This year I will celebrate my 21st birthday as a freelancer. In real life, like many FT readers, I look barely 21 — youthful looks surely preserved by regular exposure to the revivifying pink glow of this publication — but in calendar years I am soon to be (deep breath) 50. These twin anniversaries put me in the unique position of being able to offer anniversary advice from the world of the long-term, long-in-the-tooth, voluntarily self-employed.
What do we know that would help people with real jobs? What can the independent share with the indentured, especially now that the employed are increasingly expected to behave and regulate themselves as if they are self-employed? And why is it vital to never, ever wear sweatpants, a dressing gown or pyjamas during daylight hours on weekdays? (Answer: basic self-respect. So easily eroded. Trust me.)
There are painful learnings from independence that are suddenly relevant to many people now that working life is superficially much more like freelancing. The typical lessons are obvious but difficult. First, know whether this is your job (and your life) or a temporary situation and operate accordingly. I’ve seen too many freelancers who don’t know the difference. When they drift back into employment after a few years, they realise that they wasted their chance to either find complete independence or to really reposition and reinvent themselves.
People do this in work, too, when they don’t put the time and thought into understanding where a particular role fits into their job history and into their own happiness. How long are you going to stay where you are and how will you explain that — to yourself and to others — when you make the next move? If you are going to stay in place for a while, how will you stop it from becoming stale? Is this a vocation, a stop gap, a stepping stone, an apprenticeship, an audition? You might as well figure it out as no one else is going to care about this on your behalf.
Two, have delineation between work and life, temporally, socially and geographically. None of us can work 24/7 and it helps to parcel up your time and your attention accordingly. Make sure you’re moving between different modes of being, especially if a lot of your work happens in the same domestic space in which your life also happens. Three, identify your strengths and play to them.
Maybe even more important than that: identify your weaknesses and cater for them. It took me over 15 years of freelancing before I began to outsource tasks that drained me and prevented me from spending time and energy on the tasks I loved. This is incredibly stupid. Don’t be like that. One of the greatest revelations of my working life has been to discover that there are people you can pay to undertake bookkeeping who not only do this work without coercion or nausea but actively relish being excellent at it. These kinds of people, who love the work you hate, are everywhere.
By far the biggest lesson of all comes from the pandemic. “Working from home” (or “hybrid” or “flexible” or however you want to term a method of working that is not based on presenteeism) is simply not the same thing as “working for yourself.” This is the crucial difference between long-term freelancers — especially when they are entrepreneurs and creatives — and people who are employed by corporations, big and small.
During the early days of Covid-19, I chuckled to myself that I would have this new era nailed. After all, I have been “working from home” for two decades. But this was a lie. Some independents work best when they’re fitting work into a busy schedule. Take the schedule away and they’re lost. “Working from home” is not a geographical designation: it’s psychological, individual and highly dependent on the ecosystem of your industry.
Be vigilant about your social networks, your “loose ties” (people who are not really friends or colleagues but who you need and who need you) and the long-term health of these relationships. Examine closely what makes you productive and replicate it intentionally.
One more thing: treat yourself with the respect with which you would treat co-workers, even when you don’t have any co-workers physically present. Dress as if you deserve a pay rise. Be kind and polite, including to yourself. And definitely don’t ever eat straight from the fridge.
Pilita Clark is away