The Changing Workscape: A Stance on Freelance

Standard

Moving to new country is one way to force yourself to become a freelancer and small business owner. I catapulted myself to a new country once, long ago and far away, and having an in-demand skillset that was only really in demand on limited projects for limited times made me a shoo-in for the feast or famine world of freelancing. The timing made a lot of sense – technology had made possible a lot of the things in this realm – meaning I could keep clients I had cultivated even after I had started to bounce between Iceland and the US and later to other countries.

With services and websites, such as dedicated freelance platforms, oDesk, Elance, Microlancer, Guru, Peopleperhour and even general sites like Craigslist, and a variety of resources, including the Freelancers Union (one of the US’s fastest-growing labor organizations), and online networks, project management tools (like Basecamp, Trello) and blueprints and advice for helping put together a freelance plan, and even shared work spaces and incubator space, becoming a freelancer is easy. At least in theory – the tools are there, but no matter how good the tools, if you don’t have some crucial pieces of the puzzle, success is going to be a tougher thing to find.

A freelancer has to define what success means, which usually entails realizing that you’re doing two jobs – not just the freelance work you’re selling yourself to do – but also marketing and selling yourself, which takes a lot of time. You will network and introduce and offer up samples and shove your foot in all kinds of doors and keep it there even when there’s nothing for you there because there might be someday. Put your finger in a whole lot of pies – most of which you baked yourself to pile the sweet sugar right on in all the schmoozing and convincing you will devote yourself to doing!

In my own experience, freelancing might have been the only, or at least the early, route to success as a foreigner with a specific toolkit and work experience – but freelancing is also a competitive boon for women. Elance statistics show women outpacing men in freelance earnings. Apart from earnings, the online freelance marketplace seems to level the playing field, making merit and skill the most important factors in granting projects – giving women and men equal footing. The online freelance marketplace may not be “the great equalizer of the gender gap in tech” but it is one step in the right direction. All the talk about women struggling to be a part of the workforce, especially after having a family makes freelance options seem and feel like real options. (“As a working single person, I can only put myself in the position of a high-achieving mother frustrated by the options provided by the current work force. I can imagine, though, how frustrating it might be to have time to work but not the time when a traditional job wants me on the clock. I can imagine how frustrating it might be to have the skills and the drive and find the workplace unable to make use of them in the current structure.” Isn’t this the kind of argument I keep making about remote and virtual work?)

Self-employment is challenging, make no mistake. But it’s freeing and provides flexibility where the corporate world doesn’t. Set your own hours, set your own workload, set your own terms, pay and deadlines. And the corporate world actually has a growing need for this “contingent workforce”. It’s sort of win-win if you don’t want the full-time job with its demands and also do not need the benefits of having a full-time job – you and the company get what you want.

It’s all part of the whole changing, shifting palette of the economy. Markets seek to innovate and find ways to utilize talent and resources more effectively. Or maybe that is just the optimistic way to describe it. But, as an article in The Atlantic contends, the “gig economy” is the mainstream economy. The way we work, the jobs we take, our perception of how we will work and live our lives as employees – it is all in flux, in large part because people are starting to work independently and fitting work into their lives rather than fitting their lives into work. The article tells a story that makes the move to freelance sound like a revolution. To some extent, it is. “This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.”” Of course this fails to acknowledge that the people who choose to go into freelance are in a position to choose it. Even if it seems like there are few alternatives (for example, when I chose to move to another country), there are options. Plenty of people in the messed-up economy of the day don’t have the experience, skills, etc. to capitalize on this “revolution”.

I don’t have to be a freelancer anymore, but it is hard to let go of the networks and client relationships. It’s clear that in this kind of economy, you need to be ready for everything.

Ring It In – Happy New Year 2014

Standard

The new year is here. Isn’t it required to reflect on what the previous year held? I do this frequently enough in my near-quarterly letters/life soundtracks, but year-end reflections aren’t bad.

Last year someone kept trying to tell me that I am his port in a storm. The problem is that I don’t think he knows what that means. He is someone who gets himself into trouble – or at least into unwise, uncomfortable situations – and panics, and then wants to press the red button to eject and land safely in my port.

The other problem with this “boy crying wolf” thing is that it also takes advantage of me and my willingness to be, as he drunkenly put it once, “the easy option”. I am neither the port in anyone’s storm nor the easy option. I suppose this is in large part where all my cynicism comes from – especially in recent years. I always had the “consolation prize complex” but it grows worse as people actually, blatantly try to use me. I look at every interpersonal situation and ask, “What’s this person’s angle? What is s/he looking for?” I would in 2014 very much like to meet a person I can instinctively trust without questioning their every action and word. And dispense with those who do not fit these criteria.

