Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Postponing Your Dreams
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Sometimes I have to wonder if I was a history major and am a science fiction writer because I see patterns in what Thomas Jefferson called “the course of human events” or if I see patterns because I had training in both history and science fiction. I suppose that’s one of those unanswerable questions. But the one thing that is clear is that my mind doesn’t work like other people’s.
Let us pause for the expected chorus of “well, duh.”
Now that the chorus has passed, let me explain why I started with that blanket statement.
I am a news junkie, as regular readers of the Freelancer’s Guide know. I consider the news—however it gets consumed—an essential part of freelancing. Most people who pay attention to the news and stay informed get a sense of what’s going on, what to expect, and why to expect it.
But they simply don’t get a “course of human events” overview. Not everyone thinks that way.
So…here are the factors that have gone into my thinking this week. An article in the Washington Post about a college graduate whose “bright future” was torn away from her by the recession. The housing statistics that came out this week which revealed that one in four American homeowners with a mortgage are underwater (meaning they owe more—much more—than the house is worth). For many who chose to (or can) stay in their homes, the houses will not regain their lost worth for another 15 years.
This week, the Federal Reserve predicted that the high unemployment that the country has right now will continue through 2010. Estimates vary, but the rate hovers around 10.2 percent. That 10.2 percent does not include the underemployed—people who want to work fulltime but can only find part-time work. If those people get included, then the rate of un- and underemployed goes to more than 17 percent.
Those statistics—the 25% of all Americans with a mortgage, combined with the more than 17% un- and underemployment are creating a perfect storm to make things worse. Because people who get offered a job out of state cannot afford to sell their house in order to move.
Think about it. They would sell their home at a loss, then be on the hook for the difference between their mortgage and the sale price. In other words, they might sell their home and be in debt for $100,000 or more.
This led one analyst to claim that people in that situation would be better off walking away from their underwater mortgages. Better to damage your credit rating, Christopher Thornberg of Beacon Enterprises told CBS News, than it would be to continue to throw money down a black hole.
All of this came on the heels of a study that showed that the herd mentality is hardwired into human beings. We feel better if we do what other people are doing—even if we know it’s wrong or does not benefit us at all.
It takes more than chutzpah to go against conventional wisdom. It takes courage and perhaps a slightly screwed up internal wiring. Which explains even more about me.
(And there it is again: the “well, duh,” chorus. We wait for the sound to pass and now continue…)
So what does this all mean to the historian/science fiction writer in me? A lot, actually. We are in the middle of more than the Great Recession. We’re in the middle of a generational shift. And even more than that, we’re in one of those sweeping moments of cultural change.
Dean and I discussed it a bit this evening after the network newscasts. The credit rating—which only matters if you’re going to borrow money—will lose (and perhaps already has lost) its godlike status in the American mind. So many people did things to preserve their credit ratings. For a long time, Dean and I watched in confusion because, as freelancer writers, we realized that credit ratings had no meaning for us. Then employers started using credit ratings as they hired people (!), and insurance companies started basing rates on credit ratings (!), and businesses stopped taking cash, requiring plastic (!) preferring credit to debit cards and…and…and…we acquiesced to the culture and actually did some work to make sure we had a credit rating too.
Now most people have no credit rating. Wealthy people are cutting loose second and third homes, homes that have devalued so much as to be worthless to them—thinking, like the analyst said, what’s the point of pouring money into a black hole when the money could (and probably should) go elsewhere. Formerly middle class people without work are trying very hard to put food on the table, credit rating be damned. And landlords no longer use credit ratings to judge the applications for rentals because they have to keep the units filled to pay the mortgage on their (probably underwater) commercial property.
And on, and on, and on.
The credit rating is but one shift. There is also the shift in attitude toward housing. The conventional wisdom will shift from turning houses over to this: If you’re going to be in an area for only a few years, you’ll rent rather than buy. If you expect to stay somewhere permanently, you’ll buy, but your house won’t be an ATM. Your house may increase in value or it may decrease in value, but it will be the place where you live. And, (oh my!) paying off the house will probably become a lot more important than getting your mortgage interest deduction.
