Why Working for Yourself Is Like ‘American Ninja Warrior’

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If you haven’t seen “American Ninja Warrior,” imagine a massive obstacle course engineered by Spider-man. Steely-eyed folks with a lot of determination, nerve, and a healthy touch of crazy scramble through a series of challenges like the “Flying Chute,” “Spider Drop,” and “Unstable Bridge,” in the hope of reaching the final stage: Mount Midoriyama.   

I love watching the show. The people wearing shiny lycra are grinning like fiends (when they aren’t falling down). And every time I watch, I think to myself, “I would literally die.”  

That’s pretty much the same thought I had about self-employment. At least, before I became one of those crazy people wearing shiny lycra in the “Flying Chute.”

You don’t have to be a jock to be a warrior

It’s not always the CrossFit trainer with enormous neck veins who makes it up the wall or across the suspension bridge. Sometimes, it’s the scrappy 40-year-old schoolteacher.

When I thought about the ideal candidate for self-employment, I thought of a brilliant, ultra-competitive extrovert. A natural businessperson with a million-dollar idea and a five-year growth plan.

And then there was me, an introvert with a full-time mom gig and a modest idea for a product I wanted. I didn’t have a plan (yet). And I didn’t know anything about running a business (yet). It wasn’t until five years later, when my “hobby” was bursting at the seams with orders from friends of friends of friends, that I considered maybe my “play job” could be my “real job.”

You’re a human Swiss army knife

Unlike many competitions, American Ninja Warrior relies on having a broad skill set — and the ability to adopt new skills in real time.

As a self-employed small business owner, I need a diverse, ever-expanding skill set too. While some might call it being a “jack-of-all-trades,” I call it being a human Swiss army knife. Working for myself means I either outsource the skills I don’t have (and pay for it), or I learn them myself and increase my profit margins and marketability.

Like 94 percent of self-employed people surveyed by QuickBooks Self-Employed, I’m a lifelong learner. I love the constant incentive to add more dimension and breadth to my personal skill set. And when I identify a skill I’m missing that’s achievable and realistic, I go for it. But not in a haphazard or surface-level way. Like any athlete, I dedicate the time, discipline, and resources to become a better competitor. It’s a big part of how I’ve grown, adapted to a changing retail marketplace, and succeeded.

The odds are stacked against you

The ninja warrior course isn’t your typical ropes course. There is no safety harness. And some of the more difficult obstacles have a 10-15 percent success rate. Coincidentally, the success rate for self-employed entrepreneurs is about the same. Eight out of 10 call it quits within the first 18 months.

So why compete at all when the odds of failing are so high? Here are a few more stats. I’d say I’m about 50 percent more productive than I was while working a traditional desk job. Not because I was goofing off before. But because I now have the autonomy to plan my day around my most productive hours — no meetings, no interruptions — between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m.

I have 100 percent more flexibility in how many hours I work (most weeks it’s less than 40 because of that improved productivity), and how I balance my work with my health, kids, friends, and hobbies. All this means my paycheck varies from month to month. But that’s ok with me. I’m living a meaningful, comfortable life with people and work that I love.

Your real competition is the course

Unlike most reality TV competitions, “American Ninja Warrior” isn’t about knocking down your opponent. It’s about owning the course in front of you.

When I first took the leap to full-time self-employment, I spent too much time fretting about my fellow “competitors.” It’s easy to see other entrepreneurs as threats or be intimidated by someone else’s success, intelligence, or skills. But ultimately, that attitude only alienated me from potential allies and learning opportunities, and it distracted me from honing my unique offering. 

I’m not saying you should throw your trade secrets around like candy. But I am saying that success in self-employment isn’t a zero-sum game. I’ve learned to see my fellow Ninja Warriors as mentors instead of competitors. To succeed on my terms, to collaborate with people who are smarter or more successful than I am, and to be generous with my encouragement and mentorship. Because at the end of the day, it’s just me and Mount Midoriyama.

There are no do-overs

If you fail an obstacle on a ninja warrior course (usually by falling in the water), you’re out. No do-overs. Little stumbles and setbacks are inevitable, but a major fall can take you out of the arena permanently.

I’ll admit it: That’s scary. If I go too far off course, make a big mistake, or just get really sick, there is no safety net. No buffer in the form of a manager, no laws that protect my job, no sympathetic boss to give me a second chance, no team of employees to take the baton while I’m out, and no one else to shoulder the blame for a mistake. Just me.

There is no team in ‘I’

Similarly, while you might train with other contestants and enjoy the support of family members and friends, the course is yours alone to run.

I’m an introvert. Big groups, team projects, open floor plans, and company picnics stress me out. So I didn’t anticipate how much I would miss the casual, daily interactions with coworkers, the convenience (and sometimes the necessity) of sharing the workload with teammates.

I’ve hired two employees at this point. But they’ll never be in the arena with me, no matter how much we enjoy working together. It’s on me — always — to answer for how my business is performing at the end of the day. When my workload suddenly goes to DefCon 5 during the holidays, I’m the one sitting in the FedEx parking lot at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. And when it’s a slow month, my paycheck is the one that takes a nosedive.

Luck = preparation + creativity

At a glance, competing on “American Ninja Warrior” requires equal parts skill and luck. Contestants know the obstacle course will test their speed, agility, and strength. But they don’t get to see — or practice — the obstacles before taping day. There are a lot of surprises.

When I left my desk job to pursue full-time self-employment, I checked every box I could to prepare for the transition. I grilled my self-employed friends. I spent a LOT of time making spreadsheets and troubleshooting worst-case scenarios. I analyzed my data. I read about pitfalls and best practices. I set goals for income, planned out my workspace, and came up with not one but three backup plans.

But even with all that preparation, I couldn’t anticipate all the yearly, monthly, and daily surprises. And from the outside, it might look like I owe part of my success to luck. But when things get weird or when a new obstacle suddenly blocks my path, I don’t bite my nails or hope for the best. I make my own luck, by combining my preparation with a creative or unconventional approach. And if that doesn’t work, I double-down and try again.

Get lean, get scrappy

Whether you’re a CrossFit trainer or a schoolteacher, you have to get lean and scrappy if you want to be an American Ninja Warrior.  

In the early days, I put a lot of time and effort into big, expansive plans — plans I didn’t have the data to justify yet. Some of those ideas panned out, and some of them didn’t. I’ve learned that while dreaming big is a good thing, iterating small and staying lean — no matter how much I grow and succeed — is important to staying relevant, strong, and agile. Now, I test my ideas on a much smaller scale and expand the ones that show real results.

It’s easy to let success make you overconfident, to think, “I’ve figured it out.” But that kind of thinking inevitably leads to inefficiency, waste, and misguided efforts that will ultimately bring you down.

‘Ultimate victory’ is totally worth it

So is it worth it? Absolutely, yes. I love knowing that I’m capable of rising to this challenge. I love the freedom to set my own pace, goals, and schedule. I love the autonomy to decide how I’ll balance my work with family, friends, hobbies, and travel at any given point. I love applying my skills and creativity to overcome the daily obstacles in my path.

I had no idea that this nerdy, cautious introvert would love the course so much. It looks intimidating from the outside. And it is a daunting climb, full of surprises. But for me, that ultimate victory of autonomy, personal achievement, work-life balance, and obstacles that push me to reach higher is absolutely worth it.

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