Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
One Life, Baby
A Not-As-Brief-As-Intended Notice for Marianne Cantwell's Be A Free Range Human
"Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don't need to escape from."
- Seth Godin



So goes one of the section-opening quotations of Marianne Cantwell's new book, and I'd say it gives you a fair sense of what you're in for. And if that one doesn't, there are others from sources as diverse as Mark Twain, Steve Jobs, John Locke (not the British empiricist – the conquering e-book hero), W.B. Yeats, Dolly Parton, and Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert). Cantwell's object is no less than reinventing work, and along with it life; and she brings very big guns to bear on, well, on the entire sprawling edifice of traditional employment.

I have to be honest and admit I was prepared to be annoyed by this book. I'm afraid anytime someone seems to be breezily pulling off what most us would like to do – in this case, achieving independence from traditional jobby jobs – we want there to be some catch: either a dirty trick up her sleeve, or at least some good reason to hate her. But, in fact, I dug this book and its author's voice, in virtually every section. It's a blast to read – witty, funny, and breezy, as well as grabby and well-organised with lots of mini-case studies and tips broken out – and profoundly insightful and most especially inspiring. Like Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Work Week (with which it will inevitably invite comparisons; and which invitation I take up below), even if you don't follow a single specific tip, it's probably worth reading just to massively expand your sense of the possible.

And possibility is powerful mojo.

As for the mini-case-studies, it's perhaps worth quoting one of them in full, and taken roughly at random, again if only to quickly share some of the flavour:

I used to be a school principal… Now I teach an online-college class, coach virtually via Skype, and recently became a Zumba instructor. For the past two years, I have lived in South America, Central America, Australia, South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. I return to the Midwest in the summers and drive around in my '99 convertible, visiting friends and family.

This fall, I will attend a writing festival in Bali, interview social entrepreneurs for a book I'm writing, volunteer at a girls' school in Cambodia, catch up with friends, chase the sun and check out Myanmar.

Can your life be this thrummingly fabulous? Perhaps not. Is it good for the soul, and one's sense of life's possibilities, to know someone has done this? Absolutely.

Cantwell defines free-ranging as a third, or middle, way between employment and high-risk entrepreneurship. It could be called "working independently" or "earning a living without a job" (which is also the title of a book she cites) or even just freelancing. To her great credit, Cantwell makes it clear from the outset that she is not providing a magic bullet for having a fabulous life and independent career – much less a get-rich quick scheme. Instead she's charting a new course where your work, and thence your life, can be about your talents and what you have to offer the world, and come from a place of passion.

As she winningly puts it: "You're not building a business, you're creating a life." Elsewhere she says that creating a model of work where you do what you love everyday, and that gives you the freedom to do other things on your terms, is a "vessel" that will travel with you wherever you want to go. (I'm paraphrasing rather liberally.)

I've long said that contracting is like having a permanent job except you work less and get paid more - not least because either one is going to drop you as soon as you're not needed. Cantwell expands this notion to free-ranging: "Employment," she says, "is the equivalent of being self-employed with only one client" - which "in a turbulent market is a very risky business."

She also points out that employment was not always the dominant model – prior to the Industrial Revolution, working on your own was totally respectable; but with the advent of factories, society needed cogs. The factory floor changed to the office, which was an improvement, but most of us are now just mental, rather than physical, cogs. It's been pointed out elsewhere that one of the soul-sucking things about work is its industrial, factory-line quality: humans get a great sense of accomplishment from completing a series of tasks to see something built. But, nowadays, most of us perform a single task, and if anything comes together at all, it is usually way down the assembly line and out of sight. Cantwell quotes another writer on the topic who suggests that free-ranging (or "ownwork") is a natural progression from slavery -> serfdom -> employment -> free-ranging. Yay, us.

But the author stops pulling her punches there, if she ever had been, and goes on to tell it like she sees it: jobs suck.

When you work in a job, "someone else has control of what you do, when you work, what you earn, what you work on, and when you are allowed to take a day off. You abdicate choice over what you do every day for most of your life."

She suggests that this is far too high price a pay – particularly when then are more options for opting out than ever before. So where to start?

"Start to think of how you'd like to add value to the world," she says, in a phrase that sounds well-honed in her career coaching sessions. "Consider what people come to you for help with already, and what they value about you."

Cantwell advocates taking up quick, cheap prototype projects rather than sitting around doing research for months or years. This allows aspiring free-rangers to see what things are actually like on the ground, not to mention finding out how they actually like doing the things they propose to do. She also eschews traditional business planning:

"If you want to educate people, don't sit around figuring out how many folders you might need next July. Instead, one evening after work, run a micro prototype project with 10 people."

