with a TikTok account, she understands the outward performance of my work. She knows how many followers I have on Instagram and that I have a TEDx talk on YouTube—that feels more substantive to her than what I actually “do.”
She told me that her friends wanted to know what I do for a living—and she told me she “honestly [doesn’t] know.” Some of that is willful ignorance, no doubt. But it’s also that the visible product of my work, the part that feels familiar to her, looks like playing online. I’m a performer and always have been—ask my mother. And I love writing and podcasting, both as performance and as meaningful work. But I’d like to do it in a way that doesn’t depend on algorithms or platforms developed by corporations whose primary goal is to increase stockholder value. I want that for her, too. Because the way things are now is exhausting and self-alienating.
I’m not alone. Rebecca Jennings reported on burnout among influencers for Vox, where she covers the internet culture beat. She’s talked to countless high profile TikTokers and wrote:
“Whether they have 100,000 followers or a few million, all the TikTokers know that their fame will likely fade unless they work very, very hard to cultivate themselves into something solidly monetizable. They seamlessly toggle between their two identities — the real person and the online persona — and speak with a kind of cynicism about tying their livelihoods to a platform that could disappear in an instant.”
What happens when you want to quit your job, and your job is Being You?
At this point, I return to the My Home Office playset and the Vlogger Kit with its wooden ring light and selfie stick. These are tools of performance, too. They’re implements for acting out a parent’s work. I’m left wondering whether my iPhone, iMac, and fancy podcast mic are all that different. Even though I sit in front of a shiny and fully functional computer to do conference calls (sadly, not with dogs), it can feel like it’s all just make-believe. I play at being successful or having all the answers. I pretend the latest post or article is spontaneous or inspired. It’s not so much that I don’t experience success, have some answers, or share spontaneously sometimes. It’s that it’s so much more complicated than that. It takes real creative effort to imagine up how I’m going to display an aspect of my work or myself to my audience.
In her book of essays exploring capitalism, Having And Being Had, Eula Biss writes, “The hardest part of working isn’t the work, my mother tells me, it’s the passing. She means passing as an office worker—dressing the part, performing the rituals of office life, and acting appropriately grateful for a ten-hour shift at a computer.” Biss’s mother describes the performance, the part of the work that is critical to getting paid, but isn’t what you’re getting paid for.
While this example is about office work, the same applies to the self-employed today—a key factor in why many business owners consider doing things differently. In what ways are we “dressing the part?” In what ways are we “performing the rituals” of work? In what ways are we expected to act “appropriately grateful” for that indefinitely increasing audience we’re trying to promise everything to, as Tolentino described? It’s not the work that we’re paid for, but it’s critical to getting paid.
We’ve built businesses within a system that is ever more dependent on the way we put on the performance of our work rather than the work we actually want to do.
We’ve taken the system for granted and asked ourselves how we can operate within that system according to our values, interests, and goals—as opposed to using our values, interests, and goals to determine whether the system is even one we want to be a part of. How do we—as grown-ass adults with bills to pay—navigate the way that performing our work at the social media theater has become central to our livelihoods? And if we’re not part of that performance, how do we build businesses that work? What starts as spontaneous and meaningful can so quickly turn into a chore. What begins as a form of self-expression can so quickly become molded by the market’s demands or an algorithm’s whims.
What’s more, to keep up with the constant changes and new demands of this theater, we start to create more routinized, sanitized, and market-tested versions of our performance. Not only is it time-consuming, hard work—it’s boring. Perhaps, as much as frustration, rage, and emotional exhaustion, ennui is driving business owners to rethink their work. That’s not to suggest that all work should be fun or that we should ignore the lessons of the marketplace. My concern is the cognitive dissonance that forms when we say we value the authenticity and connection that this performance demands while also making sure we play the part following the rules that the systems have created for their gain, not ours.
Amelia Horgan shares this story in her book, Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism:
“A few years ago, workers in a London Tube station decided, of their own accord, to write quotes on the service updates whiteboard in their ticket hall. The quotes were a mixture of the sentimental, the humorous, the earnest, the capital I-inspirational, and occasionally, the genuinely moving. People took pictures of the board and shared them on social media. On the concession in question, this spontaneity is transformed into a central directive: each station is emailed the same quote ready for the next morning, these are written on the whiteboard and then must be posted on the concession’s internal app as proof of their existence. For the sovereign customer, the appearance of spontaneity remains, but beneath the surface the vampiric tendencies of capitalism (as Marx described them) bubble away.”
