Since I was a third grader at Doyon Elementary, a school that to this day makes me want to say “No Doy!” I dreamed about publishing a book. It was the only thing I consistently thought of whenever “dreams” came up. Over and over again, this is what I returned to.
Having dreamed about a book deal for more than two decades, getting that first email from a publisher was an unbelievable feeling. This was it! This was the thing I had been working toward and sweating toward. It was all coming together, and I felt like rolling around in the book contract like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin.
I talked to the publisher for weeks. I had only been writing my blog for a few months, but they had picked up on what I was doing and were wildly interested. When your dream is something you started in your kitchen, it’s easy to get wowed by someone real expressing interest in it. I was overwhelmed and sat in bed with my wife night after night talking it over.
But something was amiss. Something was wrong. Something didn’t feel right.
We never want to see the worm in the apple we think is so shiny and delicious.
Unfortunately, my publishing deal was indeed full of worms. Some friends who are authors confirmed how bad it was. Afraid of wrecking my dream, I went around and around on the numbers. There had to be something we could do. I held out hope, phone call after phone call, email after email. Finally, after weeks of conversations, the publisher said something to the effect of, “How about you let us publish the book without paying you anything for it? We’ll sell it in stores, keep 100 percent of those profits for ourselves, and sell it back to you at a discounted rate so that you can sell it on your blog.”
In that scenario, I would give them the book for free and then buy it back from them.
That’s like letting someone borrow your car and then paying him to let you drive it. It was a ridiculous offer.
But if I didn’t have a day job at that time, I’d have been in a really difficult position. When 100 percent of your future, 100 percent of your money, 100 percent of your dream is dependent on one thing succeeding, you are strongly tempted to compromise. You are tempted to cut corners. You are tempted to agree to less-than-perfect terms and sign less-than-perfect contracts. The risk of passing up any opportunity is extremely high.
But if you have a job—even a less-than-ideal one—you get to say a pretty vital word.
I didn’t have to agree to their terms. I didn’t have to sign that horrible contract. Sitting safely in the comfort of my less-than-ideal day job, I passed. I said no and walked away.
You effectively lose that option when you quit. You lose that freedom when you jump without a net. You lose the power of the walkout or the shredded contract. Because you need this embarrassing gig. You need that horrible book deal. You need that lackluster partnership because the Dons (your bills) are hungry and refuse to go away empty-handed.
On the other hand, when you still have your job you don’t have to obsess about the consequences of saying no. You can instead focus on the benefits of saying yes to the right opportunities.
When you keep your day job, all opportunities become surplus propositions rather than deficit remedies. You only have to take the ones that suit your dream best.
Sure, you can still reject an opportunity on principle without a job. But there’s a big difference in the consequences of principled rejection with a job and without one. Look no further than the births of my two daughters.
My daughter L.E. cost about a nickel because we had amazing healthcare from my day job. When my wife gave birth to her at Brigham & Women’s in Boston, I threw a handful of sticky, cup holder coins at the receptionist, like a cheap version of Diddy.
My second daughter, McRae, cost about a million dollars. We were paying for our own health care because I didn’t have a full-time day job. After seeing the bill for McRae’s birth, I concluded she should have come out of the womb crying diamonds and clutching Benjamins in her baby fists.
Worse than this expectation was my thought-life before McRae was born. The doctors were fearful of an abnormality in her brain and wanted to run a lot of tests. In the middle of this horrific news, I thought to myself, Wow, that’s really expensive.
Let me repeat that so you can fully grasp what a jerk I am.
My daughter needed a special ultrasound to properly assess a potentially serious medical condition. I worried about the cost.
Because the bill wasn’t just my bill. It was my boss. The Don was demanding very high dues.
By the way, kids don’t get cheaper when they’re older either. My friend Matt quit his day job to pursue his dream job full time. When his elementary-aged daughter broke her arm, it cost his family $6,000 or a Kia to get her treated at the hospital.
So I’m grateful I found a way to close the gap between my day job and my dream. The Dons don’t own me and I get to say no when I need to, especially when it comes to things like speaking.
Here are the five criteria I use when it comes to choosing speaking gigs:
1. Are they willing to pay my fee?
2. Will I be speaking to an influential crowd?
3. Will I be associated with other influential speakers at the event?
4. Will I already be in the area speaking somewhere else?
5. Is this a unique chance to share an important idea with a new audience?
When someone asks me to speak, there needs to be a yes to at least three of those questions before I say yes to the opportunity. Otherwise I say no. But guess what happens if I quit my day job and try to live out my dream job of speaking full time? My five-part criterion is reduced to one overwhelming question, “Are they willing to pay my fee?”
I lose the leverage to ask questions 2–5. I cash in that leverage when I quit my job. It doesn’t matter if I disagree with one of the other conference speakers. It doesn’t matter if the engagement is on the other side of the country and it will take me away from my wife and kids for days. It doesn’t matter if I’ll have to compromise my core message to fit the crowd’s preferences.
I will say yes, or paying my bills will be hard that month. And my yes may not even be to my full fee. The Dons don’t like discounts, but something is always better than nothing. Getting paid 50 percent of what I think I’m worth is a bruised shin compared to the broken nose of earning nothing that month. A desperate you and I will take that any day.
To chase your dream well you must fight to hold on to this small but significant word. Saying no is one of your most important resources, especially in the beginning. And the simplest and safest way to keep your no’s is to keep your day job.
This is an excerpt from my book Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job & Your Dream Job. To read the rest, pick up a copy today.