The Sine Wave Of Sweat Equity

January 09, 2020

My brother called me earlier today, asking me how my latest job search was going (I’m a contractor, so I’m between jobs a lot). Not that well, I told him quite honestly. It’s been a while since my last role. I got married over the summer, spent almost three months abroad, and got back just before the holidays started up. I’ve had a little work to keep me busy that whole time, but it hasn’t been not enough to stay in the black.

I thought it would be easy to just jump back in the flow and pick some work back up. I’d never had a problem before. I’d also never taken as long of a break from both paid work and public contributions.*

* It was also the holidays, so that may have had something to do with it, but I still think this anecdotal analogy rings true.

Naturally, my brother wondered why I hadn’t found another contract yet. I’d been thinking about this a lot, so I had an answer front-of-mind. It had to do with a sine wave, I said.

This is what a sine wave looks like:

sine wave

The above picture is actually of three different sine waves, shown by different dashing patterns.

Let’s say the solid line represents the work you spend building your network, making open source contributions, writing blog posts, etc. Public contributions. And let’s say the dotted one represents the amount of people contacting you for work. (And let’s actually completely ignore the dashed line, as it’s not really relevant.)

When I’m not doing contract work, I have plenty of time to make open source contributions, mentor other people, and experiment and learn on my own time. I’m also not making any money, but that’s fine. It’s good to have a break once in a while.

More importantly, this kind of work (writing a blog, working on OSS, etc.) is sweat equity. It helps other people more than it helps you, and so it sets you up for success in the future. You build relationships, contacts, spread your name around in the community. And the more sweat equity you contribute, the more you gain from it ultimately, thanks to the nature compound interest.

“Compound interest is the eigth wonder of the world. He that understands it, earns it. He that doesn’t, pays it.” – attributed to Einstein

Looking at the chart, every time the dotted line representing the amount of paid work I’m doing goes up, that solid line takes a dip shortly after. It’s usually because I’m spending all of my time doing that private, paid work.

And when I stop doing that private, paid work, and start up again with the public contributions, that solid line climbs, shortly after the dashed one has plummeted.

This is the analogy, then: when I’m doing paid work, I don’t have time to make public contributions. When I make contributions in sweat equity to my future, it’s usually because I’m not making any paid work.

The trick of it, and the general advice in this post, is to try to get both of those waves to climb simultaneously. To find order (not balance) in both making public contributions and in taking enough private work to keep the lights on.

If you can do that, you’ll be in a really good place. Even if neither wave makes it quite as high together as one might alone, you’ll be much more stable, more prolific, and probably happier too.

Oh, and why was I having a hard time finding work? When I was abroad, I was neither making money at the time or keeping my “brand awareness” up. So there was kind of a gap. I’m fixing that at the moment by writing blog posts like this one, doing talks, organizing a meetup, etc., and I have no doubt that soon enough a job will come along and I’ll be climbing the peak of that dashed line once more. But hopefully this time, I’ll also keep up the solid line too.

Make sure you’re working for the now, but also invest in sweat equity at the same time.