This example stopped me in my tracks when I read it. While my experience might be in digital marketing and social media, the underlying system here is all too familiar. You’re going along, being yourself, trying to help people, and miraculously you land on a message or idea that lands. Maybe it even goes viral or brings you a new client. Understandably, you take that message and figure out as many ways as you can launder it back into your feed. A procedure forms. Soon enough, you’re working the procedure instead of following an intrinsic motivation to share your work. It’s a rehearsed performance of connection, service, or wisdom—not the actual work of relating.
“Passing” isn’t just putting up with BS rules of professionalism or even the emotional labor of putting on a smile while a customer yells about their french fries. It’s about finding the most marketable, most brand-worthy, more #authentic version of yourself and trying to pass as that person every single day—creating real-time proof for the world to see. In my conversations with business owners over the years, I’ve noticed how often the experience of an identity crisis comes up. It’s common enough that I often ask my podcast guests about whether they experienced an identity crisis during a significant change in their businesses—and I don’t think the answer has ever been “no.” When you’re acting out a role—Being You—for a significant part of your life, any change in what you’re doing or how your business works is enough to make you question what’s real and what’s not.
Maybe this isn’t how you operate at all. Perhaps the way you work and operate online bears little resemblance to carefully curated Selves of internet stardom. But, as Tolentino put it, “you still live in the world this internet created.” We can watch both the rise to success and the predictable meltdowns of modern celebrity and tell ourselves, “Oh, I don’t want that.” But when we inhabit the same spaces where that modern celebrity is performed, we’re caught up in the same paradigm. People who are successfully playacting themselves online are making tech platforms a ton of money. And so those platforms, which have the ultimate position of power in this scenario, have a vested interest in convincing us, algorithmically, to behave the same way. Whether you’re using a platform for work or for play (who knows the difference?), the way you see what’s interesting and valuable is molded in large part by how others perform.
The Passion Paradigm
As an elder millennial, I was among the first wave of college-bound young adults to be introduced to the idea of “following your passion.” I had full permission to find the thing I loved most and pursue it as a career—even if it didn’t lead to a healthy bank account. Having grown up with little financial security, it wasn’t like I was expecting much comfort—let alone luxury—from my financial circumstances. So I double-majored in religion and music, fully expecting to go to grad school and, one day, become a professor.
Honestly, I still dream about that life. Things were going well for me. I was accepted to my first-choice master’s program with the tuition covered. I was demonstrably unprepared for grad school—but optimistic I could catch up. Burnout (and clinical depression) caught up with me after completing undergrad, though. The wave of sadness and exhaustion that had been slowly creeping up on me throughout my senior year broke me by mid-summer. I quit grad school before I even started.
Pursuing my passion felt impossible. The potential trade-off— swapping financial security for personal and intellectual fulfillment—seemed like a Bad Choice. As a newly minted adult, I was terrified of making Bad Choices. Intellectual curiosity is my passion, and I didn’t know how else to pursue it than in the academy. My options—or at least my access to finding out about my options—were limited.
Today, of course, the options for pursuing your passion are seemingly endless for anyone with a smartphone.
If intellectual curiosity is your jam, you can write a newsletter and host a podcast 👋. If food gets your juices flowing, you can share your carefully developed recipes on your blog or host a YouTube channel about your exploits in the kitchen. If you’re super into archeology, languages, felting, furniture-making, or interior design, you can turn that into content that is either directly monetizable or a platform for building a small business.
Much of the talk about marketing your passion-based business or freelance career today advises to “give value” and work on building an audience before offering anything for sale. To be a highly functional person on the internet, you promise to play out the pursuit of your passion to an ever-growing audience every day—whether you’re getting paid or not. It sounds (sort of) good in theory, but it’s exhausting. It consumes you. As a business coach, I believe it has been one of the most harmful directives lobbed at prospective entrepreneurs over the last decade.
Writing about what she’s called “the passion paradigm,” sociologist Lindsay J. DePalma explains, “DWYL [Do What You Love] rhetoric represents the latest surge in a normative work ethic that prioritizes the intrinsic rewards of more pleasurable work.” Today’s ideology of work attempts to reorder our hierarchy of needs, putting self-fulfillment and pleasure before physical and material needs. In other words, find your passion first, build an audience for it, and get your financial ducks in a row later.
