“Free” lance

November 2, 2017

It’s generally thought that the earliest written usage of the word “Freelance” was in Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe, written in 1820:

I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.

So this was a two-word construction – a free lancer, a medieval fighter who would battle for whichever side offered to pay them the best wage. (Already, this sounds kind of familiar…)

Battles aside, what’s interesting about the phrase is the word “free”. This is someone who has freedom: an ability to choose their own path – to follow the work, follow the money, determine their own way through a working life.

Freedom is what motivates many freelancers, myself included. It’s been 7 years since I last worked for someone else in a traditional sense: 7 years that I’ve been deciding my own direction, waking up and deciding whether to go to work or sit on my arse for the day, 7 years of trying and failing to work out whether there is such a thing as a “balanced cashflow”. 7 years where I’ve been able to decide to dip out for a day, a week or a month ..and so on..

“Free” is all well and good, but at it’s heart, the basic freelance equation for most of us* goes something like this:

do more work -> get more money

..which quickly becomes this:

Take a holiday -> get less money.
Take time off sick -> get less money.
Spend time with the kids -> get less money.
Look at the sea -> get less money.
Take time out to meditate -> get less money.
Go for a run -> get less money.

..which ultimately boils down to..

DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN WORK -> get less money

[* this is of course if you work (like most freelancers do)
with clients, and not (as many freelancers aspire to)
with some kind of product ]

Store than in your mind for a moment, and now pop the person who is dealing with this already hard equation into an environment in which they’re working on their own – possibly with a partner, but ostensibly without a supportive organisational structure to hold them up. Now throw in some “I don’t know if there will be any work at all next month, I’d better say yes to this bit” and it becomes clear why freelancing can quickly become anything but “free”. Stress is high amongst us, and it’s easy to see why.

On the other hand… this is the most liberating, exciting, wonderfully deterministic way of living that there is. For me, this has been, and continues to be, bloody brilliant. I love it, and have absolutely no idea how I’d ever work for someone else. It’d almost definitely be a disaster [note to self to not include this on my CV] if I ever found myself in a more “traditional” business with a boss and a fixed week.

But: there is no doubt that I have to fight to retain balance – which means I have to actively watch the way I live. Watching in this way reminds me very much of mindfulness practice – it’s about observing the self, being aware at all time as to what is meshing, and what is crashing. Sometimes I get it wrong (for me, my indicator of things being out of kilter is that I begin to suffer nasty bouts of insomnia) but it is only after a bunch of years doing this that I am getting to know myself and my ways. I don’t get it right all the time: I’m still very much a novice, and I learn new things all the time.

The finding of this balance is what I find interesting, and what I intend to write more about in future posts. I see freelance as something which has to be viewed holistically. Living a freelance life has (almost by its “free” definition) to involve fitness, good eating, balance of work and life, family – as well as all those things we’ve already been fairly exhaustive as a community in writing about: to-do software, deep work, attention deficit, limiting mobile use, and so on.

So: coming up – some thoughts on exercise, software, in-box strategies, quick recipes for freelancers (vegetarian, obviously), that sort of thing. Now: I’m stepping away from the screen to go do something more interesting instead 😉


Also published on Medium.

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