Last month, I had to give up my office.
I’d started renting it two years ago, while I had my corporate job, at a time when I was working long hours, the vast majority of them remotely. With two kids still at home, summer break right around the corner, and no “safe working space” in our house except the corner of the bedroom to get work done, it seemed the best solution.
In an ideal world, perhaps, the company I worked for would have paid for it. But to be honest, I never bothered to ask. For one, budgets being what they were, I was sure they’d never agree to it. Secondly, they were already pushing for me to spend more time in the office, a two hour commute for me, from Connecticut down to the bottom of Manhattan. Lastly, I suspected the office would be used for more than company work, and didn’t want to create a conflict of interest. So I paid for it myself.
As offices go, there wasn’t much to it. Just a single 18’ x 10’ room with plain white walls and a worn beige carpet, a counter/desk at one end, some bookshelves at the other, a window that could be opened on nice days, and a tree outside that window where birds and squirrels would sometimes put on a show.
The office was one of five in a shared suite, two or three of which were perpetually un-rented, and the building itself was more than a bit tired and run down. But it was only ten minutes from home (with rush hour traffic), was located across the street from the library, and served the purpose of giving me a quiet place to do my work, meet my deadlines, and sit in on what seemed a never ending string of conference calls.
As I had suspected, of course, the office also became something more for me. Call it my Fortress of Solitude. It was where I could go to write or read or even sometimes play video games when life at home got too hectic. Which wasn’t often … but often enough that I was glad to have the option when I needed it.
Before I knew it, a year had passed, and the lease was expiring. Which happened to be at about the same time that I made the critical decision to leave the corporate gig. Because life has a sense of humor like that.
At first, I agonized over whether to keep the office, knowing it would be an extra expense I’d have to defray right out of the gate. In the end, I decided to have faith in myself, and signed the lease for another year. And although I questioned that decision during my winter slump later in the year, I couldn’t ever quite bring myself to regret it.
After all, when I started becoming more active on LinkedIn and decided to post my first video back in January, that office was where I felt safe doing it. And when I started jumping on Zoom video calls with fellow LinkedIn’ers and potential clients, it was always a comfort to know that I didn’t have to worry about somebody knocking on the bedroom door with a random question. Or the dog howling at the mailman.
And when I’d get blindsided by one of those days–you know, the ones filled with self-doubt and disillusionment about being an entrepreneur–it was nice to have somewhere to escape to where I could regroup, recharge, and remind myself that I truly was a small business owner. I had to be, right? I had an office!
Then April rolled around again, and with it, the end of another lease.
For what it’s worth, my client base has been steadily growing since the winter, and I’ve probably been working just as many hours as I did two years ago. But now it’s all for me, and not for some corporate paycheck or to keep some board or private equity happy, so I don’t mind as much. That said, as any solopreneur or start-up knows, busy doesn’t always translate into money. Sometimes, business is just busy-ness.
At this point, I’d say my business is experiencing those awkward teen years. Puberty of a sort. Rapid growth is happening in some areas but not in others, my “voice” is changing, it’s all terribly new to me, and I don’t know how to handle it some days. And don’t get me started on the crazy mood swings. But overall, like any teenager, I’m happy not to be a child anymore, and I look forward to adulthood when it gets here.
Anyway, long story less long, as part of a larger strategic initiative to run the business more leanly for now, I made the decision to let the office go.
At the time, and for a few weeks after I moved everything out of it, I’ve been mourning its loss. Not only because it meant I had no more Fortress of Solitude to escape to, but because it was hard not to see it as a kind of defeat. A measure of failure.
If I can’t even afford an office, then how successful can my business possibly be?
Then today, I sat on a park bench, eating my lunch under a canopy of trees and a clear blue sky in the green of a neighboring town. And I could see for the first time that what I had gained by giving up my office was as least as valuable as what I had lost.
For some context, I should explain that my solution to not working in my bedroom every day has been to leave the house and go work at a library instead. Any library. Because one good thing about Connecticut is that this area is crawling with them. To borrow a rather grotesque saying my mother liked to use as I was growing up, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a library around here.” (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this expression came from the hillbilly side of the family.)
So today, as I write this, I’m working from the Wilton Library, which is currently my favorite. But again, any library is a nice place to work. Besides the free WiFi (something I had to pay for when I rented an office), there’s something about being surrounded by stacks and stacks of books in an atmosphere where people have come to read and research and explore knowledge and information in all its myriad forms.
Libraries aren’t quite what they were when I was a kid, of course. With the advent of computers and the internet, they are home to more than just books now. But that’s okay. Everything evolves over time. Even people. Conditions change, we change, and how we handle that change is the true measure of whether we have succeeded or failed.
Giving up my office was not a failure on my part. It was a well-considered business choice. And because of that choice, I’m looking forward to a summer spent hopping from one library to another, exploring them, taking breaks from working to amble up and down the rows of books, pulling some of them down to read, and sometimes, eating my lunches on park benches while listening to the breeze whisper through the trees.
And that doesn’t feel like a failure at all to me.
In closing, I’ll leave you with the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem (“In the Harbour: Loss and Gain”) that inspired the title of this article …
When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.
I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.
But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.