How does all of this relate to freelancing? And how does it relate to the girl interviewed in the Washington Post, the girl who lost her “bright future”? And the herd mentality?
In the thirty-five (!) weeks that I’ve been publishing the Guide, I’ve bemoaned an attitude that I saw in generations who were born or came of age after 1980. I knew this was a generational thing; I also realized that they would eventually understand How The World Really Works. (She writes, sounding like the old fart that she is.) But it wasn’t me hoping they’ll get their comeuppance, although I did worry what would happen when they finally did realize that the world is an uncertain place. It was me, trying to understand where the attitude came from, and what exactly was going on.
I didn’t realize that I had part of the attitude myself until I read the article in the Washington Post. You can follow the link I posted above, but there’s really no need, because the article is unremarkable. You may actually participate in these conversations this week at the Thanksgiving table. You may have heard a local news story about something similar—heaven knows there’ve been a million of them.
But this story put things in perspective for me because it spoke to my upbringing. Like me, this girl was raised in a family that believed in higher education. And like my family, hers believed that the better the school, the better the opportunities.
Where our families diverged was only in generational experience. My father, the first person in the American branch of his family to go to college, graduated in the Depression. (That his parents could afford college in the Depression has recently helped me understand why my mother thought them wealthy. By the standards of the day—with my grandfather’s regular job as a rural mail carrier which brought in a good salary—my grandparents were well off. It wasn’t just because my mother had survived on radish sandwiches and lived in the attic of a boarding house; it was because my paternal grandparents could provide my father (and later, my aunt) with opportunities most families couldn’t fathom at the time.) Graduating in the Depression with a college degree opened some doors, but not others. Jobs weren’t guaranteed.
Nor were they guaranteed when I graduated from college. Not that I graduated with honors from an Ivy League school. I graduated from a very good state school with an A- GPS in an area (history) that realistically held no opportunity for employment for someone with a bachelors degree.
So when I read in this article that the guaranteed $200,000 jobs for college graduates with business degrees had dried up in the last few years, I just about choked on my breakfast. Excuse me? Guaranteed $200,000 jobs? Granted, the article was talking about guaranteed jobs for the A-list graduates of a top school, but still. Guaranteed?
Later in the week, I heard another choking statistic: that recent college graduates would have to settle for jobs that paid an average of $50,000. Where the heck would they find those jobs? And wouldn’t they be crowded out of the position by unemployed people my age?
The news has been filled lately with the plight of recent college graduates. Business has finally come to its senses. With a proliferation of candidates—one company that needed 100 workers recently saw 2,000 applicants show up in one day—business are hiring the people with experience, people with families, and a commitment to the community. They’re not hiring a hotshot straight out of the Ivy League who needs to learn how the business world works.
And they’re not hiring every experienced person either—as many of you well know. It takes hundreds of submitted resumes just to get an interview, and it might take hundreds of interviews to get a job.
Like so many recent college grads, the girl in the article has stopped submitting resumes in her chosen field. Instead, she’s thinking of working odd jobs, traveling, and doing what my husband’s generation called “finding herself.” She has been walking down a path carved out for her from childhood and has finally realized that she needs to look at other paths to see which one suits her.
All well and good. Everyone experiences that at one point or another. As I read the article, I saw opportunity. Her parents saw disaster and a “wasted” education, one they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on with the certainty that it would bring their child success after graduation. They blame the fact that the education isn’t paying off on her for failing to submit resumes, not on the sea-change that is happening around all of us.
And that’s what caught me about this article, as opposed to all the other articles about all the other college students for whom the promise of a bright future has not yet been fulfilled. It was the parents’ expectation that if they did A, B, and C, and their daughter did as she was told, that it would all pay off in the end.