For anyone but the most privileged, the passion paradigm is naive at best.
For anyone facing structural oppression or barriers to financial stability, it’s actively harmful. Subverting real needs in the name of passion can lead to rationalizing debt or falling victim to exploitation in the name of entrepreneurship. Examples of this are legion, but the recent LuLaRich docuseries and the first season of The Dream podcast detail two scenarios that feel all too familiar to business owners trapped in the passion paradigm. MLMs promise passion and profit and often deliver credit card bills, a closet full of mediocre product, and strained friendships.
Lest we start to think that doing your own thing—rather than signing up to be an “independent business owner” with a direct sales company—somehow exempts an entrepreneur from this danger, many hopeful business owners experience similar outcomes. There are still the credit card bills and strained friendships. But instead of a closet of mediocre product, they’ve got a fancy website for their trouble.
Paralleling both of these phenomena is how the passion paradigm has infiltrated the job market as a whole.
Chik-fil-a runs commercials about the passion their employees feel for their customers and the food. TJX (the parent company of HomeGoods, TJMaxx, and Marshalls) advertises that their jobs lead to “Discoveries about our off-price business model, which is different from traditional retailers. Discoveries about our relationship-driven culture. Discoveries about ourselves.” And that’s right after the bold statement that, “There’s nothing as exciting as that moment you discover the perfect pair of shoes, a cozy throw for your couch, or a fabulous new dress–at an amazing price.” Nothing as exciting? Really? I can think of a few things.
A recent DoorDash ad reminds young people that “good things come to those who… work.” The ad itself doesn’t mention passion or self-fulfillment, but the visuals, music, and voiceover are all part of the work passion aesthetic. Every time it comes on, I look at my husband and roll my eyes. Worse still (I think) is a commercial that’s just started running where a DoorDash customer orders his groceries off the app and, as the viewer, we see these groceries jump off the shelf—with little cartoon arms and legs—so they can get delivered. The bag of groceries arrives at the man’s house without ever acknowledging that a human being was involved in the process. It looks like the delivery was the work of magic! When we’ve reached the point where concurrently running commercials both glamorize the work and erase the worker, we know we’re living in a late-stage capitalist hellscape. Amelia Horgan explains, “Today’s work promises the experience of togetherness, of being part of a collective, but typically delivers something much more competitive and individualistic.”
Competing for workers, companies are co-opting the passion paradigm in more and more blatant ways. They want to continue to offer low-wage, emotionally and physically exhausting work without regard for the people who it, so they market the positions as being in “fun work environments.” They’re looking for “people with a passion for” [insert something almost no one is passionate about based on the definition of the word]. I’ve worked in low-wage, emotionally & physically exhausting work, so I know it’s not all bad. There are fun work environments, and things about the work can be exciting or even fulfilling to a degree. But these jobs are no more a pathway to self-fulfillment than they are to a less-than-precarious financial situation or an avoidance of medical bankruptcy. These need to be needs-meeting jobs, and they just don’t meet anyone’s needs.
This summer, while road-tripping from Pennsylvania to Montana, I heard more than one breakfast buffet attendant at a chain hotel tell a guest some version of “I work 7 days a week, but I love my job.” Again, I’m not at all suggesting that there aren’t aspects of that job that are enjoyable or that you couldn’t feel something like a passion for caring for guests. But is it worth working seven days a week for a job that’s not meeting your needs? My hunch is that these are still part-time jobs without benefits or overtime pay. After all, working seven 4.5 hour shifts is still only 31.5 hours per week. When we tell ourselves we’re passionate about the work, we’re willing to put up with so much more.
Playing at passion becomes a coping mechanism for a terrible situation.
Not only does the passion paradigm flip our priorities, but it also leads to a sort of normalcy bias, encouraging workers to discount the material consequences of exploitative working conditions and unsustainable pay. In his book, What Tech Calls Thinking, Adrian Daub writes:
“The gig economy itself is an aestheticization of labor practices. Sure, what you’re doing may look a whole lot like what a pizza delivery guy did twenty years ago, but what you’re really doing is (according to ads looking to reel in new DoorDash drivers) being your own boss, exploring new parts of the city, paying for your wedding.”
