I debated about whether or not I should write this post. The title and content inherently scream 'rant,' and that's truly not my jam. I don't want to eat up blog space with that sort of negative content, whining about whatever is bugging me the most in any given moment. There's plenty of that to go around already.
But feelings aside, it is objectively true that I run into a lot of professional obstacles because people simply don't understand what it's like to be self-employed, especially as a creative. In an effort to educate, be vulnerable, and explain some of my most frequent professional and personal decisions, I created the list that follows.
From my experience as a self-employed writer and career communication coach, these are the 5 most important and misunderstood realities of self-employment. These are the the most abused characteristics of my professional life, the things I so wish I could get you to grasp in our daily interactions as friends, family members, acquaintances, or strangers. I hope that the items listed will challenge your existing perspective on self-employed professionals, and help to improve your relationships with others who share my professional status.
5 Things You Should Understand About Self-Employment
1. Routine is vital, especially for creative work.
Being self-employed requires a great deal of self-discipline. I am CEO and worker bee, Marketing Director and Writer, HR Director and Finance Director. I am personally responsible for balancing every single aspect of my work, and as a result, I wear a bunch of different--and competing--hats on a daily basis.
On top of that, creative work has its own set of rules, and there are unique challenges that come along with it. The capacity for creative work comes from a different internal space than more straightforward tasks like running data in a spreadsheet, or drafting emails. The effort to produce creative work requires a crap-ton of intellectual and emotional fuel, especially at the beginning of a writing session. This was earth-shattering for me at the beginning of my writing journey. I was totally caught off-guard by the fact that creative work takes so much fuel.
Both of these issues--multiple hats and the nature of creative energy--are most easily managed by a consistent daily routine. I work from home, and am surrounded by my personal to-do list every time I get up to use the restroom or get a snack from the kitchen. I see errands that need to be run, and laundry that needs to be washed. Routine keeps me focused, productive, and more empowered to separate my professional and personal responsibilities.
When I wake up, I put on my CEO hat and tackle strategy for big-bucket priorities. For the next couple of hours, I put on my Consultant hat, making sure my clients' needs are met with excellence. If client work is slow, I put on my Marketing Director hat to develop communication plans, blog about my services, and share success stories. I do what I can to identify new clients, and reach out to new people whom I believe I can provide a meaningful service for.
After lunch, every single day, I put on my Writer hat. As much as I want to fight it because the work is challenging and vulnerable, I sit my butt in my office chair and make myself write. And at that time, every day, by body recognizes that it's time to write. The creative mind 'wakes up' and responds naturally. When I start writing at the same time every day, the hardest part is over, and the words flow freely. Some days are better than others, but the consistency of sitting down to write at the same time every day is huge.
Disruptions that seem minor--like a doctor's appointment at 1:30 PM--are anything but minor. Trying to write at a different time of day is like trying to push a semi truck uphill, by myself. The next day, when I have no disruptions, my body is not in its usual rhythm. It requires a great deal more effort to get the creative wheels turning, to 'reset the machine,' so to speak.
That effect is multiplied for larger routine disruptions like vacations. Being away for several days creates an avalanche of mental clutter that I have to clear out upon my return. On top of the time spent away from my desk, I lose a significant percentage of my returning productive time because it takes so much effort to reset the clock. It's true that commitments like doctor's appointments and vacations are inherently good things--of course they are! But that doesn't change the impact that these appointments have, so it is absolutely fair to name them as disruptions for my professional routine.
2. Professional self-worth is a constant challenge.
The world sends me constant messages that my work is invalid because I haven't sold a book yet, or don't make a certain amount of money each year. We'll explore that more in Item #4. But on top of that, there are little voices in my head while I serve my clients or work on my novel, whispering lies about my professional identity:
You have nothing important to say.
You aren't really helping anyone.
You will never finish this book.
You have no idea what you're doing.
Nobody will ever buy this.
You are a terrible writer.
You are wasting your time.
This is daily, people. Independent of anything you might say or do, I am already doubting my own professional self-worth. I have to fight the lies every day, and remind myself that the work I'm doing has a significant impact on the people I serve. I have to remind myself that writing touches lives in a way that is beautiful, and profoundly mysterious. It is a constant, uphill battle.
As hard as it is to admit, your requests for me to ditch work for a few hours, or hop on an airplane and leave for a few days aren't helping. These requests imply, however unintentionally, that my job isn't a real job, and that it isn't as valid or valuable as someone else's. I can pick up and leave whenever I want. Yes, it is technically true that there is flexibility in my situation. But is it right to stop working whenever I want, just because I technically can? Isn't it good to pursue work that matters, to commit myself professionally, to hold myself to a certain number of work days each year like everyone else?
This leads me right into my third point.
3. I am at the top of everyone's daytime help list.
This is absolutely the hardest point for me to share with you, because I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I WANT TO HELP! I hope you'll keep that in mind as I explain.
I get a constant stream of completely legitimate requests for my time, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. I am at the top of everyone's list, because I am flexible, technically available most of the time, and I don't have young children at home.
These requests span a variety of needs:
- Rides to the airport
- Hanging out at your house to meet contractors or deliveries
- Dropping you off at the auto shop, then taking you home, then bringing you back later
- Providing emotional support on a hard day
Well-meaning friends often ask me for my time during the day, frequently for a commitment spanning half a day of work including travel time. As I mentioned above, the hardest part is that I WANT TO HELP! The requests are coming from you, after all--a friend, a loved one, someone I desire to support and serve. But I also have a job, and these requests do--however unintentionally--imply that my work is less important than your current need. Where do I draw the line? At what point do I say 'no' to protect my professional self-worth, and when do I set my work aside to serve others?
