Thinking about going freelance? It’s not as scary as you think. Here’s everything you need to know about making the leap into a new and wondrous world
In a pre-Covid era, when I told people I worked as a freelance digital editor, I got one of two responses:
“Ooh, do you get to work in your pyjamas all day long?”
“Wow, that’s so great – I wish I could do it”
To which I responded, “sadly not” and “you can!” Since then, a global pandemic has unfolded, and millions of people around the world joined me and fellow freelancers in working from home. Having tasted the delights of a different kind of work-life, many employees now want to continue with this renewed sense of flexibility, even as offices from London to New York and beyond open their doors once more.
This newfound appetite for freedom has surfaced in a number of trends, including the so-called “Great Resignation”, and a rise in co-working spaces that support the booming gig economy. Amid this global search for more balanced and meaningful careers, freelance work is emerging as an evermore attractive option – if also a daunting one.
I was scared, too, before I took the leap. But the truth is, there’s no magic skill to being self-employed. Much like learning to ski, or moving to a new country, you simply have to go ahead and do it before you can reap its many rewards. For those of you thinking of taking the freelance plunge, here’s a few things I discovered that I really never expected:
Your motivation goes through the roof
There’s a scene in the film Julie & Julia where Meryl Streep’s character joyfully leaps out of bed at 6am to go to her Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. I always wondered, “what kind of gig would make you feel like that?” The answer is: freelance.
I’ve always given 100% to any job I’ve had, but there’s something about being freelance that fires you up like never before. No-one is telling you what hours to work, or how to ace your latest performance review (surely the worst aspect of tired old office protocol).
Instead, YOU are your own driving force. If you don’t get out there and seize the work, no-one will do it for you. And that’s far more powerful than any external influence.
You work harder than before
Once upon a time, I wistfully imagined the freelance lifestyle as lazy afternoons spent watching Murder, She Wrote. There would be work, of course, but not without a healthy smattering of daytime TV and garden naps.
The truth is, I work harder now than before. Being freelance means giving it your all; but also on your own terms. In order to keep pace with demand, you may well work on weekends, bank holidays and evenings. Yeton the flip side, you can decide how you divide your time, resulting in a free Tuesday off, or a lie-in that no-one else has. You can combine work with holidays, too (although you may choose not to).
But you're never resentful
The biggest problem about working hard in a full-time job is that you blame other people for it. Someone – be it your boss, an inept manager or a colleague not pulling their weight – is responsible for your endless slog.
And that lack of autonomy is more crushing than the hours you actually put in. It casts a hefty toll.
When you’re freelance, you worker harder; but conversely, the weight of that work lessens. You, and you alone, take full responsibility for how much you have going on. Your entire mindset shifts.
You're far more focused at home
If I had a penny for the times someone said “but don’t you get distracted working from home?” I’d be chomping at Bill Gates’ heels by now.
First, let’s picture the riot of distractions in your average workplace. By the time you’ve leapfrogged the whole morning kitchen routine – the chit-chat, the morning smoothie, the polite tussles over the kettle – it can be a full hour before you actually settle in.
Then the rest of your day is poleaxed by a constant stream of questions, meetings, requests and office tunes you haven’t chosen. Little wonder the average worker wastes 60 hours a month in distractions.
Working from home, in contrast, offers unparalleled zen and focus. You just get on with stuff.
No commute is a beautiful thing
Let’s face it, starting the day with a commute is a real downer. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up; with podcasts, an organic espresso or a carefully curated playlist. Battling against an unwieldy transport system, typically when you’re nose-deep in someone else’s armpit, is not a formula for happiness.
Having run the gauntlet of a sweaty city commute, there is nothing like that giddy delight that comes with waking up and *strolling* to your desk, a mere room or so away. No alarm clocks, hassle or stress; instead, you have time and head space to warm up to your day.
Not everything about being freelance is easy, but this is one of its sweetest benefits. Relish it.
You learn to collaborate not compete
Even the best offices in the land have a layer of politics bubbling beneath them. And the effect of this is more corrosive than you might realise. You’re forever attuned to other peoples’ personalities and quirks. Inevitably, an air of competition prevails.
To begin with, I assumed most people would be guarded about their advice and contacts in a freelance world. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. When you transition to freelance, this emphasis moves to more of a collaborative vibe.
Whether you’re signed up to a freelance community on Facebook, or are part of a co-working space, other freelancers are more than happy to trade ideas and support.
It’s very much an open, inclusive sphere with the added advantage that if you find other people work, they’ll usually return the favour.
Loneliness isn't the big deal you imagine
Which brings us neatly to another freelance myth: going solo may be more focused, but it’s also isolating.
Again, this isn’t necessarily true. A lot of the time, you’re working alongside clients anyway, with different teams or managers. And if you do start to feel lonely, you can build support networks on your own terms.
When you’re based full-time in an open-plan office, you have no control over your working environment. But as a freelancer, you can stage-manage what kind of external stimulation works for you.
If you’re craving company, or simply the presence of other people, try co-working, or base yourself in a coffee shop for a few hours. Then, when you just need to get your head down, you can beat a retreat. It’s the perfect balance.
There's no room for complacency
Freelance is often cast as an unreliable work option. This absolutely isn’t true. That said, there’s never a point as a freelancer where you’re plain sailing, one hand on the wheel.
When you’re self-employed, you’re forever thinking ahead to your next creative challenge. Some people interpret this as an insecure way of life, but I prefer to think of it as an exciting one.
You have to move to the pitch and hurl of the freelance current. Adapt, pick up new skills, be tenacious. Do this, and you’re arguably in a better position than someone who’s comfortably coasting along full-time
The scariest thing is making the leap
I’m not saying freelance is a golden solution for everything. It will suit some people, others will hate it. And there are plenty of merits to working full-time with a company, too.
But the fact is, being freelance gets a bad rap that is often undeserved. It seems scary simply because it’s an unknown. People don’t know how it will play out, so they build it up as a huge risk. And often they stay frozen on the fence as a result, unable to commit.
The scariest thing about going freelance is taking that initial leap. You have to have faith that you can handle it. Your capacity to thrive and be resilient is greater than you’ll ever know without testing it. Sometimes, the timing won’t be right. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always find another solution. But first, you have to try.
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