Companies selling their jobs as vehicles for self-actualization went into high gear over the last 20 years. The pandemic and its economic shock only made the employer-side of the job market more desperate. But one of the first times I can remember this happen—and I’m going to date myself here—is when Subway rolled out the job title: sandwich artist. The people who listened to my requests for a veggie sub with extra mayo and portioned out the corporate-approved amount of cheese, lettuce, and green peppers weren’t food service workers. They were artists.
How much less are you willing to accept in your paycheck for the opportunity to be an artist? How much more likely are you to come in on your days off to make up someone else’s shift? How much will you protest when benefits are taken away, or paid time-off isn’t honored? It strikes me now that “artist” is a particularly bleak term to use. You can convince yourself that being a starving artist is cool—but being a starving food service worker is bleak.
In the 90s, this was a problem. But today? It’s dire.
It’s an ongoing cultural, economic, and personal disaster. And those of us who are building small businesses, doing the labor of knowledge, emotion, and creative expression, are not immune from its impact on our collective understanding of what we have to put up with in the name of work today. What are we willing to ignore in the name of passion?
Fobazi Ettarh, writing about people who work in libraries, coined the term “vocational awe” to describe the unwillingness to question harmful practices and poor working conditions when convinced of the mission and the righteousness of the work. Whether you’re providing breakfast to hungry travelers, brightening someone’s day with a chicken sandwich, or doing what you love by photographing a wedding, the concept of vocational awe applies with the proper external pressure. We’re often so invested in being a part of something “bigger than us” (and employers are invested in us being invested in it) that we’re willing to put up with scraps.
The wild thing is that, as business owners, we do this to ourselves too. We’re the ones behind poor working conditions and harmful practices. We put up with lousy pay, long working hours, and no benefits. We subject ourselves to abuse from clients, from platforms, from randos sliding into our DMs. What happens when we wake up and say, “it’s not worth it?”
We’ve discovered that working for ourselves isn’t enough to feel like we’re living our values or pursuing our passion. We’ve learned that it’s entirely possible to work from home, make your own hours, set your own prices, and still reproduce miserable working conditions and toxic work relationships. While some business owners are jumping ship on the type of work they’ve been doing, from the conversations I’ve had, it seems that more people are jumping ship on how they’ve structured their work. They’re calling into question the assumptions they’ve made about work looks like—and how it’s performed. They’re looking for new toys to play with that don’t have quite so many safety issues.
This shift reflects a much larger trend in the labor market.
The Great Resignation Becomes The Great Pivot?
Four million Americans quit their jobs in April 2021. Another 4 million left their in July. Similar numbers quit in March, May, and June. According to Harvard Business Review, “Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021.” All this while the economy is still unstable and the pandemic rages on.
Initially, economists assumed that the pandemic would put a pause on productivity and the labor market. But that, when things stabilized, we’d just pick back up where we left off. Economist Betsey Stevenson explained on The Ezra Klein Show:
“If we think back to the beginning of the pandemic, we thought more than any other recession people were just going to go back to doing what they did before. We’re just going to take a pause, and then we’re just going to go back to our old employers, our old jobs, our old way of doing things. But the thing was, the pandemic lasted longer. It shook us up more than we expected. And a lot of people are questioning what they should do.”
It’s easy to blame expanded unemployment insurance for worker shortages. But Stevenson says it’s much more complicated than that—and that UI is, at worst, having a negligible impact on people’s decisions about work. Instead, workers are making space to figure out what they want to do and how that work can provide for themselves and their families. For some, that means moving to a cheaper area. For others, it means taking a pay cut to do work that allows them to continue working from home. Still others are hoping to switch fields entirely in search of more meaningful work.
This period is being called The Great Resignation. And frankly, I find it fascinating. Probably not surprising if you’ve read this far.
As I started to hear more and more small business owners express their desire to make a significant change in late 2021 or 2022, I wondered if the ethos behind The Great Resignation had seeped into the waters of entrepreneurship. So I asked. I shared in an Instagram story that I was looking for stories from business owners who were looking to make a change but didn’t feel forced into a pivot because of the pandemic (i.e., move away from planning in-person events or take their fitness business online). Now that things are less urgent in some areas, how are business owners responding with plans and goals? The replies came fast and furious.
Business owners left me lengthy voice messages or long typed responses. They came from people I knew and people I had no prior connection to. What surfaced was that many business owners had bought the promise of the Do What You Love message while recreating degrees of the toxic work environments and insufficient compensation they’d experienced at other jobs. They were caught up in a performance of success, confidence, and authority while finding themselves ensnared by unsustainable working hours and operational precarity.
