Asking Not Asking #17: The Girl Who Got Lost in the Fire
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I’ve been freelancing for a few years. It’s been tough but also a lot of fun. I’ve grown so much and am genuinely proud of every achievement and project I’ve created. I stumbled into freelance by quitting my on-paper good job in advertising. I felt like I wasn’t using my potential and I was unhappy all the time. It started out good and I’ve managed to keep the fire burning and grow my business. If you’d asked me 6 months ago, I would have said that freelance was the best thing that ever happened. I’ve been thriving; this is why I know something is wrong. The amount of projects haven’t changed, so it’s not a financial matter. Things are looking good on the outside, but things somehow changed inside of me and it has been like this for too long.
When I started freelancing I took every opportunity I could get my hands on: I worked harder, pushed more, and I was happy and filled with initiative to do things. But then things changed. I lost that burning desire to work and create projects, even for myself. It was almost like it happened over night. I stopped putting extra hours into things, I skipped corners, at the same time I somehow just dug myself deeper into a hole of not being good enough. I’ve recently created two great projects of the kind I love. I was hoping they would be my way out of this dreadful feeling, that they would create sparks and things would go back to how they used to be. But that never happened. I’ve tried taking days off in between projects, but I can’t seem to rest. I’ve tried side projects, going on art-dates with myself, taking self-care days. I’ve tried making up small projects just for me, but I can’t seem to find the motivation or passion to do it. I feel trapped in this illusion of freelance because I constantly feel I can do it better, do more, do things differently, but every time I have some time off, I feel paralyzed and tired and I usually end up spending hours scrolling mindless cat memes on the internet, regretting it afterwards.
I do miss the old me, who got excited and was passionate about things. Freelance gave me this amazing opportunity of making a living out of pursuing my own projects, working for clients I like, learning new skills, and working whenever I wanted to. I know it’s not something to take for granted, and I’ve worked really hard to get to this point… maybe I worked too hard? Things were good until that morning I just woke up and just didn’t care, this is so unlike me. So far I have been keeping up a facade of things being fine, but they’re not and it’s exhausting to keep this fake feeling alive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to solve this. Maybe freelance wasn’t for me? Did my obsession with productivity itself destroy the joy I once had for the projects I embarked on? Maybe it’s time to move on to new things? I’ve considered going back to a steady 9-5 job. But not even that excites me. I’ve seen how amazing freelance can be, so I compare everything to that, and to be honest I don’t think such a job existed. I’ve been thinking a lot about starting my own agency. To have other people to share the responsibility with would help. After all I would love to run my own studio, but I’m so afraid that I’m not in shape to do so as things are now. Before even considering it, I need to find that fire again.
I’m very afraid that I’ve ended up where I was before quitting my old advertising job. Very unhappy and not fulfilling my potential - despite having every opportunity to do so. This is haunting. I really don’t know where to go from here, but things can’t go on like this anymore.
So how do I make that fire burn again?
The Girl Who Got Lost in the Fire
Dear Lost in the Fire,
This past week, a friend sent me a quote that might resonate with you: “Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” It’s from a book called Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, which my friend said was an excellent read (I’ve added it to my future reading list). You mentioned in your letter that you have been thriving as a freelancer and even when you think about going to work for someone else again, you compare it to freelance, which at one time felt amazing. You also state there hasn’t been a change financially, so that tells me your business is doing well.
So that makes me wonder, is your ladder leaning against the wrong wall? By all measures, it sounds like you are successful as defined by traditional metrics: your business is growing, you have clients, you are making money, and you have the freedoms that come with choosing the path of a freelancer. Yet you are unhappy. That tells me something is out of alignment. Perhaps you might start there. What are the things that are missing for you right now? What are the things you crave and desire more of in your work?
We are constantly changing. That means our desires will change and as we achieve what we set out to, we will metabolize our accomplishments. When you left your advertising job to build your own business, you had a vision for what you wanted to achieve. It sounds like you’ve ticked all of the items off of your list and are dreaming about what’s next. This is evident in your inquiry into whether or not it could be rewarding to start an agency and bring others into the business with you. Inviting fellow collaborators along on the journey could be a way to share the responsibility of the business and spark your creativity—working solo can often feel isolating and unstimulating. However, I’d encourage you not to view this as the “magic bullet” that will solve your challenges. Building an agency and working with a team has its own challenges, albeit rewards, too.
