If anybody needs to examine their relationship with work, it’s freelancers.
We have more opportunity to shape our lives the way we want (instead of squeezing life in around a career)…but we also have to avoid being exploited by clients or even entire niches that take advantage of independent work.
A big part of finding our place is a question of freelance strategy, but an even bigger part is personal.
Our personal relationship with the concept of work affects how we see ourselves, the risks we’ll take, the sacrifices we’ll make, even the level of abuse and mistreatment we’ll put up with or even praise in our careers. The work relationship question is why the talking point of “jobs” is such a central political talking point in the U.S. and why unemployment is so heavily stigmatized. It also ties back to slavery as a central reason for our places of existence, some of our issues resting, insisting on not being “outworked”, and the prevalence of grind culture.
Our relationship with work runs deep…through community, individuals, and our daily lives.
I’m asking you about your relationship with work here, but personally? I got a recent reminder that mine isn’t as healthy as I thought it was.
There could be reasons behind it…physical, spiritual, a pandemic…but lately I’ve fallen into some old habits — the worst ones I picked up in my 12 years of corporate life.
I can’t even say they caught me off guard. I felt the expected warnings creeping up behind me…thinking about work in off hours. Wanting to stay up later. Feeling like work was how I spent the majority of my time. Allowing myself to get dragged into last minute calls and unnecessarily extended meetings.
I could blame a lot of things…stress from the pandemic or politics. Onboarding too many new clients at one time…not being vigilant about finding ways to replace things I enjoy in the age of COVID…most of it came to a lack of intentionality.
But the worse part was defaulting to thinking I could handle it. That I should be able to handle it. Now I just look back and ask myself, Why?
What is it about enduring work is so important to me that, after spending seven years building a life that’s more open, free, and enjoyable, I wasn’t sent into immediate panic mode when those old thought patterns clawed their way back to the surface?
If I’m being honest…they were comfortable. Not the end result, but the habits themselves…they felt familiar. Which makes sense…they’ve been with me for the vast majority of my life.
A few years of freedom doesn’t undo decades of programming. Not without some vigilance. But that’s why I want to start talking more about how we relate to work…because most of us, myself obviously included, are not coming from a healthy place.
And as freelancers, if we don’t examine that, we’ll drag the same mindsets and behavior into our employer-independent work.
It’s an Identity Problem
It’s easy to look at the state of people in employment and think our issues with work all go back to employers…yes, people are Dying for a Paycheck, and corporations and businesses are the primary beneficiaries, but it’s not just employment.
If you know any entrepreneurs or indie workers, you know they can be just as overworked and burnt out as anybody else. It’s true for Tiffany Haddish, Beyonce, and Meghan Markle. It’s true for manga artists. It’s true for freelancers.
I’m at the point where I believe that most of us in the modern world, by the time we make it to adulthood, our relationship with work is dysfunctional. Dysfunction is the default…and most of the world thinks that completely normal.
Of course, in the west, America especially (white cultural spaces even more especially) will center your career as early as an introduction…and there’s the problem. Identity.
When we have little identity outside what we produce, who employs us, or a title…well, then we’re left navigating the rest of our lives in a state of extreme vulnerability. Entertainment (most consumption really) becomes reactionary. Education becomes a means to an external end. Rest becomes optional. Relationships are filtered through gatekeeper of career. All the things that make us the most human get sidelined.
But I’m not saying anything new.
That’s what’s most frightening to me. As much as I believe in the power of backing away from employer dependence, I know that the problem has roots so deep that freelancing alone won’t fix it.
I know the steps I’ve taken. Giving up formal career aspirations. Walking away from promotions, attention, and elevation in an organization. Taking on a martial art that I had no real hope of even being very good at and joining communities where a job was one of the least common topics of conversation.
…and it’s still hard.
All it takes is a whiff of “success” or a slight unbalancing in my environment to default to old habits…but I do see some scraps of value lying around.
If I didn’t know before that this was lifelong work, I definitely do now. Not just for myself, but for everyone around me. I think we all need to take a step back and examine our relationship with work…not just “not being defined by a job” but a hard look at the space it takes up in our time, relationships, and how we see ourselves.
That’s the kind of work that doesn’t happen alone, and I think freelancers especially are beautifully positioned to step out as leaders in this area. But it won’t happen if we aren’t intentional. If we don’t know how to say “enough”, or walk away from exploitative niches…we’ll just end up going along with the same flow that’s shortening lives, chipping away at relationships, and tearing down communities.
It’s strange, but it’s one of the few things I’m hopeful for in this pandemic. Most people are going to run back to their normal as soon as they see an opening. A lot of people already have. But some of us are looking at downtime and distance and seeing it as an opportunity to rethink what we want our freelance businesses to do for our lives.
If you want to talk it out, come by the community.