Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: The Benefits of Freelancing
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Several years ago, my career hit a serious downtown, the kind most careers never recover from. I made a series of bad business decisions, including hiring two terrible employees who did everything they could to gut my business. I compounded the initial mistakes by making more mistakes. On top of that, my health collapsed. I was ill twenty days out of every month, incapacitated for at least ten of those days. In the middle of all of that, I hit my mid-life crisis. Don’t let anyone tell you a mid-life crisis only hits men. It hits women too.
During those dark days, I kept threatening to give up the writing. Now, you have to understand what this means. Giving up writing—for me—is like giving up breathing. I sometimes say that I, the daughter of two alcoholics, am an addict too, only I’m addicted to writing. If I don’t write, I go through withdrawals. This, by the way, is not a joke. If I am in a particularly bad mood, my husband will tell me to go write something. If I take his advice (and I don’t always), I feel much better.
So for me to say that I was going to give up writing—and more importantly, to mean it—meant that something was seriously, seriously wrong. I felt like I was at the bottom of a very deep pit, and I couldn’t figure out a way to climb out, so I simply decided to give up.
Or I would have, if I had an answer to the very reasonable question my brilliant husband would ask me whenever I brought up quitting.
What else would you do?
I had a list that I worked my way down. At this time, our local radio station needed a news director. I was overqualified for the position, so before I applied, I investigated.
The job paid one-third of what I earned during those bad years if and only if you added in the costs of the benefit package—a measly health insurance policy not as good as the one I had as a freelancer, and two weeks paid vacation. To earn one-third of what I was doing, I would have to commit 40 hours per week (and occasional weekends, if there was a news story) to the radio station. I would have set hours.
I would work for someone else.
In fact, every job on my list—from waiting tables (yes, waiting tables looked good to me then) to going back to editing—required me to work for someone else. On their schedule. With no hope for an increase in pay, except at the once a year or once every two year performance review, and then the increase would be rather small (by my freelancing standards).
The only job I came up with that even marginally approached my freelance lifestyle (but not my freelance income) was teaching at a university. In order to do that, I would have to go back to school, get a masters degree, and get a Ph.D. Not so bad. Sometimes I miss living in a college town.
But to get my degree(s) would cost money. I would have had to uproot my husband (and my cats), move to a part of the country with infinitely worse weather than the Oregon Coast, and – oh, yeah—be on someone else’s schedule.
Worse than that, when I graduated, tens of thousands of hard-earned dollars later, I’d be at the bottom of someone else’s totem pole, at the bottom of the pay bracket which was at that point (again) one-third of what I was earning in the bad years, and oh, yeah, I’d be working for someone else. Deeper in debt, no promise of job security (not as a first-year professor), and no real way to earn my way out of it all quickly.
I could have opened another small business (which required a capital outlay—and oh, yeah—it would have to be something else I loved. Since I’ve only had one job I loved for longer than one year (writing), I doubted the new business route worked for me). My husband even offered me the option of loafing for two or three years while he supported me. (Bless him.) I know that was a serious offer, but I also know he understands me very well. He knows that after two days of vacation or two days of “doing what I want”—basically two days of not writing—I’m absolutely miserable. He made the offer, but he knew the chances of me actually succeeding at lying on the couch, eating bon-bons and reading all day were between slim and none. I get cranky when I have a week’s worth of research reading and no time to write. Imagine how I’d feel if I had years to do that.
Okay, some of this is my personal pathology. I’m really not wired to do anything else. But beneath that was an honest, desperate search for solutions by a woman who had hit bottom. I really saw no way to revive my career. I had given up. But I didn’t want to do anything else—or nothing else.
I didn’t have blinding revelation. I didn’t have a life-changing insight. I realized slowly and over time that I was doing what I loved, that things had gotten bleak, and I had to rebuild. I found a doctor who helped me live with the health problems, taking my bad days down from 20 per month to seven or so, and taking my worst days down to a maximum of four per month. (This sounds so easy. It took two years of experimentation and work.)
I fired the last bad employee, dug in and figured out what damage he had done, and started to repair it. Then I slowly rebuilt my career, examining every single part of it, figuring out what I wanted to keep and what I didn’t, and figuring out where I wanted to go in the future, and designing a path to get there.
