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Facing freelance fear for the future

When I started out freelance in October 2008, I knew setting up business for myself involved risk: “Will I be able to win clients? Will I survive? Am I better off with the security of employment for someone else?”

On day 1, I had a contract for 11 days work at 350 euros before VAT. Enough to pay the bills for the first month. But I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in November?”

I started the next month with the same (renewed) contract and some other new work . I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in January?”

Eventually, as I saw some stability, I managed to stop worrying too far in the future. (Today, for example, I know that I have enough work until February 2016.) I started to think the sky was the limit and wondered how far I could increase my revenue. I even congratulated myself on being able to take on so much and make it work. At that point, things became interesting and the fear changed form…

 

I would win more-and-more work and invoice more-and-more, but I started to feel the pressure of too much work. But I told myself  that this was “a luxury problem” .. I should be thankful the work is there. I was afraid to say “no”. If they asked for me, I had to make it happen. If I said “no”, it would all fall apart sometime later. This is how my work progressed…

revenue-worktime 1

Proudly, I would tell myself I was working and invoicing more-and-more and that business was great. But a look at the facts told me something was wrong:

  • I was working minimum 60 hours a week, every week
  • I was too tired to enjoy any of my non-work time
  • People said I was on the road to burn-out
  • I was making money, but I didn’t feel like I had any control
  • I worried constantly that if I said “no”, people would go away and I would lose that business in the future
  • I was “successful” on paper, but not happy

 

 

For a while, I held the course. It worked.

Then it didn’t. I couldn’t do it anymore.

 

The next year (2013), I had a “crash” and couldn’t work for a few months. When I went back to work, I struggled to deal with the commitments I had made prior to that. But I wouldn’t dare go back to those clients and say “I can’t do it”. That would be breaking a promise. And I had already let them down by the taking time off. So on I went. The yearly revenue went up even more despite the time off. And although the average work time went down on the year (due to my absence) my actual week looked even worse then ever.

 

I wondered if I had learnt anything, but in the back of my mind I had at least started to ask some good questions:

  • How can I call myself successful if I’m not happy or healthy? “Success” in terms of what?
  • How much of my life do I want to spend “working”?
  • What work do I WANT to be doing? If I was only doing what I liked most, what would it be?
  • How much money do I need to live how I want to live? Why would I need more than that?
  • If I say “No” to anything that doesnt fit the work I want, or anything unnecessary to meet a quarterly financial need, what could be the worst that might happen?

 

Not knowing all the answers was tough. It fueled the fear (“Don’t screw it up”). But I was past the point of no-return: Assumptions had to be tested to find a new balance.

 

Today, the graph has progressed on both measurements, most importantly the average weekly work-time:

revenue-worktime 2

 

Here’s what I learnt from my crash:

  • Its not healthy to consider success in terms of “more”. Success is achieving what you really want or need and no more. In terms of my revenue, I no longer think “Can I invoice more?” but rather “Do I now have enough?” If the answer is “yes”, I won’t take on any more work. I know that its possible in the short-term, but more work and more money is not the goal. For the years to follow, I have no intention at all to see those blue bars go up.
  • I now set “work-life balance” goals more in terms of “life” than “work”. What do I want to be doing with my time on Earth, both in and (now importantly) out of work time?  (The answer by the way is “having fun” and “relaxing”). I want to see those red bars go down even more. Or at least to consider that all “work” is “not work” (fun).
  • I made a decision on the financial worth of a day of my life. Here’s how: If I want to be doing 123 when I’m not working and I need XYZ euros to sustain that, how much do I need to earn while I AM working? And if I divide that by the maximum time I am willing to work, what is my required day-rate? This is a very different approach to “What did I used to invoice?”, “How much will they pay me?” or “What is the market price?”
  • Although previous experience made me think I knew how things worked, testing assumptions has proved me wrong. For example, when I clients came along, I tested the assumption of what they would be willing to pay for my time. That’s why the blue bar HAS still gone up.
  • I fired a few clients. Those who weren’t bringing me joy in my day-to-day interactions had to go, as did those who weren’t willing to pay for my time (life). Blue bar up; red bar down.
  • I started to say “No” trying to trust myself and the universe that it would all be OK.