I don’t want you to think that the answer to regaining your spark lies somewhere out there. That is a misleading belief that causes us much heartache because it offloads responsibility for our own happiness and fulfillment onto someone or something outside of ourselves. External changes can give us the sense that our situation has changed, but lasting change happens from the inside out.
I also want to acknowledge that this could be a normal experience in the lifecycle of a career. From time to time, we all feel “lost” or discouraged about the path we’re on and begin to question our choices. It’s natural to doubt ourselves and wonder what would have happened if we had taken another path. But you didn't take another path. This is the one you’re on, and it will have its ups and downs like any other path. Over our lifetimes, we will experience an array of emotions about our careers. Know that this season won’t last forever. And you’re not the first to experience this.
You said you don’t want to make a move, or consider a new path, until you find that fire again. But what if the action has to precede the feeling? Did you feel 100% confident and ready to go out on your own when you made the decision? Or even on your first day of freelance? Or even a few months in? Most of us don’t feel ready, but we walk forward anyway. It’s the action—one foot in front of the other—that helps us build our confidence. I am thoroughly convinced that we do not have to see the full path to take the next step. What could be the next step for you? Your feelings are going to change day to day, and if you wait until you feel entirely ready or energized, you may get stuck.
I’m not suggesting you move forward blindly, but I am suggesting you think about 1-3 things you could do in the next month to create momentum for yourself. How could you change it up? Who could you talk to about your ideas to move your business forward? What are your goals for the month? How do you define success? What is enough?
Speaking of success, you don’t have to keep up the illusion, the facade. In fact, it would be harmful to do so. Find people you can talk to truthfully about your experience. You can’t do it alone. I encourage everyone to seek out a community of peers and at least 1-2 mentors who can advise them. Mentors can be anyone who has wisdom and knowledge to share. They don’t have to be an expert in your field, but they should have something you don’t have they they can offer to you through the relationship.
The other possibility is that maybe you did work too hard. Maybe you are burned out. Burnout can lessen our ability to get excited about the things that used to excite us. If you are feeling ambivalent about everything, it could be a sign of burnout. If that’s the case, it’s going to take time to recover, but it is possible. Also, burnout is something most of us will experience at least once, if not multiple times in our careers. Sometimes we realize it’s happening and we can take action before fully burning out, and other times we wake up and feel like we’ve hit a wall.
What matters is that you can take action to restore your work and life. You wrote, “I’ve tried taking days off in between projects, but I can’t seem to rest. I’ve tried side projects, going on art-dates with myself, taking self-care days. I’ve tried making up small projects just for me, but I can’t seem to find the motivation or passion to do it. I feel trapped in this illusion of freelance, because I constantly feel I can do it better, do more, do things differently, but every time I have some time off, I feel paralyzed and tired and I usually end up spending hours scrolling mindless cat memes on the internet, regretting it afterwards.” You must give yourself permission to rest.
Here are a few places to start:
Put self-care activities on the calendar and do not reschedule or cancel them. Do them even when you don’t feel like it.
Schedule regular time to rest and put that on the calendar, too. Maybe it’s one day a month that’s all yours. Maybe it’s half a day every Friday. Maybe it’s no work on the weekends.
Create structure that allows you to have downtime. Set work hours and stick to them the same as you would with a full-time job.
Find meaningful activities outside of work. We tend to rely solely on our work to fulfill us and when it doesn’t, we feel it big-time. What other activities fulfill you and how can you integrate those into your life more so you’re not relying only on work for your happiness?
Know that passion ebbs and flows. It does so in our romantic partnerships, in work, in our hobbies, in our friendships. That’s normal and okay.
Define what you want for the next stage of your career, whether that’s continuing your freelance business, building an agency, working for someone else, or reinventing your career altogether. You’re in charge and you can decide what the next chapter looks like.
Is your ladder perched against a wall that you constructed, chose, or defined? Or it it leaning against a wall that your family, friends, society, or others’ expectations chose? You can have all the success in the world and be unhappy if you are succeeding at something that doesn’t align with what you really want. I don’t think you’re ungrateful. I don’t believe you’re taking your freelance path for granted. I think your desires have changed and you are questioning what more there is for you. There’s a lot more for you—whatever you want. And if your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, you can pick it up and move it to the one that you choose.
To finding the right wall,
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