Taking Control of Life: My Commitment to Entrepreneurship in 2011

Obviously I’m not the only person who had a shitty year in 2010. But I must say that in terms of it being both a personal and a professional humdinger, I found it pretty spectacular.

I must also confess that much of the turmoil was entirely my own fault. So perhaps I should call 2010 my Year of the Square Melon (mainly because of the photo above, shot in a Tokyo supermarket).

In July of this year, I quit Bloomberg Businessweek. I’d made it through the buyout, the layoffs, the turmoil. I think the new leadership has created a truly impressive editorial proposition. Hell, they let me write a long feature piece about design at Google. But I was also the last person left standing from a well-established team that had built an important franchise covering innovation and design. As far as I was concerned, it was only a matter of time before they realized I couldn’t do it alone.

After all, I’m not interested in design coverage that’s simply about the shiny product. For me, innovation is much more than one-dimensional. I understand a magazine’s need to have beat reporters cover everything from a company’s quarterly reports to its innovation developments. I just don’t agree that they can necessarily do both that well. Bloomberg’s priorities, reasonably, lie on the former.

And so I decided it was time for me to go, and I trotted into the sunset, wishing my former colleagues all the best as I did so. Now, I am observing innovation from a whole new angle, watching those trying to teach it to those trying to execute it. It’s hard. It’s fascinating.

Then a friend in London, Steve Price, asked me to write a short piece for an irregular magazine he produces. “So this is Christmas. What have you done?” was the theme, he said. “Well,” I replied. “If ever there were a year for me to answer that question in a vaguely interesting way, it’d be this one.”

And so I sat down to write. I imagined I’d be flippant, glib, etc. Instead, I was alarmingly super-genuine. And here’s what I wrote; my homage to 2010 and my commitment to entrepreneurship in 2011:

It was, let’s be honest, quite a year. Recession roiled, unemployment rose, currencies stuttered and the west continued its steep, inexorable decline into a mire of its own making. In the U.S., politicians bickered, turned a blind eye to the ravages of a warming world and continued to wage unwinnable war in distant lands even as the nation’s own infrastructure crumbled.

On a personal level, I found myself ensnared in a beleaguered industry filled with bewildered professionals who’d lost their passion and understanding of what they were doing, how they should do it or even why they should try. Journalists struggled, the mainstream media stumbled. Shoulders slumped, brows furrowed and all too often yet more would pack their things and go.

And yet, thank god for 2010.

It is said that there are three common responses to fear. There’s fight or flight, of course. And then there’s freeze. And that was me. For too long, I’d been in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps by keeping perfectly still I would avoid the gaze of the hatchet man making the rounds with the P45s. If I didn’t move a muscle then surely that would guarantee that I’d escape the indignity of screwing up in the worst business environment of a generation.

And yet the situation got so ludicrously intense in 2010 that the ice began to crack. That such deliberate inaction was leading directly to atrophy of the mind finally became undeniable. My fervent unwillingness to do something, anything about a working condition that was clearly untenable finally became a problem I had to deal with. And as we all know, acknowledging you’ve got a problem means you’re on the way to solving it. Accepting that this situation wasn’t going to get any better any time soon finally became an opportunity rather than a terrifying challenge of monumental proportions.

So I quit. I decided enough was enough. Enough of the nonsense. Enough of the pretense. Enough of the madness. It was time to become an active participant in my own life once more. And in July I handed in my notice, packed up my stuff and left the building with my head held high.

So that’s why I now get to tell stories of traveling around Japan, where I headed to clear my mind and where I failed to understand even a fraction of that nation’s bewitching, confusing culture. That’s why I now get to tell stories of being daubed in clown makeup in order to take on a bit part in a Badly Drawn Boy music video. That’s why I now find myself working on books, making my own deadlines and forging my own path. And that, I’m sure, is why I find myself feeling closer than ever before to those who really matter to me.

And that’s why 2010 gets to be thanked. It marked an important moment of no return. No more floundering. No more waiting for someone else to show the way. No more imagining that surely everything will be alright eventually. It will be, of course, but because I will make it so. I fear it sounds like I swallowed a self-help book, but I’m grateful for being able to recognize that we have one life, so best start living it sharpish. Yes, bills need to be paid and responsibilities have to be faced. But no more of the hamster wheel. The viable economy of all our futures will be built on the passion and talent of individuals. Time to put up and shut up. Bring it, 2011.

About Helen Walters
Helen Walters is the ideas editor at TED. Previously the innovation and design editor at BusinessWeek, she writes about interesting people and what keeps them up at night.

6 Responses to Taking Control of Life: My Commitment to Entrepreneurship in 2011

  1. Rick Ladd says:

    Surely glad @nilofer steered me this way. We hear so often that blogging shouldn’t be about me, we, us. Regardless, so many of us have compelling stories and, sometimes (like here), important and useful lessons or conclusions to share that many can relate to. Thanks for sharing a bit of yourself. It’s both enlightening and encouraging. Keep it up!

    • Thanks @Rick Ladd. I’m old school enough that I found writing this to be an entirely unsettling experience! I was taught as a journalist to stay out of the way as much as possible. But as boundaries have shifted and worlds have changed, I’ve also come to realize that I can write “objective” articles alongside purely personal pieces. This is certainly the latter, and I really appreciate your reading and your support. Happiness to you and yours in 2011.

  2. @scottrcrawford says:

    Delightful.

  3. Pingback: Time to put up and shut up. Bring it, 2011 | Estee Chaikin

  4. leland maschmeyer says:

    Funny thing: I work in a open office. People always blaring music. When I finished reading this post, I realized TLC’s “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls” was playing in the background. hehe.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Great post! Gosh, you captured exactly what I was thinking and feeling as my career and the career of thousands unraveled at Sun Microsystems in 2010. The past few years were “nonsense” and I’m excited and a bit nervous about “becoming an active participant in my own life once more.” After I was let go, I felt I had become a bit institutionalized but I am slowly beginning to work in the direction, where my passions lie.

    Best of luck in 2011!

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