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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Freelancer Mythbusting for People Who Hate Being Talked Down To



There's an upsetting trend online these days. Okay, there's several upsetting trends, but one of the big upsetting trends is listicles explaining why the demographic the author belongs to suffers more and is ultimately a bigger martyr than the people they're writing to. And I'm not talking about actual social commentary on actual injustice. That's a whole other jar of bees.

But you know the ones I mean. 'Ten things your freelancer friend wants you to know.' There are lots of things I want my friends to know, and lots of things my day-job friends say that really really grind me because they're said so earnestly and cheerfully. But similarly, I can't stand the tone of people who say 'No, everything you believe is wrong, we suffer hard.' If I suffered that hard, I'd be back in retail in a heartbeat.

I have friends who work retail, teaching jobs, medical jobs, are full-time stay-at-home parents... all across the board. I've worked in a few of those areas myself, and I would never venture to say 'This job is harder than all the others' or 'That job is more rewarding than all the others.' Each is hard. Each (hopefully) has its own rewards. Each also comes with a pile of misconceptions.

I want to add my voice to the list of people setting their friends straight about the nature of freelancing... but I want to do so without being condescending and while giving some credit to the true facets of the assumptions. So hopefully this is something you can bear with me on. And hopefully I can chill my 'tude long enough to make that happen.

OBSERVATION 1: 'You get to set your own hours.'

True, kind of. It's true that I wake up at 7 am every day, but the time I get out of bed could be anywhere between 7:05 and 8:30. That's partly because I can do a lot of work from my phone (when it comes to the social media side of things), so I can dash a few things off while I'm still under the warm blankets, but it also has to do with how awake I am in general. It's very true that, right now, there is no one who's going to yell my ear off if I'm not behind my desk at 8:00 exactly, and I do appreciate that.

However. With flexibility of hours comes two problems: potential complacency and assumed availability. In the former case, you're your own worst enemy. I've had plenty of periods of oversleeping, dragging my feet, and shooting myself in the foot because there's not a boss looming over me making sure I'm where I need to be at a certain time. And if you do that twice in a row, the cycle becomes hard to break, which makes you feel guilty and unaccomplished, which makes you hide in bed more.

Then there's assumed availability: the fact that, since you work from home and set your own hours, you'll be awake at 2 am when someone sends you urgent work. Or on a holiday. Or (so often in my case) on the one Monday you decided to sneak out and have a social life. And sadly, not every client is nice enough to understand that sometimes we just want to leave the house for a bit. This also goes the other way: friends assuming you're free when you've got a deadline tonight.

A TRUER OBSERVATION: 'You aren't tied to a 9-to-5.'

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OBSERVATION 2: 'You get to choose who you work with.'

True, kind of. If you get a commission from someone and they want you to do something you absolutely don't agree with -- some disgusting art, say, or writing copy for a group you personally oppose -- you have the freedom to say no. If you're approached by someone you know has a bad rep business-wise, you can say no. You can opt not to work with companies that oppose your beliefs or don't seem trustworthy, so you won't be locked into sitting down to work each day on something you despise.

However. The sad fact of the matter -- and something a lot of non-freelancers are fortunate to not witness -- is that freelance life involves a lot of low-level political intrigue. Sometimes you have to work for the guy you hate because he's friends with someone else you're in a contract with who's perfectly decent, and rocking the boat might cause a bigger loss. I know two freelancers who actually had to elope because if they didn't invite certain clients to their wedding, it could have endangered future job opportunities. Mature, intelligent businesspeople don't put you in those situations, but it's not always the mature and intelligent ones who have the money.

And, on a more basic level, sometimes work is just that dry and you've gotta do some serious BS to make ends meet.

A TRUER OBSERVATION: 'You have somewhat more control over who you work with.'

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OBSERVATION 3: 'You're doing your dream job.'

True, kind of. I'll admit, I'm much happier now that my day-to-day work involves largely writing, watching cartoons, and working for geek events. I much prefer that to turning over dry AP stories about election news, or making sandwiches, or ringing up purchases. I'm getting to use my talent and I don't despise what I'm doing day to day, and it makes me actually want to get out of bed. Hell, this morning I woke up excited to do a news story.