That’s not to say that the people I talked to weren’t successful. Many were operating businesses that paid well—as long as they were willing to keep posting, keep being accessible, and keep reinventing themselves.
I want to acknowledge a distinct difference between the harm of not being paid enough to afford a 1-bedroom apartment or working 80 hours per week and the harm of contorting yourself to an algorithm or trying to be all things your customers. My goal here isn’t to claim that one kind of harm is the same as the other. But a core part of my goal is to tease out how all workers—including the self-employed—are at risk of harm and exploitation in the systems we work in today. Exploitative work impacts us differently, and the degrees of that impact will be different—but the forces behind that impact are much more similar than is evident when you drive by the Now Hiring signs advertising $16 per hour pay with a $500 signing bonus.
The business owners I talked to shared how they were feeling about their own working conditions—the ones they’d ostensibly (though not often in practice) chosen for themselves. Yes, they told me they were exhausted. That was no surprise.
What surprised me was the number of successful-on-the-outside people who told me they were fed up, over it, and miserable. More than one person told me they were “f*cking over it.” They were tired of ignoring or erasing their boundaries because they felt compelled to in the name of pursuing their passion. They were sick of feeling like they were “always on,” offering advice, creating content, answering questions. They felt “weighed down” by the unhealed trauma they were continuing to act out regularly through client relationships, personal expectations, and even family dynamics.
Some were jubilant about the change. Others were defiant and angry. Still others felt confused, emotionally depleted, and physically spent. Lots of business owners expressed all of these things at the same time. I want to say again that these were business owners who didn’t feel forced into a change because of external circumstances. They’ve upended their businesses (or plan to do so in the coming months) out of choice. Some are even pivoting out of businesses experiencing a massive increase in demand since the onset of the pandemic.
Having been in the digital small business world for almost 13 years now, I’ve seen mass pivots before.
There was the mass pivot from blogging with an ad revenue model to creating content marketing for an online course model. There was the pivot from 1:1 coaching to group coaching or programs. I’m not sure I’ve ever mentally recovered from the pivot from putting your content on social media to putting it all on your website (to get email subscribers) to putting it back on social media. I saw the pivot from service-based businesses to digital product-based businesses, from $49 ebooks to $2k online courses to $25k masterminds and back to $17 “pocket products.” Most recently, there have been the pivots from bespoke services to productized services and from Facebook groups for online courses to private communities with ongoing subscriptions.
These mass pivots had two main things in common. The first is that these pivots tapped into easily marketed needs that weren’t being fulfilled by the previous “best practice” for operating. For instance, ad revenue for bloggers was always sticky territory. It didn’t pay well; it was hard to manage; and, it started to dry up. So why not advertise your own products? Or, when the coaching market pivoted from 1:1 coaching to group coaching, marketers were selling everyone on the benefits of “passive” or “leveraged” income models—they later doubled down on this by selling the online course model.
The second thing that these mass pivots had in common is that there was a sort of momentum and cohesiveness behind them. First, you’d hear about a few innovators who were trying something new. They’d figure out how to make that new model work and then turn around to sell it to others. Because these innovators were, by nature, expert marketers, they turned a few ripple effects into a tidal wave. I’d watch the market and looking for what was coming next to stay ahead of trends. Soon enough, customers and clients would start to ask questions about the methods and models that were bubbling up. Soon, it would be the only thing people would want to talk about. That’s not to say that everyone surfed the wave of whatever pivot was in style, but that pivot would shape the dialogue about small business in vast expanses of the small business internet.
What’s different about the conversations I’m part of today is that there is zero cohesion about what people are deciding to do next. They’re sick of what they’ve built. They’re tired of being sold on a dream. They’re fed up with playing the character they dreamed up for Instagram Live—the one that’s become harder and harder to let go of when the camera isn’t on. And, they’re exhausted by trying to keep up with a market that’s not built for them (spoiler: it’s made for Mark Zuckerberg). That motivation business owners have in common, but what they’re going to do with that motivation is a different story.
Aligning Personal Priorities, Values, and Structure
For as grim as the situation is, the overwhelming majority of the people I talked to were optimistic. Even excited. They see a chance to start anew and “build back better,” if you will.
