5 Lessons from My One Year With a Social Enterprise

When I was an intern, I worked at a Fortune 100 company. It was all very new to me and I loved it. But I had to go back to university for my final year.

After I graduated, I started work at a Fortune 500 company. It was like family and I loved it. But I developed millennial itch, wanted to try new things and decided to leave.

Next on my journey was a Forbes Global 2000 company. It was like school for tough experiences and I loved it. But I wanted to pursue my passion so I eventually left too.

One year ago, I joined a social enterprise which might never get on any of those billion-dollar lists. It’s by far the smallest company I’ve ever worked for.

But I’m still there and I love it. Here are five lessons I’ve learned in my past one year with them.


1. You Will Struggle With Balance

A social enterprise prioritizes social work as much as profit. Whereas a for-profit company prioritizes profits/shareholder value/cash — then worries about giving back to the community, a social enterprise places equal value on both. However, it’s not a non-profit organization either. Social enterprises need to make money to be sustainable.

If your stereotypical for-profit company is Donald Trump, and your stereotypical non-profit is Mother Teresa — then your social enterprise is the Malaysian government: does a lot of good things for people (for free), still makes reasonable money, but sometimes gets confused as f*ck and ends up making weird decisions.

Because like all balancing acts in life — trying to balance priorities is challenging.

Coming from a for-profit background (plus the inherent stinginess within), I sometimes find it difficult to say Yes or No to opportunities that come our way.

“It’s not worth our time and effort, plus they’re offering so little. Why on earth would we do this project?”

“But think of the impact this would have for the community…”

It’d be a lot easier to make decisions if there was a single, fixed priority. But just as in life, I don’t think the “balance conundrum” ever goes away.

But I’ve learned the power of asking the difficult question: “Why am I really doing this?”


2. You Will Adjust Your Lifestyle

A while back, I wrote extensively about budgeting and living on half your salary. Well done Aaron — time to eat your words. Because to join the social enterprise, I took a huge pay cut, and had to adjust my lifestyle to match.

Of course it was difficult. But the past year has taught me it wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be.

What really helped was tracking my expenses and knowing exactly how much money I needed to be comfortable. Once my job offer matched the minimum figure, I knew that I’d be okay. It was just a matter of cutting out additional luxuries, and being disciplined. I don’t get to watch Liverpool FC play live anymore from my living room, but that’s probably good for my sanity.

It’s not that social enterprises can’t pay decent salaries, but the balance conundrum comes out again. Like — knowing how your company isn’t 100% profit driven — do you try to squeeze every cent out of salary negotiations? Or do you accept that your salary will likely never match your hedonistic for-profit days?

It also really helps if you have a partner/family who supports your choices, and can accept the “downgrade” in lifestyle.


Couple kissing in the park
Hint: Kissing in the park is FREE


3. Your Job Is Cooler Than Mine

There’s this myth out there in the working world. I like to call it career envytitis and it goes like this: “My job sucks, but <insert name here> ‘s work is so cool. If only I could…”

None of us are immune to career envytitis, but it seems like millennials are particularly prone to getting it. Maybe cause we’re glued to our phones and keep seeing Instagram stories of Natalie’s awesome-looking colleagues.

Of course, career envytitis fails the basic logic test. If everyone feels that someone else’s job is better — then where are all the good jobs? (I use the word job here loosely; it could mean running your own business too.)

It’s not that the world of careers and jobs is f*cked. It’s that as humans, we tend to magnify negative experiences. So when your boss scolds you for missing a deadline, suddenly you feel like the reincarnation of Hitler rules your office. And when you pick up your phone for comfort, there you have it again: Natalie in a sexy black dress, sipping a Margarita at the club, which her boss paid for. F*ck.

“My job sucks, but Natalie’s work is so cool. If only I could…”

A lot of times when I tell people that my work is to help develop youth, I see career envytitis start to develop in their eyes. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I believe most people actually want to contribute to society, and they get excited hearing about these kinds of jobs.

But I’m here to pop the bubble: It might sound cooler than your job, but it’s a lot of pain, hard work and long hours too. And you know how you feel about my job? Sometimes I feel exactly the same about yours too.

Just because you’re working for a good cause doesn’t mean the work will be easy. Just because you’re passionate about your work doesn’t mean you’ll love every single moment.


4. Love Is a Complicated Thing

Which brings me to my next point. I think everyone (secretly or openly) wants to love their job. Because then it wouldn’t feel like working, right?

I don’t think anyone should hate their job. But in our quest to find meaning, we may have also gone too far and over-romanticized the dream job.

My dream job actually looks like this: short working hours where I get to hang out with cool college students, great salary and benefits, absolute certainty in what I’m doing, and good-looking colleagues who offer me free shoulder massages.

But what I’ve discovered in the past year is a lot more complicated. Sometimes college students don’t listen to me because they have Simon Sinek on their phones, and Simon Sinek is cooler than me. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing — and I need to eat humble pie and learn from people 10 years younger than me. And sometimes I feel I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life.

(My colleague who offers me shoulder massages just left too. 🙁 )

I love my job; it might be as close to my dream as I’ll ever get. But a lot of times — I’m uncomfortable, uncertain and worried. A lot of times, I’m f*cking scared.

But if you think about it, isn’t that what love in the real world looks like? Anyone who’s in a long-term committed relationship will tell you the same thing. The fairytale happily-ever-after feeling doesn’t last. Instead, it’s hard work, dedication and commitment to making things work — even when you’re uncertain and feeling like shit.

Just because you love something doesn’t mean there won’t be suffering.

On the contrary: the more you care, the more it will hurt.


Girl with heart shapes everywhere
Thankfully, there are times when I feel like this too


5. You Don’t Need Permission

At dinner two nights ago, I sat beside a guy who studied software engineering. Today he’s an equity fund manager at an investment firm. I asked him about how he managed to get there, and he said: “I just decided to give it a try.”

Throughout my career journey, I’ve met countless individuals who have similarly interesting stories too. Like how we’re known as a training consultancy, but a few of my big bosses are actually engineers. And we even have an intern who’s a lawyer. We’re a diverse mix of personalities, qualifications and experiences; perhaps drawn together only by one shared vision: to help transform our nation.

So it doesn’t matter if your qualification says you’re a chartered accountant. If you want to say, contribute towards art literacy in underprivileged youth, and devote yourself to it — it’s possible.

One year ago, no one gave me permission to step into the world of Learning and Development. But when I asked Life the question, no one stopped me either. When I wanted to dive into this new world which I had absolutely no experience in, questions were asked — but still, Life gave me a chance.

And I’m still here.


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If there’s something you really want to do today, but for some reason haven’t been able to — maybe the biggest obstacles aren’t the external ones. Maybe it isn’t actually your boss, your family members or the industry that’s holding you back.

Maybe you’re still waiting for permission to do it.

But maybe you’re the only one who can give that permission.


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Read more about my work at Leaderonomics.com.

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