Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Phase Three - Essay from Newsletter 107

Profit may not be the goal

The middle bit

There’s the famous Underpants Gnome meme from Southpark.

Their plan to get rich had three phases.

Phase one was to “collect underpants”.

Phase three was “profit”.

No one seemed to know what phase two was.

It’s like the Gary Larson cartoon where the step between the initial efforts and the impressive results is, “then a miracle occurs.”

This week I found myself in phase 2 realizing that phase 3 was not what I thought it was.

An offer of sorts

Last week a friend contacted me to tell me that his company was hiring.

I’ve said “no” a couple of times to offers like this lately so I stopped to think about why and to examine what it is I want to be doing.

If you haven’t paused to think this through for your own situation, you really should.

I’ve been independent for more than twenty years. In the early days I had one big client at a time for whom I did most of my work.

There wasn’t much difference between working for a company and having just one client. For programmer friends - it was like when we first started using Swift and were essentially writing Objective-C in Swift. It took a while to learn what writing in Swift should feel like.

Over time I started working more like an independent taking on an array of clients and interesting projects.

I always seemed to be working. I was no less committed to my clients as a contractor than I would have been if our relationship was employee/employer.

Some knew that and some didn’t.

It’s like those employers who only trust that you’re really working if you are on site in an office down the hall while others can look at what you produced this week and understand that if you are worth hiring then you’re putting in an honest day wherever you’re working from.

Anyway, I this friend who contacted me.

I said, “no, thank you.”

Knowing myself

Here’s what I decided. For me, and I can only speak for me, there were two things that didn’t fit for the job in question: they wanted me to be an employee and they wanted me to work forty hours a week.

They were accommodating on another point that has become important to me: remote work. They were flexible about having employees work remote. I think it’s important to get to know your team. I also value getting some face to face time now and then.

Some people love working in an office. For me, I get way more done when I don’t have to come into the office.

My favorite contract gigs for The Pragmatic Programmers, Disney, and Apple had me mostly work remote and come in for initial meetings and come back out monthly or quarterly (or less).

So employee or not. In some ways so much is easier if I’m an employee. There’s a regular paycheck. There are the benefits - usually better than I’m buying on my own. There is an entity carrying me through tough times.

These past two years during the pandemic have been tough for my business. Without travel most of my conference and training gigs have gone away. A lot of my contract work comes from people who have taken my training or seen me speak at a conference or met me in the halls during some event.

Even so, I love being independent. One of the hardest lessons for many of us is when we learn that our employer doesn’t care for us in quite the same way we care for them. I can’t help but get invested in the goals and ideals of people I work for. I’m lucky enough to choose to work for places I believe in. This is true whether I’m contracting for them or working for them. We sometimes forget that our employer may like us but they aren’t invested in us.

We all work for ourselves. That said, in general then I prefer to work for myself.

I also prefer to work on more than one thing at a time.

It’s right there in the name of my company: Dim Sum Thinking.

When you go out for Dim Sum you don’t order an entree. You make a meal of a variety of offerings.

So my preferences are to contract, to work remote, and to limit to twenty hours per week.

Those are preferences not iron clad rules. Of course I’d make exceptions in the right circumstance. But knowing my preferences is really helpful.

Take a moment to rethink yours.

If you weren’t working where you work now, would you apply for a job there? Would you apply for the job you currently have?


I’m not saying that all of us have the freedom to make the choices we want to make - I’m just saying we should clarify how we feel about things.

I’m in the financial position I’m in because we saved for two things that ended up not happening: Elena’s college and Kim’s retirement.

Also, living in Cleveland means that my cost of living is considerably less than friends who live in the bay area, the east coast, London, Paris, Tokyo, …

If I sold my house in Cleveland it wouldn’t even be enough for a down payment on a house in LA.

So although for my psychic comfort and sense of self-worth I’d like to be bringing in more money than do, it’s not a pressing need.

Instead I’ve spent the last few months working on a music app I call “Top Tracks.”

I’ve talked about it in the past and, if I remember, I’ll write more about it next week.

As much as I’m enjoying writing and using the app, it’s never going to make any money on the app store. The niche is likely small and I’m not sure whether or not to charge for it, or how much, or for which features.

Then there’s my bread baking book. It took me nearly two years to test all of the recipes and write the book. It’s so outside of the world in which I’m known that it will never sell that many copies. I’ve decided that’s ok.

I’m currently engaged in what James Dempsey refers to as his “Cavalcade of Profitless Pursuits.”

I love that idea.

We do some things for money and we do some things just because.

Just because.

In each case I was in phase two, somewhere after phase one’s “collect underpants”, and before phase three’s “profit.”

In the midst of the hard work step I stopped to rethink whether I really cared if the project resulted in profit.


For now phase three is “ship it and share it with others.”

Collecting underpants is never enough in and of itself, but often profit isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

My new phase three is enough to keep me motivated to work through the still fuzzy and undefined phase two.

What’s your phase three?

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 107. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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