These business owners are wrestling with just how much they’ve internalized shoulds and supposed-tos either from previous work experience or via business gurus. They see how they’ve structured their businesses according to “the way it’s done” and then tried to live out their personal priorities and values within that structure. Now, they have an opportunity to step back and use their personal priorities and values to create new, innovative forms of doing business.
Below, I’ll explore the themes I see in how people are reimagining the structure and system of their businesses.
Unsurprisingly, logistical needs have been a critical driver in rethinking how business gets done. Women make up about 85% of the audience I have easy access to for qualitative research. And women are bearing the brunt of school closures, lack of childcare, increased limits on eldercare, meals at home, and a home-life full of many more people than usual. While pandemic impacted everyone’s work, it’s also been a study in the gender politics of work.
Of the business owners I surveyed who had either already made a significant change or were likely to make a substantial change, 57% said that “schedule or time” factors contributed to making changes to their business.
Adding to the above life challenges brought on by pandemic life, many of the business owners I spoke with have seen their businesses grow during this time. For some, the demand was overwhelming—prompted to rethink the way they work. It might seem like a good problem to have. But it also seems to lead to negative health outcomes and strained relationships.
One business owner told me, “The demand for my services has grown substantially, while my capacity has shrunk a bit (virtual schooling, bus drop off and pick up).”
Reassessing what’s important
Both the quantitative and qualitative surveying revealed that business owners have been reassessing how their businesses reflect their values and the impact they want to have in their communities.
One business owner told me, “I basically realized that my entire business was built on ‘shoulds,’ decisions other people had made for me, and unhealed trauma that was causing me to hustle for my worthiness. When things shut down and I had a minute to breathe, I started reevaluate everything.”
Another said, “[My] motivation for change is being given the opportunity for a deep reckoning in the slower pace of covid. Not that the changes weren’t already brewing, but the ‘f*ck it’ factor got louder!”
55% of business owners making changes cited “personal values” as a contributing factor to their decision.
Toxicity of online culture
Many business owners also told me they were “tapped out” or exhausted from feeling like they had to be “always on” and available to their audience. They’re tired of the churn and burn approach to creating content and trying to keep up with platform changes.
44.8% of business owners surveyed plan on making changes to the way they market their businesses.
Toxicity of client relationships
I heard from several business owners that they were ending (or had ended) toxic client relationships. Many of these relationships were long-term and made up significant portions of the business owners’ revenue (some as much as 80%).
They expressed that the pandemic had taught them what they were or were not willing to put up with. And for many, logistical challenges made it impossible for them to continue in old ways of working with people.
Herbert Freudenberger defined burnout in 1975 as emotional exhaustion, decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalization. Essentially, when we burn out, we’ve been caring too much for too long, seeing a lack of impact from our actions, and burning the empathy candle at both ends.
Further, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explores emotional labor in her book, The Managed Heart. Expanding on an argument of C. Wright Mills, she writes:
“Mills argued that when we “sell our personality” in the course of selling goods or services we engage in a seriously self-estranging process, one that is increasingly common among workers in advanced capitalist systems. This had the ring of truth, but something was missing. Mills seemed to assume that in order to sell personality, one need only have it. Yet simply having personality does not make one a diplomat, any more than having muscles makes one an athlete. What was missing was a sense of the active emotional labor involved in the selling. This labor, it seemed to me, might be one part of a distinctly patterned yet invisible emotional system-a system composed of individual acts of ’emotion work,’ social ‘feeling rules,’ and a great variety of exchanges between people in private and public life.”
Being You online isn’t as easy as being you (which, in my opinion, is no small feat on its own!). It’s exaggerated, curated, highly selective. Being You is work. So not only is selling your offers by being yourself a “self-estranging process,” it’s difficult emotional labor. And many of the small business owners I talked to expressed the desire to structure their businesses differently so that work required less emotional labor. Some saw the opportunity in ditching social media. Others in doing more hands-on work that didn’t need them to hold space for clients. And, still others jumping into physical or digital products that didn’t require much interaction with their customers at all.
Maybe counterintuitively, I heard from several business owners focusing on 1:1 coaching or consulting work again. They were interested in deeper relationships and the financial compensation that comes from supporting people in that way. They felt the structure of 1:1 work would make the emotional labor a little less taxing. They wouldn’t have to be promising everything to an ever-increasing group of practical strangers. These business owners also believed that moving away from building an audience and scaling more leveraged offers would allow them to stop performing their work on social media. It would be a break from being “always on.”