 

The results in terms of finance and work-time are in the graph above, but the important results cannot be seen in numbers:

  • My time off work is spent sitting in the sun, playing with my kids, sleeping more and making music
  • This summer was the first in 7 years where I didn’t “fall over and die” from exhaustion in the first 2 weeks off
  • I have more focus in the jobs I take on and more fun day-to-day doing the work
  • I still have my annual 15 weeks holiday 🙂

 

“So, Dan, what’s your point?” I hear you ask? “Why write this?”

I guess for those that don’t need to hear this experience, there is nothing to learn. But if you are lost in your quest for freelance success, victim of your own ability to please your clients or worried that your work-life imbalance is not sustainable, maybe this is the point:

 

Be clear on what you want out of freelance life, focus on that in every interaction, test your assumptions and dare to take your cake and eat it.

 

But, in the words of some wise Chinese tourist-site manager…

chinese wisdom

 

Thanks for reading

D

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No more self-employed lazy guilt

As a self-employed person, I have a tendency to work, work, work. But right now, it’s 9.15am and I still haven’t “done anything”. Is this bad?

Well, first of all: It is not true. Having gotten up at 6.30, I packed my kids off to school, spent 45 minutes exercising and have since been reading “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel whilst eating a healthy breakfast that I enjoyed taking the time to prepare. So I have done something.

But let’s pretend that I had just rolled over in bed, left the family to it and done nothing but sleep. Yesterday, I only did a 2-hour coaching session and I just spent all of July and August on holiday. That doesn’t sound like doing much. Is that OK? Is that what self-employed people do?

Last week, I read an article about the morning rituals of awesome entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey or Mr Branson. Up at 5.30. Sport. Meditation. Family etc.. Inspired by that this morning, I thought I should probably now sit down and seriously meditate on my top 3 priority business objectives for the day, week and year to come. I should make plans for new services or products, improved efficiency and more profit. That’s what successful business types do in the morning, right?

But quite frankly, I can’t be bothered. I don’t need to do anything. Tomorrow and Friday I’ll be delivering training all day, my revenue-winning calendar is as fully-booked as I’d like it to be and I don’t have anything hanging over my head. Except the “self-employed-lazy-guilt”, that is.

And then the phone rings. Is it a new client calling to ask me if I’m available for training next Wednesday? What will I say? Strictly speaking, I’ll only be lazing around doing nothing but fuelling my own pleasure. Will I be able to say “No”? Can I tell the truth? Or should I say I’m fully-booked? What if he takes a day off himself and sees me at the cinema at 11am? Or running in the park? Where will I hide?

Or maybe it’s my mother, calling to tell me I’m a lazy freelancer and I can’t possibly expect to be successful if I just hang-around doing nothing when work could be done.  “Everybody has to work”. “You can’t expect to just take random days off in the week. Your father could never do that.” Or even worse: “Don’t say ‘No’ to work now. You never know if you’ll still have more next year. You’re lucky people ask you. You should say ‘Yes’.”

Fortunately, it’s an unknown number. The stuff of voicemail. I don’t answer it. Today, I am calling all the shots. As I was promised when I read “Freelancing for Dummies” all those years ago, it would be great if I could do whatever I want whenever I want. If I chose to work for myself, it’s because I thought I could be a better boss to myself than anyone else. Well, I want a boss who loves my happiness more than the cash, productive hours or time-filling. Who is happy with achieving targets and going home early. Correction: Who doesn’t even call it “early” because that implies some form of 9-to-5 ritual just for the sake of it. 

For the new season ahead, my boss is going to tell me take it as easy as possible. “The clients are satisfied and so should you be. And even if they aren’t, you can’t please everyone all the time.” Relax. It’s not lazy. It’s awesomely efficient, minimum effective dose. It’s long-term sustainable, more rounded and balanced. You deserve it. Not because you worked so hard before, but just because you deserve it. Full stop.

