As soon as I went freelance, I bought a hole punch. I imagined that I would be punching my way through paperwork with a newfound efficiency, filing and organising the Business of Me, my desk lined with Muji folders of documents and plans. I would work with the productivity of the Industrial Revolution, but with the aesthetic and philosophy of Marie Kondo.
I’ve used that hole punch twice. The hole punch hasn’t been the only example of freelance expectations proving wildly misplaced since I gave up a full-time job, with sick and holiday pay, just over 12 months ago. The last year has proved to me that this self-employed and flexible-working economy that we hear so much about isn’t quite the flat white, side-hustle, “be your best you” dream that Instagram wants you to believe. You can buy all the hole punches in the world, but it doesn’t mean that freelance life is waiting patiently for you to tidily file it away.
There are many, many things I love about freelancing, but there are also things that are really hard. In some ways, it’s like any job – there are pros and cons. But I feel there are also myths and inconsistencies around the image of being a freelancer – many that I once held myself – and I’d like to set some of those things straight. I learned so much in such a short tim, so, if you’re thinking of making the leap in 2019, here’s some (very) honest advice.
One of the best things about freelancing is quitting the political office BS. All that emotional energy you spend on making sure X doesn’t explode or Y doesn’t start crying or Z feels supported evaporates. It’s just you and your work now. And that’s ace. But, just as you’re basking in the glory of the simple transaction of money for work, without the psychological agony of a difficult colleague, it occurs to you that you no longer only have one job. You have dozens of them.
You might think my job, for example, is to write words. But, now, my job is to hunt down people who might want some words written for them, to attend events outside of normal working hours where those people might be lurking and chase invoices. When you have a full-time job in an office, your work is waiting for you every morning, like the biscuits and the post. When you’re freelance, finding the work is half the job.
You might think my job, for example, is to write words. But, now, my job is to hunt down people who might want some words written for them
And that brings me to the hustle. I am categorically bad at it. And that’s another one of your roles: you’re not just the new business lead, you’re head of PR and marketing, too. I’d go so far as to say that, if you are a successful hustler, that’s just as important as whatever it is you are selling. Personally, for me, a lot of this comes down to confidence. Telling the world you are a) there and b) brilliant rests on some steely grit that tramples on self-doubt and gets off on the feeling of throwing yourself out of a plane – except the plane, in this instance, is your inbox and you’re firing off emails into the ether, terrified of how and where they might land. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed a single second of the last 12 months when I’ve had to sell myself. But I’m learning a new skill and recognising the power of it.
Taking on 18 new roles by yourself, however, is mostly about mindset and motivation. When no one is expecting you in at 9am, then what time, exactly, should you set your alarm for? Successful freelancing – I have learned the hard way – is about discipline, a positive outlook and curating an exceptionally thick skin. If you can still be at your desk when pitches are routinely ignored, emails unanswered as standard and your main activity seems to be chasing payment or updating your brutal pitching spreadsheet with even more “no”s (which I colour-code red), you can start to wonder if being your own boss is more of a nightmare than a dream.
Not least, when you run to the toxic embrace of social media only to see peers congratulating themselves on their brilliant careers (freelance social media has two camps: the brutally honest folk in their pyjamas and those who treat the internet as one giant CV). But, if you can plough through all that, remember you didn't have to get a Tube or train, know that Tuesday afternoon can be spent on an empty beach with your mum and that you never have to give a single penny to Pret again, it can be mind over matter. Like any gruelling, competitive sport, it’s all in your head.
Learning to live with rejection, constantly pushing yourself into uncomfortable positions and having to beg to be paid can all be manageable when the reward is so much bigger. Every commission, every bit of work and every sum of money that lands in my account feels like a very personal achievement, a slice of success. And because it’s been so hard (and often lonely), when it comes off it feels more real and valuable.
More than any praise a boss ever gave me is the knowledge that I’ve gone out and made my own money entirely off my own back. I have a co-working desk space, I have business cards and I know I can work till 1am when I need to, or go the gym at 4pm if I want to. I do believe that there is a new way of working out there. But, let me tell you, it’s hard. It’s really hard. And it will take much more than just a new hole punch.