Forty-six percent of business owners listed “mental health” as a contributing factor in their desire for change. Twenty-two percent listed “physical health.” And 23.5% listed “ongoing uncertainty” as a factor.
One business owner told me that their physical and mental health had both declined. They didn’t feel capable of doing the kind of work they were doing anymore. They wrote that they realized they’d build their business “[their] highest capacity days, not [their] lowest.”
Waning interest or seeking a new challenge
Many people told me they were just some version of bored. Either they’d discovered new interests and wanted to try their hand at something new. Or, they felt like the cycle they were in with their current business was naturally coming to a close—so they were trying to figure out what would come next. Of the business owners I surveyed, 48% listed “personal interests” as a contributing factor to their desire for change. Fifty percent listed “type of work” as a contributing factor.
It isn’t easy to parse whether waning interest correlates to waning financial prospects or whether seeking a new challenge is a more acceptable way to say “seeking greener pastures.” I’m sure there is some of both in the mix. But it seems that, regardless, there is a sort of intermission taking place between acts for these business owners.
My hypothesis here—entirely based on anecdotal and observational evidence—is that, for many business owners feeling the itch to try something new, the pandemic was merely the climax of the reckoning that started with the 2016 US election. The ambient anxiety—something unfamiliar to many college-educated white Americans—of the last five years was enough to keep business owners focused on just sticking with it. But the pandemic and the 2020 election created a portal, as Arundathi Roy has described it, through which we could start to step into something new.
Reckoning with Why
Emotional exhaustion became thicker. Mental health started to crater. Logistical needs became more complicated. The filter of personal values became finer over the last 18 months. And many business owners I talked to told me they were reckoning with why they were doing all this in the first place. Why spend so much time creating free content? Why document their lives in the most marketable way? Why navigate the toxicity of online spaces? Why, why, why?
For many, it had become clear that the rewards—and there were many—weren’t worth the type of work it took to receive them. Many business owners expressed that they wanted to make a more significant contribution or do more purpose-driven work. But, from my perspective, the most revelatory “reckoning” came from people who realized they had been prioritizing the glamor of passion work over their actual financial, emotional, and physical needs.
Many business owners told me they were simplifying and just focusing on what would make the money they needed—so that they could pursue hobbies or volunteer work on the side. Others said they had decided to leap into growing a team to provide better jobs to others—while not having the business be wholly dependent on them as the owner.
Truthfully, this theme is the broadest. I’m throwing so many different replies and trends in the data in this bucket. But so many business owners told me that they were “reckoning” with what their lives and work had become that I couldn’t ignore it as a theme.
And now, the least explicit theme correlated with this mass pivot: greater awareness of power structures and systems of power. As I’ve already mentioned, many business owners told me they were tired of trying to follow the rules or conform to the “shoulds.” But before 2020, very few (mostly white) small business owners recognized that those rules and shoulds were often Instagram-ready versions of systems of power, including white supremacy, colonialism, ableism, neoliberalism, capitalism, heterosexism, misogyny.
We’ve started to recognize when and where there is low-wage hidden labor. We’ve become attuned to when adhering to white beauty standards is a substitute for credibility and when gurus use the logic of bootstrap pulling to line their pockets. We’re seeing how we can’t derive universal advice from one individual’s experience—and how it leaves out a whole host of equally valid experiences when it is.
In the United States, I think we’re confronting just how “on our own” we are because of existing systems of power. We’re a nation built on the promise of Jeffersonian independence, Ayn Randian self-reliance, and the entitlement to what comes from other people’s labor. But the noticeable shift that progressivism has made into the mainstream and, sometimes, into the center of the political spectrum shows that people are asking a lot of questions about the actual kind of society they want to live in.
Or, as Adrian Daub put it:
“[Ayn] Rand presents a world in which self-reliance is easy and pure. And her work depends on an understanding of self-reliance that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny once you’ve had to, you know, actually self-rely.”
While no individual business can turn the tide on the gospel of self-reliance, the more business owners conceive of their offers, operations, and financial models outside that paradigm, the more our culture will internalize a power shift.
Making Space To Change Your Mind
So much of building a small business online is playing the credibility game. When anyone can have a website or an Instagram account or set up shop with Venmo, we spend a lot of our time performing our expertise or wisdom. “By giving advice, we enact tiny theaters of social dominance to signal or procure our social status over others,” sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in her New York Times newsletter. She goes on to add, “We also use advice giving to reinforce our self-perception as one who knows, and cultivate that perception in others … After all, what is social media if not the gamification of advice?”