So go lay on the grass for a while.. 

The Surprising Lie About Motivation ?

In the new world of work, we are (supposedly) all free, all mobile, all connected. But is it really true?

In his book “Drive”, the author Dan Pink tells us “the surprising truth about motivation”: What really gets us up in the morning is not capitalistic benefits packages, but a search for purpose, mastery and autonomy. Gone are the days of my grandmother dragging herself to a factory to scrape a penny together to survive. Now that we have everything we need we can work on what is important to us, to develop ourselves and because we want to. This is motivation 3.0.

 

But is it truly so awesome that IT professionals working for a ROWE company can punctuate their programming work with surf sessions on a beach in Thailand? Or is it rather absolutely bloody terrible that when they take a holiday the other side of the world, they can’t stop thinking about their jobs and never switch off? Addicted to their iPhone (laptop, iPad) and mobile internet-based you-can-work-anywhere-anytime work ethic, they work in their “free time” to avoid Information Deprivation Disorder.

 

And many “engaged” American white collar (no collar?) workers today work far more than they ever did before: The amount of work required to survive a week in medieval times has not at all been replaced in the 21st century by Tim Ferris’ best-selling notion of the  “4-Hour Work Week”. And despite office conditions being more ergonomic, open-spaced, ping-pong-table friendly, more and more workers suffer from burnout, depression and stress.

Fashionable HR gurus like Nigel Marsh continue to talk about work-life balance, the need for “engagement” and the joy of working from home. I train new leaders on the same topics. But has our quality of life actually improved or is it just work propaganda that has everyone has “sold” (including the people in HR closing the sale)?

 

In her book “Get Real: How to see through the hype, spin and lies of modern life”, author Eliane Glaser tells us that much of what we are asked to believe about our wonderful life today is actually some form of covert ideology. This “soft power” is designed to get us to believe that we, the people, are doing better. But in reality, the invisible hand pushing many of these modern models of freedom of choice and people-power simply aims to reinforce the same kinds of class-control that have always existed: Politicians who are supposed to “listen to the people” outsource market-research sessions with their “customers” in order to find better ways to tell them whatever they want to hear, whilst they continue to eat 5-course meals in Harvard and Eton; the Britain’s Got Talent “everyone can succeed” dream of Susan Boyle hitting the big-time conceals the fact that the majority of people are watching this dream at home on a credit-paid oversized TV, no better off than they ever were before. Regardless of what policies may or may not actually be implemented by our politicians and regardless of the inability of the majority to rise above the mundane, we continue to believe that we actually have a say and can all become famous.

 

When it comes to new forms of motivation for work, Eliane Glaser suggests that whilst we are encouraged to want it more-and-more, work actually gives us less-and-less. Work seems more purposeful (yet relaxed) but its concealed demands are greater than ever.

 

I interviewed Eliane Glaser recently to get an in-depth look at this idea and find out if it’s true that I work 60 hours a week because I’ve been sold a lie, or if we really can find purpose and enjoyment at work…

—–

DAN: What made you start thinking that this new motivation story was not all it seemed to be?

ELIANE: According to ‘Motivation 3.0’ as I believe it’s called, we are no longer wage slaves oppressed by authoritarian bosses, but we now work because we want to, because it fulfills us. We don’t just work to live, we live to work. The new language of management – and, incidentally, of marketing – is all about ‘engagement’, ‘two-way conversations’, and authenticity. Workplaces offer free food and drink and install ‘break-out’ or ‘chill-out’ areas with bean-bags and table football. But, as I argue in my book, I believe that this funky, pseudo-spiritual language of empowerment really masks a new power-grab by employers and financial elites more generally. In an age where people are working longer hours than ever before, where union rights are being eroded, where job security is diminishing and wags are stagnating, this rhetoric about fulfillment and ownership functions as a kind of fig-leaf or window-dressing for what’s really going on. And in many work sectors, for example creative and journalistic work, there’s a new notion that you don’t just work for money, you work ‘for the love of it’, as if working for money is some narrow, materialistic endeavour. The internet is awash with utopian promises of freedom, democratisation and empowerment for ordinary people, but if you are not paid for your work, you simply cannot afford to do it, unless you are lucky enough to be independently wealthy. Which is not very egalitarian after all.

