I want to make one thing clear: I am not a freelancer.
When my friend, Joe, asked me to write something for this blog – this blog entitled “freelance is good” – I resisted. I flatly did not want to do it. Because as I said, I’m not a freelancer. At least not in my own imagination.
When I left my job a year ago – a perfectly good VP/Creative Director position at a big ad agency – I didn’t do so because I wanted a more flexible schedule, or to work in any particular state of undress, or for any of the other reasons people purportedly seek out a freelance life. I left my job because I’ve always wanted to start “My Own Thing.”
I’ve always been plain and vocal about that ambition. I declared my forthcoming independence almost brazenly. Even on self-evaluations “Starting My Own Thing” has always been listed among my objectives. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know how important it is to tell people you’re going to do it. Bailing on a plan is easy if you’re the only one who knows you made one.
So I would ask questions about starting “My Own Thing” often and openly. I wrote emails, inquiring of those I respected and admired – those who’d done their Own Things. I bought coffees and lunches in exchange for brain pickings. I’d ask questions of pretty much anyone willing to humor me.
This is the part where I’m supposed to describe how asking questions made “My Own Thing” seem perfectly do-able. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my experience at all.
In fact, asking questions, and fielding the answers, made me feel childish and woefully inept. I didn’t possess the lexicon to be having these discussions. I felt like I was asking people how to start a wittle wemonade stand at the end of my driveway.
Asking questions forced me into retreat, again and again. I had a good job, after all. I felt respected and valued. I was paid well. I liked the people. And I worked on fun stuff.
Just chill the fuck out, I thought. Plenty of people would be stoked to be where you are.
To make matters worse, the definition of “My Own Thing” was an abstraction that became all the more nebulous with each retreat.
Was it an agency? I used to think so, but I dunno. Not necessarily. I’ve seen what that entails, having watched so many friends do it. Make no mistake, running your own agency involves doing a lot of things that suck super hard. Maybe I was just too chicken-shit to even entertain the notion. Maybe, at the end of the day, it would just be too hard for someone like me.
Unfortunately, the more I thrashed about for definitions, the more murky the waters became. My fears mounted into panic.
I found myself deeply questioning the value of what I was doing. I was only making ads, after all. Worse yet, I found I wasn’t even doing much of that anymore. Instead, I was attending meetings for a living. At the end of each day my throat would hurt from talking, and my head would hurt from listening to others talk.
Many days, I genuinely considered starting from scratch, learning to weld metal, or work wood, or farm beets or something. I love bikes and thought maybe I could learn to be a bike mechanic.
I was freaking out. And my wife was freaking out about my freaking out. We have three little girls, and a mortgage, and all the overhead incumbent to that life. It was no time for fucking freaking out!
But as it turns out, it was exactly the right time in a very stereotypical sense. We were turning 40. That’s when this sort of reckoning is supposed to happen. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I have a fantastic therapist named Ginny who helped me figure it all out.
It took a few years, and some prescription meds, but I was finally able to stop thrashing, be still, and allow the waters around me to settle.
I sometimes talk to people about finding the hammer you can swing – that fundamental skill you possess that brings you both happiness and a sense of real value. When the waters settled, I found my hammer lying right there at my feet.
I love writing. I don’t really care what it’s for, I just love immersing myself in the act. I love how it reveals my bullshit and forces me to be honest. I love overcoming the fear of starting, and experiencing its flow. I love how it makes my mind stop racing and start thinking.
Once I found my hammer, the choices I needed to make next took absolutely no courage at all. In fact, they didn’t even seem like choices.
I pulled out my pay stubs, and figured out around what I needed to make. I talked to my accountant for about 30 minutes. I visited LegalZoom and got myself an LLC (in just 30 minutes more). Then I quit.
“My Own Thing” has a name now. I call it “Daughters & Howard” (I really love that name). An old friend helped me design a logo. Another friend helped me make business cards. And on the back of my those cards, in big letters, I finally stated my intentions. Daughters & Howard is: “A creative undertaking of wild ambition, foolish optimism, and intentionally vague definition.”
Am I a freelancer? Sometimes. But again, I don’t love the label. Am I an agency? Not right now, but maybe one day. I don’t really worry about it. I’m just trying to cobble something together with my hammer.
On New Years Day, Daughters & Howard will turn one. I think it’s too soon to know what it will be when it grows up. Whatever it is, it will be all mine.