Deciding to pivot isn’t just high-stakes because your business is your livelihood. It’s high-stakes because your credibility status is on the line. Sure, we celebrate launching something new. But rumors and suspicion often run rampant when someone shuts down a line of business. The chase for credibility and longevity creates the perfect playing field for sunk cost bias—perhaps even more than time or money. The longer you’ve been at something, the more of a name you’ve made for yourself or your brand, the more likely you are to try to keep it up at any cost. Sticking with what you’ve been doing is, in many ways, about safety.
What’s more, with our work disconnected from our geographic communities, the communities where many feel at home—and a needed sense of belonging—are only found in the corners of the internet where they spend most of their time. Making a significant change means potentially losing that community and the belonging it supplies. Disconnection from the community is also one compelling explanation for the increasing polarization in US politics. When we get entrenched in a position (say, refusing to get vaccinated or supporting universal basic income), we can’t change that position without jeopardizing our relationship with the community that holds that same position. Making a significant change in a business—especially online—seems to threaten the owner’s relationship with a key community they belong to (or have created). Connections with customers, colleagues, and team members are on the line. The stakes are high.
In many ways, that’s what’s made the previous mass pivots so enticing. When you decided to do what everyone else was doing, you might have been leaving one community, but you were jumping straight into a new one. It seemed safe. You might not have much in common with coaches working with people 1:1, but now you have lots in common with people building courses. You might not have much in common with bloggers, but now you have lots in common with YouTubers. Some social connections get severed—but new ones spring up in their place.
But the last 18 months seem to have made everyone feel a little disconnected. We’re questioning where we belong in new ways—online, in our local communities, political movements, and activist spaces. We’re navigating personal and professional safety measures daily. That all said, I hypothesize that this more intentional reckoning with safety has made it safer for business owners to change their minds about their businesses. Instead of prioritizing the safety of credibility, at least the kind that’s based on ever-changing algorithms and producing work designed for clicks rather than quality, they’re prioritizing the safety of sustainability.
Perhaps this is where The Great Pivot mimics The Great Resignation most closely.
Those with the privilege to are questioning where safety really comes from and whether the way we’ve structured our lives and work contributes to a sense of basic safety. We’re proactively examining our communities, relationships, and working conditions across the board.
Reconfiguring your life and work requires wrestling with admitting what feels like defeat. When we decide to make a change, close up shop, or go in an entirely new direction, it’s easy to perceive personal failure as the cause. We end up projecting that perceived personal failure on the reasons others are making a change too. The last 18 months have given us an out, though. Many of us have realized that it doesn’t require mistakes or personal failure to necessitate change. We can simply choose a new direction. And even when conditions have made it so that we have to go in a new direction, we know it’s not our fault.
If the prospect of change makes your skin tingle with excitement, you’re in good company. You don’t have to snap your fingers and do a 180, though. If there is any way you can rest, rest. Go slowly, simplify little by little, grow at a sustainable pace, give yourself space to heal.
And at the least, pick up some new toys to play with.
I wanted to address a few questions I’m still wrestling with based on the survey responses I received. Maybe you’re curious about these things, too.
I didn’t ask about race or ethnicity on my survey. So I have questions about whether certain choices or influences break down along racial or ethnic lines. For instance, does race correlate to how likely someone is to attribute logistics or mental health to the desire for change? I’m also curious whether neurotypical or neurodiverse, non-disabled or disabled, and career experience contribute to the patterns I identified as part of The Great Pivot.
I specifically didn’t ask about revenue/income because I wanted to welcome responses from business owners generating a wide range of financial returns. But of course, I’d be curious to cross-tabulate differences in motivating factors and planned changes with the size of a business in terms of revenue.
I also didn’t ask about gender. My audience on Instagram—where I conducted the initial anecdotal research—is about 87% women and 13% men. Instagram doesn’t provide information on non-binary followers (cool…). So I can assume that the data I’ve shared here reflect majority-women experiences. But I’m sure that investigating how gender (or, more specifically, holding a caregiving role) would reveal some interesting findings. The changes in the labor market in the last 18 months have been devastating to women. That makes me wonder whether The Great Pivot might also be affecting men to a lesser degree.