The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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(This is a slightly more scripted version of last night’s talk at Glug Leeds‘ career clinic for students and newcomers to freelancing.)

I’m told you’re here to find out what it’s really like to be a freelancer. That’s a fair question but I think we can go one better, Leeds. So I’ve done what we in the creative industry call ‘reimagining the brief’ and I think this is a much more accurate version of what I’m going to talk about tonight:

Slide reads 'why freelancing 378% better than being a salary-enslaved corporate drone, smashing your head against a desk for stimulation and waiting for the next poo to turn up'.

So as you can see, what I’m about to say is going to be perfectly balanced and completely impartial.

This story begins about eight years ago, late one afternoon in a meeting room. I say meeting room, it was more like a gas chamber, filled with coffee breath and farts. And suffocating in this room was a younger, more jaded and apathetic me. My employer and I had this agreement: they’d pay me money to sit in the same place five days a week and tell me what to do, and I’d moan about sitting in the same place being told what to do five days a week, then spend their money on shiny crap I didn’t really need in a vain attempt to buy happiness. You get the picture.

Anyway, halfway through this three hour meeting. Yes, that’s right: three hours, one of my colleagues piped up with the following stellar phrase:

“And that’s why we need to synergize thought-ownership and concentrate on realisation of those hard and soft benefits so we can gain linkage between the two and experience flow.”

Upon hearing this, I looked around the room and every other soulless corporate drone just nodded in perfect agreement, as if what he’d just said wasn’t complete and utter bollocks. It was then that I knew something had to be done. Because at the root of nearly every human problem is miscommunication, and our poisonous addiction to overcomplicating things that are really quite simple.

That was my turning point. That was when I knew enough was enough. I quit my job and went freelance as a copywriter, on a mission to help people say what they really mean. I’ve always been good with words and get off on playing with them so I thought I’d give it a try.

So the question I put to you tonight is: what presses your buttons? What really winds you up about the way the world is? How can you fix it? What do you stand for? What do you want out of life? What makes you happy? Big questions, I know, but ask them because so many people don’t, let alone get around to answering them. They’re content to just drift along without a vision of what they really want out of life. But you, you’re smarter than that aren’t you Leeds? Explore the answers and you’ll find your true calling in life, and freelancing is how you do it.

Right, back to the original question: what’s it really like to freelance? As luck would have it I wrote a book all about this called ‘The Human Freelancer’. Now don’t worry, I’m not about to do anything pretentious like a public reading of my favourite excerpts. I thought I’d do something a bit different and let the book speak for itself. So I ran it through a word cloud generator which analyses the frequency of words and this is what came out. Pretty accurate I think:

Word cloud with 'fear' at the centre

Although cake, whale sex and vomit are important topics, the theme most relevant tonight is fear. If you let it, fear will smother you under what you think is a safety blanket; a safe yet unfulfilling job – then one day you’ll wake up in your mid-forties with a load of debt and a fat partner you don’t really love. Fear for me is letting people down, for other people it’s feeling like you’re unqualified to freelance. For others it’s getting your prices wrong or not being able to find enough work, not being able to pay your rent, being kicked out onto the streets – letting strangers fiddle with your junk for money, smoking crack then being dragged out of the Leeds Liverpool canal wearing nothing but a flamingo suit. You laugh but these fears and unhelpful imaginings will haunt you if you don’t tackle them head-on.

I really don’t want to scare you off here. I want to give you an idea of what it’s really like to freelance. It can be lonely and very tough. When you’ve printed your business cards and built that website, the phone won’t ring for a long time because no one really cares and it’s all too easy to give up. I know, I’ve been there. I’ve sat about twiddling my thumbs feeling like a bit of a fraud.

Girl looking nervously at a ringing telephone

But what about when the phone does ring?

Well here’s a typical day: I’ll get a call out of the blue from someone who’s heard about me and likes what I do. They’ll invite me to collaborate with them, I get to learn something new, make new friends, then write about it (or photograph it). When it’s finished they pay me money, tell me how pleased they are then ask me to work with them in the future and tell all their colleagues.