I am of this girl’s parents’ generation. And while I have always believed that marching to your own drummer was the best way to go, I’ve seen that as an aberrant attitude, not as a sensible one. I’ve been a bit apologetic for my attitude, a bit militant about it, citing my rebellious nature.
What I didn’t see is how an attitude that had come from a wealthy post-war period had become engrained into all of us growing up after World War II. That period of relative stability led to choices and attitudes—even in the deep recession of the 1970s—that became hardwired into everyone in the Baby Boomer Generation. Those attitudes became expectations for our children—of course we’re all going to be richer, more successful, and smarter than our parents! We have better opportunities.
Those of us who turned our backs on those opportunities—on the accepted path—were considered odd. And if we didn’t succeed, it was our attitude that caused us to fail or so the accepted wisdom went. Those of us who did succeed did so because we were “lucky” or “talented” or “special”—not because we took risks that paid off.
Now we’re watching an entire generation come of age for whom the rules have failed. Some of these kids will become bitter young, as the promises that they heard when they were growing up didn’t get fulfilled. And some will succeed on that path they were hardwired to march along.
But the rest, the rest have an opportunity that previous generations didn’t have.
The rest don’t have to postpone their dreams.
They can follow their dreams because they have nothing to lose. They’ve already lost the “expected” “certain” path.
We may be approaching a great period of creativity and innovation in American life, creativity and innovation that wasn’t born of solid steady work but of necessary risk to survive.
Because for the first time in at least fifty years, maybe more, we have a generation coming of age that has the opportunity to create their own path. The adults around them are struggling too hard to survive themselves to put the brakes on the younger generation. And any clear-eyed adult realizes that the opportunities for the inexperienced worker have dried up, no matter what their pedigree.
People born in the 1980s now have a chance to take extreme risks, to fail spectacularly and maybe, to succeed spectacularly. Because risk, for them, is different.
The Baby Boomers married in their early 20s, had children, and settled on a career that they thought would sustain them for life. Yes, there were the rebels in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but they were seen as outliers—as outsiders, in many ways—and for many of them their hippy/protest days were just a phase.
By the time Baby Boomers realized they weren’t doing what they wanted to do, that they were running out of time to make a real difference in the world, to follow their passion, they had a family, a mortgage, regular bills, and a job they were afraid to sacrifice. All that work, all those promotions. They had guaranteed retirement, and they would write or paint or start a small business after the age of 65.
A lot of those Baby Boomers are coming to our writing classes now. These people are retired and they have the time, and many of them have the beginnings of a career—several story sales, a novel sale, maybe more—but they’re embarking on a career that can take ten years to ramp up.
In the ten years since Dean and I did our first workshop, two of our students have died—an older man who waited until retirement to start, and a driven middle-aged man who had a nonfiction career and wanted to make a living at fiction. He never achieved the “make a living” part, although he sure published a lot of fiction in his last few years.
I’ve watched others who have postponed their dreams struggle with years of learned behavior—deference to authority, an unwillingness to rock the boat, an inability to operate outside of a corporate structure. When you get older, you feel the end of your life looming. That feeling of immortality that you had as a teenager is a long-ago memory. The feeling that anything is possible that you had in your twenties is gone. As a middle-aged adult, you know that some things are no longer possible. (As I said to one of my students: I now know I will never play professional basketball, no matter how much I want to. She laughed, but understood. Even if I had Michael Jordan’s skills, I’d still be pushing fifty—an age that no one (yet) plays professional basketball).
Postponing your dreams is a dangerous thing to do. Because time does eventually run out. In order to freelance, you need to learn how to take risks, and if you spent a lifetime on the accepted path, risks become something to avoid. Yet freelancers can’t survive without it.
When you postpone your dreams, you take a risk that you’ll live long enough to pursue them and to have success. What most people who postpone their dreams fail to realize is that when they retire, they might have the time to work on their dreams full time, but they might not have the time to achieve them.