Slowly—and I do mean slowly—I climbed out of that horrible deep dark pit. What kept me on that climb was not the goal, or even the ability to work hard. It was a daily reminder—sometimes by listening to the new news director on the local radio station, sometimes by watching the waiters at the local restaurant, sometimes by simply reviewing the options of other jobs (or plain old slacking) and realizing (again) how unsuited I am to all of those.
Unsuited really isn’t the right word. If I had to, I could have done any one of those things. The real key was, deep down, I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to give up my freelance lifestyle.
I’ve been an on-again, off-again freelancer for thirty years. Every time I got a real job, I came screaming back to the freelance life. The longest fulltime job I ever held lasted three months. Even the news directorship, which I had for years, was intermittent. I was always acting news director, stepping aside when a new, permanent news director came on board. (Of course, they lasted only a few months, so I’d get the position again.)
What do I like about freelancing? Just about everything. The pros, the cons, the ups, the downs, everything that I’ve mentioned in this guide, I’ve not only experienced, but I prefer to working a day job. I’ve tried very hard in this guide to keep a measured tone about day jobs because I intellectually understand their necessity. I know why people have them, why people believe that a day job gives them security, and why they would want such a thing. And if I had had children in my twenties, I would have followed a different life path. I would have gotten a day job, and hated every minute of it, and done it for the security, for my dependents.
But I have no dependents. Dean is a co-equal partner with me in our various businesses (yes, we have more than two), and he likes the risks as much as I do. As I’ve said before, we really don’t see them as risks. We don’t take risks. We make educated choices based on all of the knowledge available to us. That we chose to do so without the “safety” and “security” of a large corporation behind us shows our questioning natures from an early age, not any great wisdom or stupidity. As I said in the day job sections of this guide, I have never believed, even when I was in my teens, that any job was secure. I’d seen too many people lose theirs, too many people fired for no apparent reason.
And when I was seven, I watched my dad lose his tenured college position in part because he had the courage to speak his mind. (A long story, one someone [not me] wrote a book about, but suffice to say that you can’t have tenure at a college that ceases to exist, and you can’t easily get a job at another college when you’re known as a whistleblower.)
These things—tragedies, really—helped me become a freelancer. I didn’t have to jump over as many mental hurdles as some of my freelancing colleagues when they started.
But risk taker or not, traditionally security minded or not, all freelancers face the same problems and have the same benefits. I’m sure every single freelancer you talk to will have a different list of benefits for doing the work, but here are mine:
1. I work for myself. I set my hours. I decide what I’m going to do every day. Through the work I chose to do, I set my income levels. Sometimes I turn down boring high-paying projects. Sometimes I take a high-paying crappy project because I need the money. I make the decision. I don’t get assigned that project by someone else.
2. I do what I love. Yeah, yeah. If you read the entire Guide, you know there are parts of freelancing that I loathe. But I do those things—well, not exactly happily, but not unhappily either. Because I’m doing them in service of the work I love. Without those things, I could not do what I do. They make the rest of what I do worthwhile.
3. I never complain about going to the office. I’m happy to go to work, even if I’m not enjoying the process. I found it fascinating that when I first opened the Guide to questions, the first questions I got were about taking time off. I had to ask other professionals how they take vacations because I don’t take one.
Many freelancers don’t. Why?
Simple. The work we do now was the thing we did for fun in our free time. Why take time off from something you love? (Yes, yes, I know. Rest and all that. I do rest. But I don’t see why I need a vacation from something I would do on vacation if I had a day job. That makes no sense to me at all.)
The idea of time off—and time off as part of a job description—comes from having jobs that you don’t like, jobs you only do for the money. And if that’s the only reason you’re freelancing, friend, then go out and get a day job. Freelancing’s too hard to do if you don’t love the work.
4. I get to design my own workspace. I almost wrote that I get to work at home, but I’ve had businesses where I didn’t work at home. Even then, I designed a Kris-style work environment, one suited just to me.
