Apr 9, 2011

How to live the freelance life

A few weeks ago I was invited to a panel at my alma mater, King's College. The panel was called "The Freelance Life," and I was asked to speak to the final year journalism students along with two other great local freelancers, Lola Augustine Brown and Chris Benjamin.

Kim Pittaway, who is herself a freelancer, is teaching the magazine workshop at King's, and she organized the panel. Kim asked us to speak for a few minutes about ourselves, and to offer the students some pros, cons, and advice. I've been freelancing for three and some years now, and I am probably the closest to the students in terms of age and life experience.

I decided it would be easiest to start with the cons, dispense some advice, and then follow up with the pros (because surely, to do it the other way around would be just too depressing). Here's more or less what I said.

Cons
Freelancing can be lonely, and full of fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. Those things all start crowding in on you when you are sitting at home, doing the work to GET work, and you don't have any certainty of work tomorrow, the next day, or next week. There really is fear involved - fear of failure, fear that you won't ever get work, fear that you are useless at life and you should just go do something more productive, like work in a bank or something. If you can't deal with that fear, you aren't meant to be a freelancer.

Advice
The best advice I was ever given was from another freelancer. She said, "Reduce your costs." Learn to live cheaply - if that means learning to cook, giving up your iPhone, or getting a roommate, then you'd better do it. While you're at it, get your finances in order, because the one thing you do not want is to have financial problems hanging over you when the fear, uncertainty and doubt kicks in. Financial fears will just compound with work fears, and you'll be paralyzed. At the very beginning, you'll want a part-time job with some flexibility, so that you can be financially stable while you build up your freelance network. Start a website, because it's your top marketing tool to show people what you've got. But don't let anyone tell you that you cannot make money doing this. People ask me all the time if I actually make a living. I want to reply, "Do I look dead yet?" (I don't, of course...) It's not easy and I don't make a huge amount from freelancing, but I do make my living entirely on what I write, and each year gets better.

Pros
Ahh, and now the pros. They might seem small and puny compared to the raft of problems detailed above, but believe me, this is a good life, and that's why Lola, Chris, and I chose it. You will never have to do something that you don't believe in or think is worthwhile. The great pro of freelancing is that you overcome the fear and doubt, and once you learn how to do that, it's a very empowering feeling. Lola made the interesting point that some of her friends who had jobs in publishing companies faced cutbacks during the recession, and there was a climate of fear in their offices. Having a "regular job" is not a guarantee that you won't have fear in your life. I think in this sense freelancers have the head start, because they have learned to take their fear in little doses, and in that way they become strong enough to deal with an otherwise lethal dose. I really believe that if you can do this job, you can do anything.

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