Hate your job? Try Grindhopping

You have to love a book with the subtitle: “build a rewarding career without paying your dues.”

Sound impossible? It’s not. In fact, it’s done all the time, increasingly by those in their 20s and mid-30s, as Laura Vanderkam explains in her book, Grindhopping.

This book (and this review) is written for young people, but after reading the book I’m convinced many middle-age folks could benefit from its inspiration.

I ran across Laura Vanderkam from an article she wrote in Reason magazine, so I knew she was a competent writer with a libertarian edge. Her book is subversive, bold, entrepreneurial, cocky; traits sure to annoy some.

Here’s how she defines Grindhopping: 1. Hopping out of the corporate grind and into the work you want. 2. Building a rewarding career without paying your dues.

She—and the young people she profiles throughout the book—loathe what she calls the face-time culture. She mentions Best Buy’s Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), reviewed herein, which labels the phenomena “presenteeism.”

Whatever you label it, the problem is it has nothing to do with results or value generated by today’s knowledge workers. The metrics used to evaluate, promote and pay people just don’t matter (billable hours anyone?). As Laura explains in her first chapter:

When the boss says you have to come to work so he can “manage” you, you show up—even if all that commuting just guarantees that you’ll be in one place where you can e-mail and call people in other places.

Laura calls the new economy the Craig’s List Economy, describing how you can do projects listed on Craig’s List for a given amount of money. I prefer Peter Drucker’s term, knowledge economy. The name doesn’t matter as much the fact that the digital revolution has leveled the playing field for knowledge workers, and I would add women interested in having a business and a family—Laura calls them mompreneurs.

Grindhoppers live by a different set of career rules, according to Laura:

  1. Always be your own boss.

  2. Know where you’re going.
  3. Recalculate risk.
  4. Think projects, not jobs.
  5. Seek to be judged on results (and deliver them).
  6. Everything is negotiable.
  7. Cultivate a network and a nimble mind.

Grindhoppers invert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, putting self-actualization first—before certainty and security. How do you discover what you want really want to do? Here are three questions the book suggests you need to ask yourself:

  1. Who needs or wants what I love to do and do well?

  2. Why do they need it?
  3. What’s a low-cost way I could start offering it to them and get paid quickly?

The book profiles many interesting Grindhoppers who have launched very innovative businesses based on doing things people have a real passion for.

I know it’s cliche to say do what you love and the money will follow. In fact, I’m not sure it’s true. It could be just as true to say do what makes money and the love will follow.

But there is no doubt that if you have a deep abiding passion for something, you will throw yourself into it, constantly strive to learn everything about it, how to improve it, become better at it, all the while it won’t feel like your working.

But what about the risk? You have student, car, home loans, credit card debt, new living expenses. And what about health insurance? This latter question is certainly overblown (see ehealthinsurance.com). Do you really want to stay in a job you hate because they pay $3432 for your health insurance?

Here’s how Laura suggests you put risk in context. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the worst that can happen if I don’t take the hard way?

  • What is the worst that can happen if I do?
  • Is the worst that can happen if I stretch myself really all that bad?
  • What is the upside of taking this risk?
  • What can I do to hedge against the downside?

One of the answers to the last question is to have six months of living expenses in the bank. That should be plenty of time to see if you can make a go of it on your own.

Laura’s advice is very realistic on what it takes to be your own boss. The fact is, you are your boss, meaning that it takes enormous self-discipline, more akin to scaling a cliff rather than climbing a sturdy ladder.

I particularly liked her rule #5, Seek to be judged on results. Many people don’t want to be judged on results, which is why they thrive in an environment where politics and presenteeism account for more than results and value created.

But results is an excellent leveler for an up-start, since you’re not going to be able to compete based on years of experience, size, global reach, or fancy headquarters.

None of that matters if you can blow people away with excellent results that offer a great value.

It’s obvious this lifestyle is not for everyone, perhaps only 1 in 100. But if you are, or have, been thinking about leaving your grind and getting into something you love doing, this book is an excellent primer.

If you are middle-aged and thinking of a change, I think you’d also find the book inspiring.

For instance, it tells of Brian Kurth, who launched an Oregon-based company in 2004 called Vocation Vacations, which enables you (for a price) to spend a few days test-driving your dream job, from actor to winemaker. Most of Kurth’s customers are baby boomers.

When do you know it’s ok to quit your job and pursue your passion? Laura thinks this is the wrong question, since you will never be secure enough, sort of like having children.

If you’ve been paralyzed by that question, there’s probably more inspiration in a pink slip than a promotion, but two better questions might be:

  • What type of life do you want?

  • What price are you willing to pay to achieve it?

I’ll admit that Laura’s advice is risky. But profit comes from risk. If you hate your job, you’re going to have to take a risk to change your life. The world doesn’t owe you a living.

And what’s the worst that could happen? You fail and have to go back to the grind.

But if you follow Laura’s advice and emulate the traits of the people she profiles, you’ll increase your chances of success dramatically.

Then you’ll move from Grasshopper to Grindhopper.

For more information visit Laura Vanderkam’s Web site.


  1. If you are even thinking about doing your own thing, then it’s time. I started my own solo law practice at the beginning of 2008 and I’ve never been happier or more engaged with the practice of law. I spent a little (not a lot) of time preparing, but you can stand by the side of the pool and think about what will happen once you are in the water, or you can just dive in and deal with what happens. My preparation was the equivalent of making sure that the water was deep enough to dive in, and that I could swim.

    I’ve met more people and made more connections (and have had more fun) in the seven months that I have had my own practice than in the seven years that I worked in law firms. I feel that I am a much better and more successful attorney now.

    “The time for planning has passed. There is now only action, and reaction.”

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