 

 

DAN: You say that we now “live to work”. I remember when it used to be fashionable to say exactly the opposite: Work was ONLY about what it could give you outside – more partying, more holidays, more “stuff”… Surely if we’ve all been “sold” something else, we must have been ready to buy it? What is it in the working population that made us ready to switch to “the engagement ideal”? 

ELIANE: I think that we all have a desire and a need for community, camaraderie, and meaningful individual and shared goals. Employers have realised that if these desires and needs can be situated in the workplace, this will result in greater investment by employees. By offering on-site free food, social events, social spaces, and away-days etc, corporations and other employers encourage workers to find what they need at work. Furthermore, opportunities for social and community participation and idealism outside of the workplace have declined: there are fewer opportunities for civic and community engagement, or contact with networks of neighbours or extended family. The rise of new technologies, commuting, consumer culture, and long working hours themselves – all these developments are eroding the opportunities for finding satisfaction and meaning outside work.

 

DAN: In your book, you talk about politicians who no longer talk honestly and openly about their own ideals, oil giants who position themselves as “green” and mass-produced brands who pretend to be artisanal and ethical. What would you say to the readers who brush off your ideas as cynical and simply “anti-establishment”?

ELIANE: I think there is an assumption that cynicism and optimism are opposed; that to be cynical is not to be constructive. But I think that questioning belief-systems and being critical is an underrated activity. By critiquing the deceptions and illusions in our politics and culture we can start to see things as they really are and start to influence things in a real way. So actually I am pretty optimistic, because I believe that by pushing concealed agendas out in the open, we can start to have a proper explicit debate about the kind of world we want to live in. I’m not sure that I’m anti-establishment, but I am critical of the elites in our society that unfairly monopolise power and resources. The gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless in our societies is getting ever wider. It’s also ironic that those elites regularly adopt anti-establishment language themselves – for example that ‘radical’ Yahoo slogan: ‘The internet is under new management: Yours’ and the funky T-Mobile ‘flash-mob dance-athon’ ad campaign. Big corporations and political leaders are exploiting anti-establishment imagery in order to claim that they are not themselves the establishment.

 

 

DAN: Back to motivation: The evolution of motivation/work seems to have gone from “get up and do what you need to do to live” (caveman) to “do it for someone else, provided they give you enough pay” (basic “carrot” work model) to “do what gives you a sense of purpose, autonomy and freedom, whilst getting paid for it” (“motivation 3.0”, the subject of this interview). What do you see as the next trend in motivation/work? How will things change in the future?

ELIANE: I’m quite pessimistic about work in the future, in the sense that I think there are big changes ahead and that existing ways of doing things are going to break down. In the age of austerity and economic contraction, unemployment is high and job prospects are poor. Those management values of motivation 3.0 are increasingly being applied in the low-pay, low-status sector: in call-centres and vast dehumanised Amazon warehouses. Our pay is stagnating and our job security is being eroded, but the management language is getting more and more focused on “fulfillment”. This is creating a kind of tragic irony. The other big change that’s happening is that a great deal of professional and creative work, like journalism and writing, is going online, and those workers are not being paid for their work. They are supposed to produce their creative or journalistic work for the love of it. This I regard as a really corrosive trend, because fulfillment is increasingly regarded not as a counterpart to pay, but as a replacement for it.

eliane glaser

 

Eliane Glaser is a writer for the Guardian and others, BBC producer, associate research fellow at Birkbeck and the author of “Get Real: How to see through the hype, spin and lies of modern life” which is published by Fourth Estate. She is based in London, UK and you can read see her press cuttings here: http://elianeglaser.blogspot.co.uk/p/press-cuttings.html

 

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