Everyone has their basement. That secluded place you withdraw to when everything gets a bit much. Somewhere you feel safe, where things are controlled and predictable.
Mine is quite literally a subterranean lair of power-tools and perpetual construction beneath my house. Yours might be wild uplands, or the bottom of a pint glass.
We all need to retreat then reemerge from our basements from time-to-time, but when you spend most (if not all) of your time there shying away from the real-world – that’s when things become a problem.
I’ve been skulking around in my dark little hole for well over a year. And if at any point you dared enter to enquire about my prospects, I’d have told you that freelancing was dead to me.
Yes: dead to me.
A way of life I’ve devoted over a decade to, written a book about, and eulogised on ad infinitum at guest-speaking spots.
So what went wrong?
For the record, I haven’t been exploring the leathery delights of S&M down there. Honestly. As solo hobbies go, it’s a sticky one to master.
No, my reasons were more sanitary than that. To put it bluntly, freelancing stagnated.
Any freelancer in a rut will know what I mean – work was OK and broadly in-line with my principles, but it felt rather like a day job. I felt unchallenged creatively, and my work had little purpose or direction.
Freelancing lost meaning and with it, my place in the world. Discontent soon manifest, as polarised thinking and bitter cynicism (a really great hobby to get into, alone). That made it difficult to relate to the world, especially marketing – an industry I’ve kept at arms-length throughout my entire career as a copywriter, which seemed dominated by the vain and manipulative.
Unpredictably for an isolated loner in a damp hole, work opportunities dried up too. That’ll be the millenials and their stupid gig-economy though, not apathy dissuading me from getting out there and finding the kind of people I want to work with.
In a nutshell, alone, the things that make you you, or in this case, me me – an over-analytical mind, a desire for problems to be solved, amplified and conspired against me, for simple want of the right kind of creative challenges and people around me.
Staring up at pavement level, ball-gag in mouth, the basement-dwelling freelancer sees the heels of passersby go merrily about their business – robbing and poisoning people and planet. The drones found their place in the rat-race – so why can’t (or should) I?
In our basements, it really does seem like everyone else is getting on, and you’re left behind, tinkering with your metaphorical hammer and nails. No matter though – look! Another shelf needs putting up, and there’s a bit of electrical work to procrastinate over. As long as you’re distracted in your basement, everything’s fine.
That’s until two of the four horsemen of the freelance apocalypse – penury and misery, come a-knocking with credit card bills in their gauntlets.
Clawing your way back out
When we withdraw to our basements – or wherever your surrogate womb is, we’re seeking respite from the world – and that’s fine, temporarily.
I’d jettisoned workaday clients and planned to mull over a career change in teaching while I was down in the basement. What actually happened was classic avoidance behaviour, projecting my restlessness and indecision onto things I could control – bits of wood, pipes and the gimp.
In our basements we live goal-free, consequence-free existences, instead of facing up to the monumental challenge of getting out there, engaging with the world and experimenting with our values.
One other thing – let’s not shy away from the fact that mental health underpins all this. Anxiety and depression (the remaining horsemen) are never far away when you’re blessed/cursed with a creative mind. Without goals and purpose to direct your energy, aimless activity very soon becomes an exercise in acquainting your head with the internal decor of your rectum.
Here aren’t the answers
Now, at our conclusion, I feel compelled to offer guidance, but I’m not sure it’s ready yet. Plus I’ve only just shook off the horsemen and I’ve a terrible rash still from all that latex.
What I am fairly certain of though, is that solutions are always there within you – lurking at the bottom of your toolbox, somewhere beneath the screws and spanners. They just need rooting out. In my own stubborn way I’m figuring this out on my own terms, others join a course, seek therapy or the patience of loved ones.
Perhaps it’s impending middle age, but meaning and legacy are a recurrent theme for me these last few years. I’m reading more about the Why, and books like Ikigai and Man’s Search For Meaning. All point to taking meaningful action – meeting life through the lens of your values, surrendering to higher purpose in the service of others.
Frustratingly, at one point I had most of this, some ten years ago when I first went freelance, but it’s easy to lose your way if you don’t remind yourself why you’re doing what you do, remain focused on your goals and connected to people, every single day. I still believe freelancing is the right vehicle for those who crave autonomy, but it’s a pointless journey without passengers and places to enjoy along the way.
As for the basement, I still retreat there for half a day’s tinkering at a time. It’s just who I am. The challenge I’ve avoided down there lies in drawing parallels amongst these seemingly obscure, disparate interests, proclivities and experiences that are your life – and harnessing them for the benefit of others, to forge a sustainable living.
I’m still working on that last bit; I’ll write again when I know more. In the meantime, that gimp won’t wire himself up to the sockets…
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