Are you cut out for this?
It’s a conversation I have a lot. Strangers can’t believe it’s possible to work at home without becoming a TV-addicted housecoat-wearing sloth whose best friends are the women of The View.
What I really want to say to them is this: Working at home is the least of it. Freelancing is much more than getting out of your jim-jams, showering and sitting at your computer by 9am (but that helps!). Freelancing is seeking out clients, keeping clients happy, managing finances, schmoozing, cold calling, panicking when there’s no work, panicking when there’s too much work and being on your game every godforsaken day you work.
As Dawn, my bff (best freelancer friend), wrote me last week in one of our many cathartic exchanges: freelancing is not for wusses. True. But still, not much can compare to the gratification of living by your wits.
Are you cut out for it? Read on to learn whether this life of perpetual angst is right for you:
You got cushion.
When I was nine, I had a well-worn bankbook. It was well worn because I stood in mile-long lineups to deposit five dollars at a time. What a thrill, though, seeing my balance rise – even in teeny increments. I’m still like that. But my compulsive saving habits have allowed me to freelance.
This is not to say you need a huge bank account to freelance, or even that you have to start early, but you need a cushion, and that means saving a little bit when times aren’t so good and a lot when times are great.
Cushion size varies with your degree of anxiety. Ideally, for me, that’s living expenses for six months.
Without a cushion, you’re too worried about money to think rationally about how to charge or about the quality of work you take on. You can’t walk away when Dr. Jekyll turns to Mr. Hyde, which, it seems to me, is the whole point of freelancing.
A cushion keeps you honest. A cushion keeps you respectable. A cushion keeps you from crazy.
You have authority issues. What of it?
A. You work on a ship. The captain is going too fast. The captain is going too slow. The captain treats the crew poorly. The captain withholds compliments when you’ve swabbed the decked so nicely. The captain has some unresolved issues from middle school. Clearly, you should be captain.
B. You’ve been hired by the ship to swab the decks. The captain has good judgment. The captain runs a tight ship. The captain thinks fondly of you when she sees the lovely gleam. Definitely, the captain will tell other captains about your prowess with a mop.
Same ship, same captain, same deck, same mop. But in B, the freelancing scenario, the captain has no authority over you. Without an imbalance of power, your attitude changes – and so does the captain’s. And you’re not spending your life on a ship that someone else is steering. You’re hopping from ship to ship in a direction of your own choosing.
Oh, and some control issues, too.
As a freelancer, you decide how long your day is. You decide how hard you work and how much work you can handle. You decide how neat your office is and how much vacation time you take.
You are in control of the quality of work you do and the circumstances in which you work. And all that is glorious.
Trouble is, you are a tyrant. You’re pissed at you if you’re not at your desk by nine. You make yourself work weekends. You pay yourself a pittance and you never let yourself buy the cool toys the rest of the kids have.
Control freakishness is not such bad thing when you’re a freelancer, as long as you remember balance. Your bigger challenge is more likely to be cutting yourself slack, lavishing on self-praise, and ensuring you get the rest and relaxation you need.
You feel Darwin.
Alaskan cruise. Whiter teeth. Praise from mom. Plump paycheque. Obsequious staff. Impressive title. Sexy snowmobile.
We all have our motivations – the things and feelings that propel us forward through the day, even though the day holds unpleasant tasks. The difference for a freelancer is that much of what keeps you going is primal.
You want white teeth and a snowmobile too, but you know you can’t have those things if you don’t get another gig. To get that gig, you have to ace this one.
Survival isn’t a fleeting concern – something that crosses your mind when you read a scary headline – it’s in your face all day long. The more you tap into that primal instinct to feed your family, the better you perform. The better you perform the more likely you are to ride a fancy snowmobile and flash pearly whites.
You bob and weave.
You have a cushion, desire to take the helm of your life, an ability to manage yourself and a primal need to succeed. (Not to mention all that businessy stuff, like good contacts.) You’re ready to go, go, GO.
But even if there’s an initial flurry of activity, you’ll eventually have to wait, wait, WAIT. You have to learn how to manage your time when no one’s cracking a whip. Working like a dog when you’re busy is the easy part. It’s the long workless weeks that will test your mettle.
Over the course of my career there have been times when I’ve been without work for a month or even two. Thanks to my cushion, I’ve never run screaming into the arms of The Man. I fill my down time seeking out new work with cold calls and emails, or I clean out my filing cabinet and spruce up my portfolio.
But I don’t just work. I used to spend slow days with my retired grandparents watching General Hospital and happily eating stale cookies. Nowadays I go on field trips with my son’s class and take classes at UofT.
Trust that the work will come back and it will. Fill the downtime well, and you’ll be living the dream.
A lot to digest, right? And dig this: We haven’t even spoken of the most important thing of all – work!
But hush. I’ve said too much. Have I scared you away or upset your apple cart of dreams? Let us regroup once you’ve had a chance to decide if you were meant for the freelance life. And then, maybe then, we can hold hands and go to the dark place together. Maybe then we can talk about… Finding clients.