Freelancing Teaches you how to Work

When survival depends on creativity

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

Struggling isn’t glamorous but it does teach you how to work.

When basic human needs like food and shelter are at stake, overcoming adversity isn’t as much a choice as an urgent necessity. You do whatever you have to do to get by, keep a roof over your head and some food in the pantry.

In America, many of us work extended days or even more than one job to cover basic necessities. Struggle is our everyday life, our routine, our normal.

Even though freelancers are technically self-employed and juggle clients and assignments rather than part-time and full-time jobs, our life is often precarious too.

For example, the bulk of my income at the moment is based on the audience engagement model rather than the usual set fee offered by media outlets.

If I’m so exhausted I collapse and sleep for 15 hours straight after spending almost 24 hours on planes and in airports, engagement dips and it takes me several days to rev up momentum again.

Being chained to your laptop is hardly the recipe for a balanced life, certainly not when you end up sacrificing sleep, but I’m far from the only one in this situation.

Although I’m a journalist, I made the conscious and informed decision to embrace this kind of work as there were no barriers to getting started right away. Most importantly, payment lands at the end of the month like clockwork.

That’s not the case with traditional publishers who can dillydally until they finally cut you a check if they haven’t lost your invoice before then. On one occasion, it took a magazine an entire year to pay me for an editorial translation. I was living in the UK at the time where mentioning money isn’t the done thing. So I didn’t. And waited. And waited. And then sent them a tentative, apologetic email.

On another occasion, the national public media broadcaster I worked for didn’t pay me for an entire year because Portugal was going through a brutal financial crisis.

Since then, I’ve tried not to leave remuneration out of work-related discussions even though I still cringe.

This is cultural: I was brought up in France where talking about money is about as churlish as it is in the UK, and even though I am a US citizen I’ll likely never co-opt America’s love of bragging about how much one has and makes.

One the one hand, I have little and my income remains modest. On the other, I can’t imagine why I would gloat about my income even if circumstances changed.

Perhaps because I’m so European and hail from a continent where we put people first, I still don’t believe money bestows any kind of moral superiority or extra humanity on those who have it.

Or that those who have little or none are lesser beings.

When time is the only resource you have, you soon learn how to maximize it.

Because I’ve been living out of a suitcase called home for the last nine months, I seldom send out pitches.

The time spent hawking an idea can be spent writing words that pay instead so that’s what I do. Because I’m in Europe so I can be present for my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer, I don’t have the luxury of time anymore.

Free time is what happens when I’m on the Paris métro, in a car, sitting on the toilet, or asleep — I work from everywhere else.

Please do not let the ever-changing geographical coordinates fool you. I’m a so-called digital nomad again but there’s nothing enviable about my situation as living out of a suitcase can be a little discombobulating after nine months.

And yet, I make it work because needs must. Whether in the Pacific Northwest, in France, in Portugal, or in the Netherlands, I hunker down and write.

For example, I spent over six weeks in Amsterdam over the summer and I can count outings that weren’t related to grocery shopping on the fingers on one hand and still have some spare. In that time, I went for just one meandering walk around the city center but only because my friends made me. It became clear to them I was so overwhelmed I needed an immediate change of scenery else I’d probably have self-combusted.

In the absence of any safety net, I’ve had to become my own safety net because I lived on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

For five years, I was completely incapacitated by major depressive disorder and therefore unable to earn an income or pay for health care. This catapulted my household into near indigence. Even though my husband was employed, the absence of a second income was sorely felt.

When you live paycheck to paycheck, there are no savings, there is no money for medical co-pays, there is no room for any extras or emergencies like a dying relative half-way across the world.

We juggled bills and were always behind on many of them. What’s more, we lived in constant fear of something somewhere going drastically wrong, wronger.

If you were to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m right at the bottom. That doesn’t stop me from shooting for the pointy top and longing for the day when I will once again feel I’ve done a decent job. For all the hours I put in, let’s just say that I’m a long, long way from giving myself a pat on the back.

Instead, I’m locked into a slow, awkward waltz with imposter syndrome and we keep stepping on each other’s toes.

And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s nothing aspirational — or indeed inspirational — about being sick, broke, and left to fend for yourself.

Thankfully, all humans are hardwired for survival, even chronic depressives like me.

Many of the things that keep me going are the same that keep other cash-strapped folks going: There are other people who need me to be functional.

But I’m uncommonly lucky as writing has always been my vocation. With vocation, work never feels like a chore and it’s never boring.

What’s more, my work was both portable and flexible, which has been a blessing as I was able to fit it around my family and their schedule without asking anyone for permission. As the reality of my stepmom’s illness became more and more complex, my work allowed me to be as responsive as required without losing my job.

I can’t imagine many US employers would have held my hand throughout this ordeal so I held my own until it became clear I wouldn’t return to the US to live.

I’m now based out of the Netherlands and ready to re-enter regular employment.

Contrary to popular opinion, not all freelancers are self-employed by choice.

For my part, I’d have much preferred the security of being under contract doing remote or in-person work, but my situation was so dire I had to dive in at the deep end, embrace the first thing I found, and find a way to make it work.

Not that being self-employed doesn’t mean not having anyone breathing down your neck: I’m the most unforgiving, relentless, and exacting boss I’ve ever had, a proverbial pain in the backside.

Many freelancers will tell you the same thing.

Because we’re only accountable to ourselves, we’re not ones to let ourselves down. Alas, when your livelihood intersects with vocation, this can translate into not knowing when to stop and eventually running yourself into the ground.

When you collapse, you get up again, dust yourself off, and get right back to it.

Our solid work ethics aren’t a productivity hack, they’re hard-earned through hardship and experience. Because we humans tend to embrace the path of least resistance, we seldom stretch ourselves unless we have to.

If you want a reliable, resourceful, and driven employee who will always go the extra mile, hire a former long-term freelancer.

Those of us who are intimately familiar with struggling are more likely to make the impossible happen and see solutions where others only see obstacles because this is our default mindset.

And our careers are living proof of this.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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