The Freelance Equation
by Collin Sheehan, 7/16/2016
I just got back from a month on the road. No, I wasn’t on some epic car shoot in Dolomites. There was no pitch involved. It wasn’t even for work. It was (gasp) time off. Mostly, anyway. For four weeks. An obnoxious amount of time.
I’ll note here that I didn’t set out to be gone that long. It just so happened that my life was fluid enough to roll with it. Longtime friend schedules a big hike on a Wednesday in the middle of the summer? No problem. Wife’s family reunion is the entire week after that in the Cape? Sure. Got drunk one February evening and signed up for a two-week homebuilding class in the woods of Maine which just happens to fall immediately after the midweek hike and Cape vacation? We’re pushing it a bit, but yeah, go ahead. Oh, and Newport Folk Fest kicks off the same day you graduate from aforementioned drunken building class? Fuck it, just go.
This is not a typical month in the life of a freelancer. There are trade offs to pulling away for huge amounts of time. The most obvious is watching your checking account tick down like a debt clock in reverse. That said, if you cut your overhead and left the appropriate amount of padding you won’t sweat through your mattress over it. At least not all the way through.
That homebuilding class had some major opportunity cost attached to it as well; a firm I really wanted to work with finally reached out and I had to pass. Maybe they’ll call back, maybe they won’t – but at least I know how to disassemble a chainsaw down to the pistons and thread four ought aluminum wire into my home circuit breaker without dying. Neither of which I had a clue about 30 days ago. Those are life skills. Hard to quantify, but more valuable (at least to me) than a week at my day rate.
The whole month wasn’t a total financial bonfire. I was able to get a couple of projects completed from up in New Hampshire before the hike and again while I was watching ospreys circle over the water from a midcape beach. Life could be worse.
I’ve always felt like people who freelance use images like that writing-on-the-beach one I just whipped out as a justification for their life choices. I am likely doing that right now, at least at a brain-stem level. The result of this tendency is that full-timers romanticize freelance in much the same way that wealthy yuppies romanticize farming. “I’ll wake with the sun! I’ll live with the ebb and flow of the seasons! I’ll grow something real for a change!” Some of that will inevitably be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to be covered in shit and muttering to yourself in a field much of the time.
Freelance has similar built-in contrasts. You meet some cool people, but most of it is a very singular affair. You find yourself going out of your way to help old people at the grocery store (they’re the only ones there at 11am on a Tuesday) just for some human interaction. “What’s that? You need help grabbing that box of Grape Nuts? I CAN DO THAT!” Like a fucking superhero.
Then there’s the gigs where you actually go in and see what other places look and feel and smell and sound like. Most of these experiences are quite pleasant, and those that aren’t are at least somehow interesting and/or informative. Sometimes you’re working on things the rest of the ad world would consider fun. Many times it’s the kind of work you didn’t even know existed when you were living the agency life. Spoiler alert: The latter can be tough to swallow. But then you remember the tedious, hear-tearing-out shit that came with your previous life. If you have trouble remembering, just ask your friends, family and loves ones. If they still talk to you.
At the end of the day, no one is casting their crutches away or feeling the tingle of a shrinking tumor as a result of your work, no matter what it is – so take it seriously, but not too seriously and you’ve got a better shot at survival.
I’m about a year in at this point and have come to understand that freelance life is just an equation and you’re in control of weighing the variables. Your freedom (F) is at one side of the equals sign and on the other are multiples of effort, risk and happiness divided by financial viability. If one variable goes out of whack maybe you have to to lower the value of F for a while and plug back into the grid. Get the taste of those sweet bennies on your lips and forget what it’s like to send a staggering amount of your paycheck to the government (rest easy, I’m still a liberal).
There are plenty of forces that can, and likely will, change my freelance equation someday (kids, extra bedrooms, health mishaps, etc.) For now though, after a length of self-directed time that I haven’t seen since I graduated college (the 90s!), I’m thankful I can make it work.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m headed to Market Basket to make a bunch of old people’s day.