You get to do awesome jobs like this one I did for Ecology Building Society – photographing sustainable eco-buildings, meeting the people who live in them, eating free pizza and travelling to beautiful, remote, parts of Scotland and Devon.

Then you get other jobs which are total shit. Like this one I did for a well-known regional development agency who basically wanted me to write what I was told – really dull corporate bollocks about economic growth targets, it was essentially an open invitation for huge multinational tax-dodgers to come and gang-rape Leeds. I got so stressed and poorly doing that job. It was awful.

There’s a reason I chose these two examples, because it’s only during the highs and lows that you learn stuff about yourself. Yes, full-time salaried employment provides ample opportunities to get depressed and ill, but it lacks the variety and freedom, as well as the highs that freelancing brings. This is what I mean by the spiritual side of freelancing – because living a fulfilling life is all about new experiences and going outside your comfort zone.

Remember, freelancing is a way of life. Full of variety, empowered personal growth. And best of all you’re in control. Everything you do is your choice, not just in your free time, in your day job, every day.

Your job role changes too – that idea you’ve got in your head right now about what it is you might do: it’ll be radically different a few years from now, I guarantee. Getting fatter and picking up your salary every month isn’t living. New challenges everyday on your own terms is.

I’ve noticed that there’s a certain kind of person who takes to freelancing more naturally, because they have certain traits that help them do well. That’s not to say everyone else will be a failure, it just means that some people will have an easier time making that transition into becoming a freelancer.

The type of person to whom freelancing will come more naturally tends to be quite independent. They’re free-thinkers which is probably why they never quite get on with authority figures, especially if they think they can do a better job than their boss. They’ll quite happily get on with things in their own time because they’re organised and can motivate themselves to do things. When they make a promise they stick to it because they hate letting people down – they’re very honest and principled. People sometimes say they’re the type of person who could turn their hand to anything, whether it’s computers, baking, DIY – whatever they just seem to be quite handy.

My wife told me off for writing something as prescriptive as this because she thought, “oh you’ll crush their dreams if you tell them they’re not fit for freelancing.” What I’m trying to say is that freelancing isn’t for everyone and some people are more natural at it than others. But don’t worry if this doesn’t sound exactly like you – I’ve met some real arseholes who do quite well for themselves so there’s hope for you yet.

I thought I’d leave you with some advice that’s actually useful, instead of all this motivational speaking crap I keep spouting. So here are a few tips to help you get started.

  • ALWAYS DO A GOOD, HONEST JOB: because what goes around comes around.
  • Write, talk positively about what you learned: blog and reflect.
  • DO FRIENDLY FAVOURS: good people remember, no matter how long ago you helped them.
  • Know your limits, know yourself: listen to that little voice.
  • THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS THE RIGHT PRICE: everything depends on the specifics of a job.
  • Relax, something always turns up: work-wise, after a year or two of getting yourself out there.
  • THERE’S NO SHAME IN SMALL: in the clients you work with, and you don’t have to grow into a studio
  • No one really knows what they’re doing, we’re all just making it up as we go along: I’m no expert, no one is – your way is as valid as anyone else’s.

One final bit of reassuring advice that freelancing is undoubtedly the best career for self-starting, creative individuals…

Yorkshire is a great place to do business, especially Leeds with its incredibly diverse economy that’s ridden out storm after storm. If I’m right (and I think I am); trust, honesty and plain-speaking underpin just about every healthy transaction that happens. And it’s hard to name anywhere else in the world where those things are in such abundance. We’re ambitious and proud people here – and you absorb those values whether you’re from here or not (and I’m not by the way). But we also know what real value is and when enough’s enough – and with capitalism and all its excesses in the state they are now – I think that’ll bode well for our future here.

Manifesto of the Human Freelancer movement

Finally, if it wasn’t already obvious, I don’t take things too seriously. Here’s why. This manifesto is what it’s all about and it’s the vision behind The Human Freelancer book. This whole ‘work-life balance’ thing doesn’t really exist. There’s just life, and a fulfilling career is a huge part of that, so why be miserable? Like everything, getting started is the hardest part. So try a little navel-gazing, make your mind up then throw yourself into it. The rest takes care of itself.

The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

Buy it now