As you can tell from the previous portion of the Guide, there’s more to freelancing than the skill that brought you to the table. You must learn how to manage money, how to run your own business, how to survive failure, and how to turn that failure into a success. All of that takes time. And time is the one commodity that we have that we can’t count. We really don’t know if we’ll get hit by a bus tomorrow. And we shouldn’t bank on surviving that bus accident if it happens.
Right now, the economy is providing millions of people with the opportunity to take their destinies into their own hands. So many people postponed their dreams because they felt they had something to lose. If they quit their job, they could lose their house, their credit rating, the respect of their neighbors. They could force their family into poverty, lose their health insurance, and risk the fortunes of everyone they love, not just their own fortunes.
All of those things are excellent considerations. So many people had to postpone their dreams. One friend of mine got pregnant in high school and spent twenty years raising children, barely eking out a living as a single mom. She postponed her dreams out of necessity, and as soon as the kids moved out of the house, she pursued those dreams with great purpose—and is having great success.
Like her, many of you had no choice. You had to postpone.
But the world has changed. Attitudes have changed and will remain changed for decades to come. The credit rating will no longer be so important. No one cares who pays their bills because everyone is struggling right now.
And if you’ve lost your job, you’ve already lost your steady income. You’re probably juggling bills, trying to survive. Continue to send out resumes, but as you do, consider following your dreams. Because all those things you would have jeopardized ten years ago, when the economy seemed stable, are already in jeopardy.
In other words, you may have very little to lose by trying. And that’s an opportunity just waiting to happen.
Mostly, though, this essay is for the newly minted college grads who have just realized that they were walking a path that now has a giant roadblock running across it. The easy road is gone. Those $200,000 jobs for you business graduates from Ivy League schools evaporated with the Wall Street meltdown.
Time to look around, to see if the road you’re walking is really the one you want to be on. Even if the roadblock goes away, do you want to be a corporate executive? Do you want to work for someone else for the rest of your life? Do you dream of being a musician or a bookstore owner?
Now is the time to start. The economic collapse has instituted a sea change. People who’ve just graduated from college are in the same boat I was in when I graduated. I never expected to own a home (and I figured that if by some odd chance I bought one, I’d live in it for the rest of my life, so I had best be certain that was the house I wanted). I figured I would move from job to job because careers were hard to come by, especially for college grads. I started writing because I liked it—and I had nothing to lose by trying.
Whenever I use that phrase “nothing to lose,” I hear the voice of my husband, Dean Wesley Smith. We met at a writers’ workshop in Taos, New Mexico, in 1986. After the workshop, we both went home—me to Wisconsin, and Dean to Idaho. Within the week, he was driving to Wisconsin to be with me.
I asked him why. We loved each other and had planned to get together in August, after we had settled everything in our lives. We weren’t sure where we would be, but we figured we’d work it out by then.
But he went back to Idaho, to the small apartment he had moved into after he had separated from his wife, to the bartending job he had put on hold to go to the writers’ workshop, and realized that nothing held him in that small town.
He said to me on the phone from some rest stop somewhere between Idaho and Wisconsin, “I’m coming to you because I have nothing to lose—”
As he said that phrase, I remember thinking, That’s worrisome. He’s not coming toward something; he’s coming because he has nothing else. I heard that phrase through the filter of my upbringing: that a person with nothing to lose has failed somehow.
Then he added the important part of the sentence. It wasn’t an afterthought for him. It was the central part of his message.
“—and,” he said, “I have everything to gain.”
He had weighed the risks against the rewards, and realized he was taking no risk at all. He had no risk except the drive itself and a possible rejection by me. (Yeah, right. Like that would have happened. Not.) He had—we had—everything to gain from his willingness to start our relationship immediately.
And twenty-three and a half years later, it’s clear he was right. We have gained a great deal because he was savvy enough to realize that he was in the position to do something he wouldn’t normally have been able to do.
So many of you are in that position now. Sometimes life forces us to postpone our dreams. Sometimes we postpone them out of fear.
Right now life—and the economy—is giving millions of us nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
If we only try.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Postponing Your Dreams” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.