Asking Not Asking #18: Freelance Life is Like A Drug
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
Freelance life is like a drug. The just not knowing what might be possible around the corner can be addictive and exciting. But it can also be hard to know just when the time is to move on. To know when it’s over. You just don’t know. There’s always a maybe/possibly hanging around out there. It makes it hard to commit to something else, something more solid, something more stable. Which is where my bank balance says I am…but you just don’t know what could be around the corner! It’s frustrating. I took a full-time job in my freelance role at a fashion company a couple of years ago and left after two months to pursue some freelance things, but then again further freelance work massively thinned soon after that.
I want more financial stability first. Hopefully and ideally with job/creative satisfaction, but I realize that’s often a luxury, let’s be real. My biggest challenge is not having enough consistent freelance work (backed by my not really truly believing that it’s possible to make a living in the photography business these days.)
There’s one or two maybe/possibilities, but until something’s a thing, it ain’t a thing. So I have nothing officially on the books photography-wise. Although that is the hard-cut way of looking at it. Some of the maybe/possibilities may develop and you gotta keep a positive outlook. I’m trying anyway :) I’m also considering applying for multiple things ranging from Trader Joe’s to FedEx. But I’ve won multiple awards, this is insane!
Over the last year I’ve realized that I like my work and people really like my work. But I’m not making a living/getting hired.
Freelance Life is Like A Drug
Dear Freelance Life,
Two weeks ago a friend gave me the book The Three Marriages by David Whyte. The three marriages as he defines them are 1) our relationship with a partner, whether or not we are married 2) our relationship to work and 3) our relationship to ourselves. Let’s focus on the second one. Whyte notes that, “Happiness in the second marriage of work, like happiness in the first marriage with a person, is possible only through seeing it in a greater context than surviving the everyday.” Right now, it sounds like you are mired in the weight of surviving the day to day. Where will the next job come from? How will you replenish the dwindling bank account? How can you create a consistent income and stream of work? I know it’s counter-intuitive, but you have to think bigger before you can think smaller.
Whyte goes on to add, “We must have a relationship with our work that is larger than any individual job description we are given. A real work, like a real person, grows and changes and surprises us, asking us constantly for recommitment.” Right now, your work is asking for a recommitment and that might look different than it has in the past. You’re not alone in wondering if it’s possible to make a living in the photography business these days—I’ve heard others raise concern about the challenges of finding work in the current economic and political landscape. But you can’t control the economy, politics, or the size of budgets. So let’s focus on what you can do.
First, it’s time to recommit. What is your work really about? Yes, there’s the day-to-day of logistics, admin, production, shooting, editing, calls, and meetings. But high-level, why do you do the work? Why did you get into it? I’d ask you the same about freelance life. Why freelance? What initially drew you to it? I want you to go back to that place and remember. As Whyte points out, “In work, we have often made secret vows; sometimes we do not know ourselves what those vows are until we look back with some perspective on the actual nature of the work we have accomplished.” What are the vows you’ve made, the promises to and about your work? There may be underlying beliefs you are operating out of. For example, maybe you believe that freelance life is always hand to mouth and it’s impossible to have stability, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for you.
I’d encourage you to set aside 30 minutes and sit down with a notebook. Clear your mind, turn off your phone, and minimize distractions. Write two questions on separate pages: 1) Why do I photograph? and 2) Why have I chosen freelance life? Then give yourself a minimum of 10 minutes to answer each question. If your mind goes blank, that’s okay. Just sit there until something comes to mind. Once you have your lists, flip to a new page and write down this question: What promises or vows have I made to myself about my work? Now, spend 10 minutes answering that question.
If there are promises or vows you’ve made about your work that no longer align with who you are or the direction you want to go in, make new promises. For example, maybe a former promise was, “I’ll never depend on anyone,” or maybe you told yourself, “I’m going to be an award-winning photographer.” What promises still hold up? And what new promises do you want to make with yourself about your work?
I don’t want to sound idealistic. You do need to make money. Instability and lack is not part of the plan for you. But if you don’t address the bigger picture and what drives your work and freelance business, it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. You’ll continue to go from project to project feeling aimless and wondering what it’s all for. If you can remember what gives meaning to your work and why you do it, it will begin to resonate with you in a deeper way again.
Now let’s talk about money. You’re not going to thrive living project to project. I agree that financial stability is a priority. So how can you create that for yourself? It seems like there are two paths: Continue to freelance or look for a full-time role somewhere. You mentioned that you took a role at a fashion company a few years ago, but left after two months to pursue freelance opportunities. It sounds like there are aspects of freelance life that you’re drawn to. But it would not be a failure or defeat to take a full-time role somewhere if you want to.
Or is there a third option? Is there a possibility of combining freelance projects with ongoing client work or retainers? Think about photography, but think bigger than that. What other skills, knowledge, and training do you possess? You are an award-winning photographer, so you’re good at that. You have technical skills, artistic vision. But you’ve also run a business, so you’ve had to learn many roles and wear multiple hats. Are there other skills you possess that add value that people would pay for? Teaching, art direction, PR strategy, creative collaborations?
Freelance life requires us to generate our own opportunities. We are our own PR agent, social media manager, accountant, project manager, creative director, artist, and so on. Yes, we can outsource some of those tasks, but we are still the decision-makers. We continue to have our hands in most parts of the process. So where can you get more involved in the process to generate opportunities for yourself?
How have you generated work in the past? What worked then, what works now? What isn’t working now? Who do you know? This is a question I ask clients often. I truly believe our success is tied to relationships with mentors, colleagues, and our community at large. If you don’t reach out and ask for what you want, people will assume you are okay and don’t need anything. I don’t mean begging for work. I mean telling people about your work because you are excited about it and you want to bring them into it. Excitement generates excitement.
My last piece of advice will be practical and not romantic in the least. But I want you to make a budget. What are your monthly expenses? What is the minimum amount of money you need to make? First, aim to make that. Piece it together however you can: freelance projects, teaching, writing, speaking, retainers, ongoing contracts, etc. Then once you hit that number for several months, increase it. Keep doing this process until you figure out what the market can bear.
You have value to contribute. You are not done. And the value you contribute needs to be rewarded with money. It’s an exchange and it should be equitable. You cannot live on the thrill of what’s around the corner or the possibilities that might never come. You need concrete opportunities that allow you to pay your bills and have money in the bank. First, you must believe it’s possible. Second, you must believe you deserve it. Third, you must take action every day to build the future you hope for—that’s how it becomes a reality.
To more than possibility,
Submit to the column:
Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to email@example.com with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
- What you want more of in your work and/or life.
- Your biggest challenges to having more of what you want.
- What opportunities exist for you right now.
- What you've learned about yourself in the past year.
- Include your name or submit anonymously.