When she lays out specifics for getting started, she makes it seem awfully viable; not least when she shows you how to go out and get something spun up for, literally, 100. Most small businesses fold because of high costs – like office space, and employees. Your free-range infrastructure: a laptop and a smartphone. End capital expenditures.

By temperament, Cantwell seems very big on support. For instance, she gives a lot of really compelling reasons why you're not lacking in experience, qualifications, youth, age, or the right CV, to go out and do something on your own that you love. She makes a good case that your true calling is probably to do with whatever you find easiest and most natural – and thus which you tend to discount the value of. But it is there one will find the real value you have to give to the world (and thus also get paid for.) As the man said, work is love made visible.

She explains why you don't have to have a totally original idea to get into business. As we know, most of the big hits in business turn out to be interesting retreads of somebody else's big ideas. (E.g. Windows <- Macintosh <- Xerox PARC, Facebook <- MySpace <- Friendster.) Plus, if someone else is already doing well with it, they've done the hard work of proving the existence of a market there, plus already gotten buyers used to paying for it. Your job: put your personal spin and style on the thing, and segment the larger market down to the perfect niche for you, and that you uniquely understand: "With a niche you rule the world." You also "attract customers you love being around." Win.

If you're like most people, i.e. have a job, right now you've probably got a lot of objections springing to mind. Cantwell takes on a lot of them preemptively. My favourite: "Do you want to throw away your career and become a weird, broke hippie?" Um – yes?

A propos that and nothing else, here are my two favourite single-serving snippets from the book:

"The only thing that will definitely not work out is doing nothing."

"If you want an amazing life you've got to give up the 'good enough' to get the great."

So: back finally to her 800lb gorilla of competition, Tim Ferriss. I'd say Cantwell is stronger on specifics, and broader in vision. In fact, she might be worth reading just for her wonderful deconstruction of Ferriss' core claim: that you need a steady revenue stream, which he calls a "muse," and it doesn't matter what, to allow you to do the things you want to do. ("With time and cash flow," he says, "all things are possible. Without them, nothing is.") The man has a point, but it's a little on the mercenary side. Cantwell vixenishly points out:

"Ferriss' own 'muse' was a sports supplement venture (*) and as he explains in his second book, improving how the body works is his biggest interest. He first got known for his approach to finding the most efficient way to get results: something he is passionate about doing every single day in his own life."

That's not mercenary, that's doing what you love! Ha, take that, dude. (Others who know Ferriss personally have pointed out that Mr. "4-Hour Work Week" is also a certified workaholic.)

One criticism of Cantwell might be that quite a lot of the free-range business models she describes – consulting and coaching services, teaching classes and seminars, writing a blog (optionally with advertising), selling digital download products – sound an awful lot like her business. They also don't sound like they're for everyone.

Relatedly, it's a little tricky to get around the fact that Cantwell basically escaped "the career-cage" by telling other people how to escape the career-cage. Like Ferriss, she's vulnerable to accusations of running a Ponzi scheme: we can't all escape our jobs by telling one another how to escape our jobs. But her advice is broad-ranging enough, and her personal examples applicable enough, and her enthusiasm and sincere good-will compelling enough, I think, to just slip this punch. She also occasionally strays too far into the effervescent for my particular taste, but that's aesthetics. And she does give her reasons for being unapologetically bubbly. Come to notice it, her tone and optimism are a little infectious – and perhaps ought to be.

So, at the moment, this book is tearing up the charts on Amazon.co.uk (and has a perfect 5-star average for reviews). Let's show it some love on Amazon.com. Entrepreneurship – never mind freedom and independence – are surely the original American love affairs. If they're yours too, this terrific book will go a long way toward helping you make your love visible.

"One life, baby," Cantwell exhorts us. Indeed.

Belated full disclosure: Marianne is a friend of mine. (I was even briefly spotted at the fabulous launch party in Soho, nom-noming vegan cupcakes…)
Marianne Cantwell writes in to correct the record on this count. In fact, she originally quit her job to take up first consulting in strategic marketing, which had been her original field; and then regular career coaching, in which she had a qualification. It was only after people kept asking her how she quit her job to work for herself did she start the Free Range Humans blog as a side project; and only when her clients starting requesting, in huge numbers, that she run a course on this topic that she did so.

DftRE regrets the error and the aspersion.

  book reviews     books     freedom     work  
about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE ASS, AND OTHER STORIES by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
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