Making career choices often comes down to trade-offs

September 26, 2010
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I spent a weekend in August with a group of teenage boys at a farm I have on the Black River near Cheboygan. They are friends of my grandson. I was sitting on the deck overlooking the river after dark when one of the boys came out to talk to me. He asked me given the beauty of the location, why I did not spend more time there. We had a nice talk and I thought about answering this question. I think it is a problem faced by most business owners. The conflict between what you have to do and what you want to do is a daunting question.

People who don't own a business often see business owners as being free and unfettered. We do not have a boss and we make the rules for our own lives. No one stands over us and tells us what to do. The problem is that responsibility rules instead of a boss. Most small business people would like to spend more time on their personal interests, including hobbies and family, but the responsibility of the business rules. I grew up in Flint. Working past 52 is considered strange. The reality of small business is the trade-off you make between the perceived security of a job in big business or government and the opportunity to be your own person.

It seems to me that there are two tracks to choose from in a career. One is the perceived security of big business or government jobs. The idea of being retired in your early 50s with a lifetime guarantee security package of pension and health care benefits sounds pretty good to a 68-year-old small business owner. The problem is that the perceived security of a large organization often is not real. Many people who chose the big organization career choice have suffered devastating losses in the last few years. Big business employees have suffered the most so far. If the Democrats lose control at the federal and state levels many perceived secure government jobs will follow the big business jobs into the trash bin. The risk that many small business owners have taken looks secure in comparison. If you're an employee for a larger organization a pink slip leaves you with few options. Hopefully you can find another job with a large organization. In most cases they will also be releasing employees. The small-busines
s owner has spent their career in a survival mode. They are used to the stress of being independent. This recession has been devastating for small business, but at least they have some control of their own destiny.

My point relative to the young man on the deck is that there is a price to be paid for independence. If you own your own business you are responsible for your own retirement and health care. As much as I would love to spend every evening looking out across the river and watching the beavers begin their evening activities, there is a price that would have to have been paid to be there. I would have had to have spent 30 years putting in my time in what often is an unfulfilling job to get my early retirement. Now, after the time that I would've been eligible to retire, it all sounds great. But the 40 years I spent in business have been challenging, interesting and fulfilling.

The choices I made were at an age when I looked forward to life as an adventure. I was not willing to spend 30 years anxiously waiting for retirement. Think of how I would feel if I had stayed at General Motors and think of the people at Chrysler, Enron, etc. A lot of big business people did their time and in the end security was not there. It's reported today that by the year 2030 many municipal pension funds will be broke. If you work for one of those organizations and you're not aware of the problem, you're in for a rude awakening.

Satisfaction with your career is not a function of where you end up on the last day. Your satisfaction should be based on whether or not you enjoyed your time working. If you enjoyed your time working and that prevented you from your early retirement ,that was the trade-off. If you spent 30 years in something you did not find fulfilling that was your choice. Enjoy your retirement and your benefits. If you put in your 30 years and the company went bankrupt, that is truly tragic. It was not your intention to take the gamble. If you chose to be self-employed you know it was a gamble and you would accept the results whatever they might be.

I intend to spend more time enjoying my northern Michigan property. I have been intending to do that for about 20 years. Whatever you are doing it is what you choose to do. If I'm in Grand Rapids working or in Washington lobbying for tax equity or in Cheboygan trimming my grapevines it is all up to me. I hope the young man I was talking to understood what I tried to tell him. It's all about choices you make. There is no guarantee in life. I work so that I can afford to keep up the place in Cheboygan. I am fortunate that I can still work. It's all about trade-offs. When I decide that I prefer the peacefulness of the farm to the excitement of Washington and the responsibility of the office I will go to the farm.

Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Business Association of Michigan.

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