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What Freelance Knows that You Don’t

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For starters: Work is permanent while jobs come and go.

When I first considered life as a freelance copywriter, a friend said,

 

Welcome to the wonderful world of floating icebergs.

 

And it was so: projects fall off (the glacier of corporate planning) and float off to sea (so to speak, to the market) and you stand on them for a time, work on them, even as they melt under you. And then you step to the next iceberg. Or you tread water while another iceberg comes into view.

It’s a refreshing cycle—in a painful, polar-dip, take-this-horrid-medicine-it’s-good-for-you—kind of way.

Ice sheet, not iceberg. Don't step on it.

Ice sheet, not iceberg. Don’t step on it.

I like to tell my copywriting students that the freelancer goes into it knowing this is how the game works. Then I tell them this knowing is in sharp contrast to nine-to-fiver’s who instinctually trust their jobs will remain, and are too often deeply surprised to find themselves waiting for the bus one day at 11am holding a cardboard box containing their office posters and mug.

But students typically have no mortgage or kids to feed or insurance to buy. So I’m pretty sure the comment doesn’t register until five years later, when all those conditions are true.

Recognizing the impermanence of today’s job is a great benefit, because it means one must always—always—be thinking about what’s next. The freelancer understands this in her bones. The smart nine-to-fiver rehearses this bit of knowledge every time she crosses the corporate threshold and enters the air-locked doors.

One thing that happens while I tread water is I make contact with dozens of old colleagues. I am no longer surprised by how often people change jobs, get laid off, start their own business or agency. Not to sound like an old guy, but way back when, people expected to stay at a single company for an entire career. Today I could count on one hand the number friends who have done that.

Friends often ask about work. I typically say, I’m busy and I’m looking. Always looking. In fact, this way of working has two benefits I cherish:

  1. Vision is no esoteric word for me. It is a hard-edge guide to what’s next. And I can never not pursue it. If I neglect to think ahead, those icebergs will float by without me ever noticing.
  2. The work itself become the focus. I get to burrow down into communication and copy and the telling of stories. The craft itself is a never-ending wonderland that shape-shifts as it leaps between clients and industries. The work, and the process toward the work, become the marathoner’s stroke for swimming toward the next iceberg.

In fact, faith, hope, and love remain as essential ingredients to this way of working. There is no space for taking-for-granted.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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