However. Not everyone gets to. Sometimes freelancing (especially early on) involves a slog. Writers edit and proofread. Artists design logos and birthday invitations. It's kind of like living in your 'dream home' but only having a basement room at the moment. You're there, but there's still a ways to go. And even people doing it properly have to struggle with financial issues. Because the fact is, we need money to keep the lights on. And while enjoyment of what you do is nice, if you don't make rent, loving your job isn't enough to keep the landlord from kicking you out.

A TRUER OBSERVATION: 'You have more opportunities to work within your wheelhouse.'

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OBSERVATION 4: 'You get to spend more time with your family.'

True, kind of. It's very true that, with the whole work-from-home thing, you're not as separated from your family. That's especially good for parents who feel they don't get to see their kids enough in the rush of work and school and errands.

However. Sometimes, one of two things can happen. Either you still miss them because you're working so hard (for example, I just moved back in with my grandfather and we cross paths maybe three times a day since I'm so busy working), or you start to see too much of them and wish for a little personal space. And then feel bad for wishing for that personal space, because what you wanted in the first place was more time with them. Not that this is a bad thing -- it's life. Sometimes you need peace and quiet -- from everyone -- to get your work done.

In the case of the former, it sort of hurts more: you find that it wasn't location keeping you from your family, it was the fact that you have to work in the first place. Which kinda sucks.

A TRUER OBSERVATION: 'You're in your family's general vicinity more regularly should you need them.'

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OBSERVATION 5: 'It must be nice being your own boss.'

True, kind of. Weighing up all of the above, it's definitely true that you're largely ruling your work day. You ultimately make your decisions. You weigh what's important. You may have some jerks to deal with on occasion, but what you do and how you do it is up to you. You're your own representative of your own brand, and you dictate your image to your clients.

However. Being your own boss means there's no HR department. It means filing quarterly taxes. Figuring out your own health care solutions. A lot of other madness that, if you were employed elsewhere, someone else would handle. The first year or two of handling your own affairs can be terrifying. Honestly, if there's one thing I miss from regular employment, it's someone else worrying about those things for me.

A TRUER OBSERVATION: 'It must be nice being able to represent yourself and your career as you choose.'

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THE FINAL OBSERVATION: 'I wish I could do what you do.'

I understand. And I used to get mad when people said this, but I don't anymore. Not really. Because part of what my professional images is is making it look easy. Yes, I talk to my friends about the rough parts of my job: periods of no work, difficult clients I have to work with whether I like it or not, jobs that are more demanding than they were first represented to be... But that isn't the face I present to the world daily. I genuinely do enjoy being a freelancer, and I could never go back to my day job.

But it's not for everyone. And that's not a judgment call at all.

Here's the thing: freelancing isn't for everyone. And that's not me saying 'It's only for ARTSY CREATIVE TYPES.' It's not more or less stress so much as a different brand of stress. For me, it's one I'm better able to cope with than a 9-to-5. I would sooner adapt to dry periods of work and scratching out extra commissions than the sort of stressors that came with office life or retail schedules.

The thing is, I've talked to plenty of people for whom that's not true. Sometimes the free-form nature and the uncertainty isn't worth the flexibility. And that's a matter of personality. Not worth, not talent. Just who you are and how you jam.

So am I saying you don't wish you were a freelancer? No. Not necessarily. But I am saying that being a freelancer, being your own boss, isn't a one-size-fits-all goal. For many, it's awesome. For others, it's a nightmare.

And, as an aside, sometimes saying we're 'living the dream' -- especially if you're unfortunate enough to have said it on a really stressful day -- can hit us negatively. That doesn't mean we hate the life; it just means sometimes it feels like it's being belittled as stress-free perfection. Some people really are jerks like that, yes. But when it comes to our friends, we do know better... it's just the words that kind of hit us hard at odd times.

So if you ever see one of those 'Things Your Freelancer Friends Want You to Know' article, know that it boils down to this:

We want you to know that we do love our freelance life. And we want you to know that we understand why you think that what we do is as free and easy as you seem to assume. We don't blame you for that at all -- honestly, we thought that way for a long time, too. Everyone does.

We (or at least the sensible among us) don't want to be seen as martyrs or suffering artistes or better than you. We just want to not feel shy or awkward about venting about work or turning down invitations when it seems to the world at large like we have no reason to do either.

And, you know, if you ever wanna bring us some pizza, that'd be awesome too.