To get away from this doubt and take a few steps back from the cynic who always steps out in front of the more understanding “real” and unfiltered me, I will have to cut out the existing influences that always leave me questioning. Some people cannot be trusted – on so many levels – and there are just certain elements that I don’t want in my life.

An extension of this is my approach to friendship. I have always considered myself a good but vulnerable friend – sometimes extending myself way too far for people who ultimately don’t care that much (or as much) about me. Friends, as much as I love and treasure them in the moment, do come and go. In earlier life, people were fickle; we all change and can’t cling to the past. It does not mean that I don’t miss some people from 20 years ago who have disappeared and become the types of people who do not exist online (thinking here of Terra – I came across the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” video and laughed, thinking about how she and I used to joke that she wanted to stick her tongue between Roland Gift’s crooked front teeth. Checking out the video again now, I am struck by how the other band members look like blokes who might work at a gas station or tax office). Memories.

I have become a lot better at letting go of the past, or so I imagine. But the “port in the storm” guy is evidence that I don’t completely let go even when it is the best thing for me.

Therefore, in 2014, I need to start thinking about what is really best for me in the long run. Not what fills a few hours of loneliness in the middle of a Saturday night, not lingering on things that are dead just because there is not something else to replace it. I need to devote that attention to the friendships that are very much alive and want the nourishment.

I would like to embrace sincerely the whole “age isn’t everything”/“you’re only as old as you feel” concept. I give it a lot of lip service, and I genuinely feel like other people at my age are still young but experienced – the best combination. But because I have been feeling like I was 72 since I was 8, I feel positively decrepit now. It does not help that my body has betrayed me in such underhanded and uncontrollable ways – in ways that are actually fairly devastating to me, even if in all the cliché ways. The healthiest thing I can do in 2014 is give up on dreams that are next to impossible – and even if they could be within reach, they come at far too high a price. I am happy with me and just have to be happy being only me, whether I feel 72, my actual age or 8.

On a related note, I came across a brief article on CraigConnects.org about things Craig Newmark did after the age of 35. There is a lot of emphasis placed on youth, especially in the world of fast-moving start-ups, as though only people under 35 are creative and risk-taking enough to put it all out on the line. But maybe other attributes matter more – I agreed with Newmark’s points about experience making a difference, and life’s greatest rewards coming when you accept and embrace who you are. I know that I am and always have been like a 72-year-old lady who bakes a lot of stuff, writes a lot of old-fashioned letters and postal cards and can be a nerdy librarian type with a head full of all kinds of references that no one needs. And I like it – I like me – like that.

Beyond this, I have written before about how it is never “too late”. Nothing is too late until you are dead – and if this year slapped me across the face in any way at all, it was to remind me that death comes suddenly, unexpectedly. We all know this in an abstract way. But most of us don’t confront it – with our young child or young wife snatched away from us without warning. It is a cliché to say that we should live our lives, each day, as though it is our last. It would also be irresponsible to advocate that kind of complete reckless abandon. But these sudden losses are cause to evaluate seriously each part of our lives. There are things we must do to get by, but for example, if you are miserable in your job – you have to find a path to get out. If you have a business idea, find a way to start it. If you always dreamt of getting a master’s degree in architecture, what’s stopping you? If moving to France was your dream, what steps can you take to move toward your Gallic future? I am fully aware that people have debts, obligations, family, legalities and a laundry list of other obstacles to doing whatever they want. But you can make almost anything happen if you really want it. It’s said that nothing worth doing is easy – and usually this is true. You can make a change.

As a woman for whom “change” is a mantra, I learned in 2013 that even if one can make a change – or a lot of changes – change is not always the answer. Make change judiciously. As I have written elsewhere, I made a lot of life changes, which were needed because I needed to get out of the complacent rut I had been in. But the changes I made were made more because they were the options I had in hand – not because they were the right choices or things that would make me happiest or most fulfilled. Important to note and remember – just because you make a change, regardless of how big it is, does not mean you cannot reverse it. Almost nothing is absolutely permanent, so you can always make another change. I try to advise people along these lines quite frequently because people are often paralyzed by fear, and fail to change as a result, too scared of things not working – possibly scared that they will work – or scared of the things that may change as a result of the first change. Indecision can kick your ass and drag you behind it. As long as you don’t decide, you are floating and never taking your life into your own hands.

I started this new year doing something out of character for me, and I think it is important to test your boundaries sometimes – even if you don’t enjoy it. It is the best way to find out how well you know yourself and sometimes whether you can grow and become more than you imagined. Life is, after all, about the experience, which includes both the good and the bad.

If you can, start every new year with a kiss. And finally, don’t settle for stale crumbs when you could have the whole cake.