5. I am a creator. I can’t tell you how important that is. The economy survives based on how many creators it has. Those of us who develop our own product and our own businesses don’t just create that product. We also create jobs. In addition to the people I hire, like the house cleaner and gardener I mentioned in the employees section of the guide, there are also the people I keep employed, people whose businesses I frequent with the money I bring into my local community. From the grocery store to restaurants, from the local bookstore to the clothing stores, the money I spend here doesn’t come from here. It comes from all over the world, and it helps to fuel the economy in my small town.
6. I am responsible for my own career. In other words, if I succeed, I succeed because of what I do. If I fail, I fail because of what I do. I mentioned the two bad employees in my first paragraph above, and if you read only that paragraph, you might think I blame them for the downturn in my business. I could, I suppose. A lot of people would.
But I’m the one who hired them, I’m the one who trusted them to do their jobs with minimal oversight, and I’m the one who didn’t fire them soon enough. In other words, they caused a lot of damage that would never have happened if I had acted promptly. Their mistakes are my fault.
7. I control my finances. I might never make as much money as some writers. I might not make as much as I would have made working for that friend who offered me a job in Hollywood all those years ago. But I am not in this for the money, although money is a factor. I can earn more if I work harder. I have put myself in the position, as a lawyer friend once told me, to hit not one, not two, but multiple home runs financially. I might never do so. But I have the chance, a chance I wouldn’t have had if I had taken a day job.
That chance means less than you think it would, especially if you’re still putting in your 40 hours for a paycheck. Because you are working for the money, so you’d expect me to as well. But I’m not. I’m working for the enjoyment. And study after study after study shows that people who work for themselves are happier than people who work for someone else.
Other studies show that people who are happier live longer than those who are unhappy. I’d much rather be like Frederik Pohl who, in his nineties, is writing a blog and publishing a book a year than I would be like a friend of mine who has retired in his sixties, doesn’t know what to do with his days, and is now worried (because of the changes in the economy) that his pension will run out.
Retirement falls into that vacation mindset to me. I retired from editing at the age of 37, and I was happy to do so. Relieved, actually. I never ever want to do that again.
But retire from writing? Who are you kidding? When I die, I want to die like Jack Williamson did. He was in his mid-nineties and had just finished a novel. Or like Robert B. Parker, who died at his desk, while working on the current book.
8. A continual intellectual challenge. I’m always learning something and doing something new. Not just related to writing, but also related to business. I follow court cases that apply to my field, financial regulations that deal with publishing, the changes in publishing methods now happening all over the world. I constantly work to improve my craft. I’m always reading something weird and interesting connected to my job (see my Recommended Reading List). I travel to places I would never have seen otherwise, from places as beautiful as Paris to places as unexpectedly interesting as Salt Lake City. Each trip is an adventure and each adventure comes from my work. But I still work. The last time I was in Paris, I slept very little, not just because of the book tour interviews and signings, but because I stayed up late every night, writing down what I did, and making notes for future stories, doing research, and learning as much as I could about a new city and a new country. I think these things are fun and challenging. And lucky me, they’re part of my job.
9. The harder I work, the luckier I am. That’s the real secret to freelancing. We seem to have lost the value of hard work. People want to take things easy, and if you’re one of them, don’t freelance. But if you like to be busy, then freelance. You’ll always have too much to do.
But the real secret to freelancing?
Enjoyment. It’s all about the fun. When I teach writers, I give them a writing assignment and then tell them to go play. They often look at me like I’m nuts. But seriously, that’s what I do. I’m playing every day. I make things up for a living. I do something I would do even if no one ever paid me for it.
I’m having fun.
Life is hard enough without slogging through your daily existence. We all get sick. We all lose family and friends. We all have setbacks and failures and unexpected (nasty) surprises. Why add on the burden of a hated job if you can at all avoid it? The biggest benefit to freelancing—for me, anyway—is the fact that it makes life enjoyable.
I even recognized that in the depths of my despair a few years ago. The worst day at my freelance job is better than the best day at any day job I’ve ever had.
That’s what has kept me freelancing for thirty years.
And, if I’m lucky, will keep me freelancing for at least thirty more.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: “The Benefits of Freelancing” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.