This is a balancing act that I have yet to master. I have no idea how to get it down to a system without feeling like a selfish jerk most of the time. But for now, until I figure it out, I practice saying 'no' a lot. I say 'no' because I get too many of these requests, and I just can't manage them all. I say 'no' because routine is vital, and professional self-worth is a daily challenge. You may see a massive blank-spot in my schedule because I'm not accountable to a traditional supervisor, but that isn't the case. I'm accountable to myself, and to my work, just as much as anyone else is. My husband goes to an office every day and works his tail off so that I can stay home and do what I love. I have a responsibility to him, too, to honor his sacrifice and not waste the opportunity he gives me every day.
The best advice I can give you is to be specific--give me all of the details when you ask for my help, including the specific time range, why you need help, and what you expect of me. In the case of an emergency or extenuating circumstance, I'm more likely to say yes. But you have to tell me that's the case in order for me to know. I am not a mind reader, and I cannot meet every need that comes my way.
Don't stop asking for help because you've read this, but don't assume I'll say yes because I work from home, either. Identify some other people to rotate through when you have a daytime, weekday need. Maybe acknowledge that my work matters, and that you realize you're asking me to give up something more than just time.
Above all, know that I care about you and your families, even when I say 'no.'
4. Success isn't measured by annual salary.
On occasion, people literally laugh when I tell them what I do. Others are more subtle in their disapproval and skepticism. I've had people follow up with, "Are you successful?" This is code for "But do you make money, and if so, how much?" I mean, think about that for a second! Imagine meeting someone at a cocktail party. You ask what she does, and she says she's an accountant. Is your follow-up going to be "Okay, but how much money do you make?" How do you think that would feel, on her end? Would you consider that approach to be polite, or respectful of her as a professional?
I know that many people don't understand the reality of creative work, or the value of it at all. I understand that many people are accustomed to working a 9-5, getting a regular paycheck with benefits, and having a certain number of PTO days. Everything is neat, orderly, and data-centric. My work is admittedly different, but that does not make it less valuable. There is no valid reason to be suspicious or disapproving of my profession as a creative.
It all comes down to how we, as a culture, define and measure success. If you measure success by your paycheck, I'm so, so sorry. That is a narrow, shallow definition of success that leaves your professional self-worth and success dependent on the economic success of your employer. Instead, I try to define success more broadly--by the impact that I have on individual lives with my clients, and the future impact of the stories I write. I measure hours, effort, client satisfaction, and words on the page.
You may not believe me to be successful--fair enough. But I would ask that you consider why you feel that way. What is it that makes you so determined to measure someone's professional value in dollar signs? What truths do you believe about yourself, about the people around you? I invite you to explore your own perception of identity, and at the very least, to assume the best when you do not understand someone else's job. Ask questions, and be curious.
5. My work is just as challenging as yours, every day.
Though the schedule and individual components are radically different, self-employment is just as challenging as a 9-5. These challenges are consistently present, and they are 100% real.
Here's a quick summary of my greatest professional challenges, with some reiterations of the points above:
Doing my job every day, even though nobody is making me do it. When I'm tired, getting up early with no external accountability or appointments. Putting words on the page every day, even though I might never sell a book.
Saying 'no' to laundry and errands, and 'yes' to my work. Sticking to a schedule, because my work is valuable. Saying 'no' to friends during the day, because eventually I have to get something done. Working a full day, even if my husband comes home early from work.
Being alone most of the time, especially during the winter. Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder with the realities of working from home. Finding ways to be social and counter loneliness, without dramatically sacrificing my work time.
Understanding the realities of creative work, and how that energy is best fostered. Giving my creative mind what it needs in order to succeed. Being satisfied with 3 hours of creative work, because it takes a lot of fuel to make it happen. Balancing the reality of creativity with my desire to get a project done. Being patient as I learn to understand my creative self.
Refusing to believe that I am defined by dollar signs. Daily affirming that my work is valuable, no matter what the world says. Charging a fair rate for my coaching services, and having the guts to charge friends or family members.
Inconsistent Work Flow
Managing busy seasons of multiple clients, and adjusting to slower seasons. Identifying new clients, and maintaining a routine despite seasonal fluctuations. Setting goals when I can't predict how many clients I'll actually have. Budgeting for an unknown amount of work.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are challenges I'm not even aware of, or items I've forgotten to mention. The point isn't the specifics of each challenge, even--it's the fact that these challenges exist, and that they are significant. I'm not lazy, and I'm not sitting at home every day watching Netflix, even though I'm regularly tempted and able to do so.
My work is not a playground. Yes, my work is fun, and I love what I do! But it's still work, and it's still broken, just like more traditional jobs.
I hope these points are illuminating for you. I hope you learned something, and that you came away with an understanding of self-employment that you didn't have previously. That said, this is absolutely not universally applicable to every self-employed person in the world! Don't assume that my perspective is the same as someone's else's. Instead, ask questions, get to know your self-employed friends, and challenge your own assumptions about their work.
Above all, let your self-employed friends--especially the creatives--know how much you value their work. Remind them know that their work matters, and that it's freaking awesome that they get to pursue something like fiction, photography, or dance. We need to hear it. We need to know that there are people out there who don't think we're foolish dreamers, wasting time and wasting space.
We need people who are willing to read this blog post all the way through, who care enough to ask questions. Thanks for making it this far, my friend! If you have any follow-up thoughts or concerns, let me know in the comments below, or reach out directly.