Friday, 18 October 2013

On being a freelancer...

I used to love the word "freelance."  It sounded so exciting, so daring, so full of possibilities.  I was thrilled when I was finally able to attach the title "freelance" to my own name.  I thought "freelance" meant freedom.  It meant following your passion and not being tied down.  Life was a big adventure.  The sky was the limit.

In reality, being a "free"-lancer doesn't feel very free at all.  If anything, it can feel more stifling, more difficult, and more oppressive than any full-time job ever could.

Freelancing is a special kind of stress unto itself.  First of all, there is the insecurity.  You can't really count on anything.  Even if a company is giving you regular work, they have no long-term commitment to you.  They could change their mind at any point and start hiring someone else instead.

Then there is the irregularity of work - it hardly ever comes in a steady flow.  Sometimes you may be extremely busy with various gigs and contracts, and other times, well...

So you have to always think ahead.  Save in times of feast to survive in times of famine.  And to make things even harder, you don't always know when those times of feast and famine will come around.  Life is ever-changing and unpredictable.

I was recently reading an article on the daily habits of creative geniuses.  As I read on, something began to dawn on me.  I am not a creative genius.  I don't have any of the right habits: I don't get up early, I don't go for long walks, and I haven't kept my day job.  I'm also not really into substance abuse - but then again, that's probably a good thing.

Does chocolate count as substance abuse?
This is what the article has to say about artists forming regular habits: It was William James, the progenitor of modern psychology, who best articulated the mechanism by which a strict routine might help unleash the imagination. Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual, he argued, could we "free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action".

It sounds great, doesn't it?  Except - wait a minute - how can a freelancing musician form regular habits?  We may be masters of our own hours between gigs, but then we have days, weeks, even months at a time where we are completely at the mercy of someone else's rehearsal schedule.  You can't get up at 10 every morning when your call is at 9:30.  And good luck having the exact same thing for breakfast every day when you're travelling and living out of hotels!

Still, travelling around and following a rehearsal schedule is not the worst of it.  I think the most challenging part of freelancing is the time between gigs - the unstructured time, when you have to make your own work schedule.  At first this freedom can feel like a luxury, but that feeling doesn't last for long.  The problem is that there are no boundaries between work and free time: the two constantly morph and bleed into each other.  When you're working, you want to be doing something else.  And when you're doing something else, you feel bad for not working.  It's impossible to designate a chunk of time for "just relaxing", because there's always this vague notion at the back of your head that you should be doing something.

The guilt trip running through every musician's mind.
Every night feels like a Friday night and a Sunday night all at once.  On the one hand, you don't have to be somewhere the next morning; theoretically, you can stay up late and drink beer like there's no tomorrow.  But on the other hand, you have to work the next day.  Because, well, you always have to work the next day.

Lately, I've begun to look forward to a week of booked work with an urgent kind of desperation.  Not because of the money (although money is nice).  But because I know someone else will be creating boundaries for me.  Someone else will be giving me a schedule, and drawing clear lines: this is when you work, and this is when you don't work.  It can be such a massive relief when someone else has the responsibility of deciding that for you.

So how do you cope with this time between gigs?  How do you avoid letting the lack of boundaries drive you crazy?  Well, I think it is possible to use this time productively if you approach it the right way.  Give yourself some focus: set a goal for yourself, like learning a new role, or preparing for an audition, and use your time between gigs to work on it.  Create a schedule for yourself, or write a to-do list.  Find consistency and regularity wherever you can: try to always practise at the same time, or in the same space.  Personally, I like to practise away from home.  I find that it helps me to focus on my practice and draw lines between my home space and my work space.  This way I know when I am practising and when I am not - I get distracted less, and I don't feel guilty when I'm not practising.  It is possible to use your unstructured time to create some positive habits like this.  You may not be able to stick to these habits every day, but if you stick to them when you can, you will find it easier to slip back into them after each gig.

Of course, there are ways that you can your use flexibility to your advantage.  The fact is that some days you will feel more or less motivated to work.  The unmotivated days are the worst.  You feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall.  I think it's best on these days to just do some work - the bare minimum - and not beat yourself up about it.  It's only natural that motivation will come in waves, not in a steady flow.  But when the motivation is there, use it!  "Ride the wave" to get more done when you can.  For example, last week's blog post was written almost a week in advance.  I had a sudden burst of motivation, and wrote the whole thing in one coffee-fueled Sunday afternoon.  It felt great to press "publish" a few days later, knowing the post was ready-made, and all my hard work had been done well in advance.

Ride that wave, baby!
Another advantage of this flexibility is that you can choose your own hours - find your own rhythm, and figure out which times you work best.  I used to try to practise every morning, first thing in the day.  I felt good about "getting it done" before lunch - I thought I was being proactive and productive.  But in time I realised I wasn't doing myself any favours.  The truth is that I'm not a morning person.  I have a much better practice session if I work in the afternoon or the early evening.  Once I changed my routine to practise in the afternoons, I found that I was doing much better quality work in the practice room.

Freelancing can get lonely.  You don't have a regular boss or set of colleagues, and often it feels like you're the only person looking out for yourself.  This is why it's important to network and find allies.  Just paying more attention to others can make a big difference: you learn a lot from watching how someone else builds their career.  And don't be afraid to reach out to people and ask for advice.  Other freelancers can be an invaluable source of information, and you can really help to motivate each other.  When I first moved to Cologne, I started meeting a friend for coffee and "application blitzing".  We would sit with our laptops and egg each other on as we sent our CVs to various companies, suggesting contacts to each other as we went.  I found that I was really motivated by having a colleague there who was doing the exact same thing.  Then again, maybe it was all the coffee.

"I'm feeling r-r-realllly motivated!!!"
Some freelancers thrive on chaos, and like to take things as they come.  Others need to plan ahead and set their lives in a rigid structure.  Most of us fall somewhere in between.  The trick is to find your own rhythm, your own balance, and work with it.  I'm still pretty new to being my own boss, and I have a lot to figure out.  But I do think I'm starting to find work patterns that work for me.  Freelancing isn't easy, but it's certainly never boring!  Once you get used to the balancing act, discover your own working style, and surround yourself with colleagues you can trust, freelancing can become an exciting and fulfilling way to live.

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