This is part 3 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum.
In business school, one of the first management skills you learn is how to do a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The idea is that by identifying internal (S and W) and external (O and T) positives and negatives, you can then set realistic objectives for a project or business.
Predictably, I have an issue with the way a SWOT analysis frames the “harmful” aspects of the model. I’ve found that weaknesses (and sometimes threats) can be just as helpful in achieving an objective as strengths. If you see a weakness as an opportunity to adapt, compensate or innovate your way around a problem, then that weakness is going to be helpful in the long run.
For example, because of my weaknesses in executive function, I’ve created all sorts of organizational systems and fail safes that make me far more organized at work than the average person. Not because I love being organized but because if I wasn’t super organized I would spend my days going in circles, accomplishing little. Out of necessity, I’ve taken a weakness and turned it into a super-competency.
So ignore the word “Harmful” at the top of the righthand column in the SWOT graphic. Weaknesses are challenges to be conquered, not obstacles to shrink from in fear.
Okay, back to the topic I’m supposed to be writing about. To keep things simple, I’m going to lump strengths and opportunities together and call them the Potential Upside. Same for weaknesses and threats, which we’ll call the Potential Downside.
Notice that I said Potential. Just because a strength or weakness exists doesn’t mean it will dictate the outcome. You can be smart, talented, and hardworking and still fail miserably in business. You can also be a lying, cheating lowlife and succeed spectacularly.
There are a lot of factors at play and what I’m going to outline below are just a few of them. I’ve chosen to focus on are elements of being autistic that have had the biggest impact on my own experience. Like everything else in life, your mileage may vary.
The Potential Upside
The upside of being self-employed can be huge for aspies. Here are 8 of the biggest positives I’ve found:
1. Make your own rules: I’m not very good at following the rules. Inevitably, I come up with a better way of doing things. Honestly, it’s probably only a better way of doing things for me, because my brain is wired funky. The beauty of not answering to a boss is that I get to put my better way into action and make that the rule for me. I work more efficiently–and I’m happier–when I’m doing things in a way that makes sense to me.
2. Work alone: I think this is probably the most attractive aspect of self-employment for a lot of autistic people. Navigating the social aspects of the workplace is challenging and demands a lot of energy, energy that many of us would rather expend on doing actual work. I found working in an office with other people distracting and anxiety-inducing, even when I was the boss and could close my door on the rest of the office. Working alone means I don’t get interrupted, I’m not distracted by office chatter/noises, and most importantly . . .
3. Control your work environment: When you work alone you can control your work environment. This is critical for individuals who have sensory sensitivities or an unconventional work style. With a little planning and the right kind of business, you can structure your workday to accommodate your autistic traits in ways that would be impossible in a conventional workplace. If you’re an insomniac, you can work when you wake up in the middle of the night and nap when you need a break during the day. If you have tactile sensitivities, you can work in your PJs. If you need total quiet to concentrate, you can go all day without taking off your headphones. If you need to work two hours and take a thirty minute break to recharge, no one is going to be side-eyeing while you obsessively refresh Tumblr.
4. Do what you love: The deep knowledge and passion that develop around a special interest are autistic superpowers. Not every special interest can be turned into a marketable skill, but many can, sometimes in very unconventional ways.
5. Leverage your strengths: While much of the advice about employment and Asperger’s focuses on weaknesses, I think aspies have at least as many unique strengths as weaknesses. These are mine: detail oriented, risk taker, persistent, perceptive, consistent, outside the box thinker, excellent pattern recognizer, diligent, optimistic, forthright, nonjudgmental. If you have difficulty seeing the positives in your autistic traits, take look at Tony Attwood’s article on Aspie Criteria (scroll down the page a bit for a positively framed list of traditional ASD traits).
6. Expand your competencies: Being self-employed will encourage (or perhaps force) you to expand your competencies. I hate talking on the phone, but there are times when completing an important business task requires making a phone call. Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to make phone calls less stressful (planning ahead, coming up with a script, phrases to signal that I’m ready to end the call). I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy things like meeting with salespeople or speaking in front of a group, but I’ve learned that I can get through these tasks with a reasonable amount of competency.
7. Put your self-teaching skills to work: You can go to business school or take courses at a community college, but a surprising number of business owners have never seen the inside of a B-school. There are a lot of aspects of owning a business that you can teach yourself, and happily, many autistic individuals are natural self-teachers thanks to years spent pursuing special interests. Among the things I’ve taught myself: bookkeeping, tax preparation, page layout, database construction, HTML and CSS, basics of Photoshop, and press release writing.
The skeptics among you will question how good I am at any of those things, which is fair. I did for a long time, too. When I finally got around to going to college, I took a course in writing marketing copy to see how well my self-taught skills would hold up to being graded. When the class did a press release writing assignment, the professor read mine to the class as an example of what a professional press release should sound like. It was a nice bit of validation, but not nearly as nice as all those times a newspaper or magazine picked up my copy word for word and ran it.
And that little bit of bragging leads me to my final point . . . .
8. Wallow in the glory: Being self-employed can be very validating. You make something or do something and someone else values that thing enough to give you money for it. There is a very direct connection between your skill and the reward. When you repair someone’s bike, they really don’t care if you did it at 4:00 AM, barefoot and shirtless while contemplating the similarities between binary and roman numerals. All they see is someone who can work magic with a derailleur.
The Potential Downside
First let’s be clear about one thing: two-thirds of small businesses fail within the first four years. The odds aren’t favorable. Being autistic throws some additional things into the mix that may make it harder for you to succeed. It’s a good idea to take a hard look at the potential pitfalls before you decide to try your hand at being your own boss. The good news is that I was only able to come with three downsides to go with my eight upsides.
1. The buck stops here: If you go it entirely alone, you’re going to be responsible for literally every aspect of the business. This can be extremely stressful at times. Some questions to ask yourself: How good are you in a crisis? How do you handle failure? What is your risk tolerance? How are your problem solving skills? How good are you at knowing when you’re in over your head and need to ask for help?
2. Long hours, hard work, few rewards: I always laugh when people say something like, “I’d love to have my own business so I could just take time off whenever I wanted.” Unless you’re fantastically lucky, getting your business of the ground will mean working longer hours for less pay than the average fast food worker. There were a few years when I worked full-time hours and paid myself nothing because I needed every last dollar to keep the business afloat.
Eventually, if you decide (and can afford) to hire employees or have a partner, you’ll be able to work more reasonable hours and take time off. Still, I don’t think I’ve had a real vacation in 25 years because even when I go away, I need to check in on the business, solve problems and generally make sure nothing is self-destructing in my absence. However, the rewards–both monetary and intangible–can eventually be much greater than working for someone else. Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between a start-up and a going concern.
3. Executive Function Required: Executive functions include cognitive processes like planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions. Unfortunately, these are both some of the most essential skills for running a business and some of the things that aspies struggle most with. It’s important to know in advance where you are going to face the biggest executive function challenges and to have a plan for supports in place. This is not something you can solve on the fly.