Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Spiritual Aspect of Freelancing

One of the less discussed aspects of freelancing is the spiritual side of this kind of life, but for me this aspect was dominant from the start. I was surprised to find that from a spiritual point of view the difference between a salaried lifestyle and a freelancing one was vast, and the jump to freelancing, which I made recently, a lot more difficult because of it.
As a child I grew up in a "salaried" family. Both my parents worked in large, governmental bureaucracies and both had tenure. This kind of position was held to be the ideal job offering steady pay, a respectable position in society and most importantly – security in an unpredictable world. So it will not surprise you to hear that for most of my life I had been working as a salaried worker in the city or else living in a kibbutz where salaries, of course, were unheard of at the time.
A salaried worker, at least here in Israel, is in many respects like being a child. Your union takes care of negotiations so the salary is fixed without any effort on your part. Benefits, pension plans and saving plans are also already taken care of by the employer, by agreement with the union. Many workers do not even know that they have such things, and I am continually surprised to get in my mail all kinds of announcements, updating me on the status of pension plans I had no idea I was part of. Taxes are deducted directly from your salary so the salaried worker also does not have to deal with the IRS. Vacation and days off are set too, and many times arranged and even paid for by the employer. Sick leave is taken care of. In many instances, the salaried worker just has to appear at work on a consistent basis and everything else will be taken care of. You can be fired but usually the union will make sure that the terms are favorable and in any case you are entitled to unemployment pay for several months. In short – there is a lot to be said for this kind of job, although the mileage may vary depending on the country you live in and your field of work.
The main point is that there exist a spiritual relationship between the salaried worker and his or her employer: dependence. The worker expects the job and the salary to be there for him every day, for years on end. He comes to see it as his birthright: "I deserve this job and this salary and these conditions" is a major underlying assumption in a salaried workers life. I submit that this is also one of the major reasons why workers, even when suffering like in the TV show The Office, dare not venture out of the familiar and quit their jobs.

Yes, it is not easy to find another job. But the bigger obstacle in leaving the salaried life and striking out on your own is overcoming the mental atrophy that is characteristic to the salaried life.
As a freelancer you must exercise muscles that have not been in use for years or perhaps forever. As a freelancer, for the first time, everything is on you. There is no one to blame but you. You yourself are responsible for everything. That is a drastic reversal.
Being independent means that you are not beholden to anyone. You do not have to toe the party line (which, in Israel, is a significant part of the salaried workers life. See: academia, the legal system and so on) and you are free to think for yourself and form your own opinions without peer pressure coupled with economic pressure. Come to think of it, I remember reading that one of the reasons British PM Margaret Thatcher insisted on a huge program that let people buy the governmental houses they were living in at the time (seventies and eighties) was on the assumption that they would become more independent minded and therefore more inclined to favor the conservative party. Conversely, the enormous public sector in Israel, established by the Jewish communists who built this country, has always been extremely dominant and the only one fighting it, for some of the same reasons as Thatcher, has been consistently reviled by almost every public figure in Israel. I'm talking about Bibi Netanyahu of course.

But back to freelancing. The most difficult part in freelancing is getting the client, especially in the beginning. Sometimes your money is running out and so is your time. You know you can do the job but you are not getting any. What's wrong? Is anything wrong? Is the world out to get you?
I find that freelancing is like fishing – you find a body of water – where your clients are- and throw out as many hooks as possible with various baits. Some days the catch is great and sometimes you come back home with nothing. More often than not, in the beginning, the fish will not bite. It takes a lot of faith in yourself and the world – or God – to go through this period.
I admit that sometimes I yearn for a steady job: going to the same office everyday, living securely in the knowledge that at the end of the month I will get a paycheck for the exact same amount I did last month. But then I remind myself how much more satisfying it is to live like an animal – to survive by your own instincts and wits and abilities, to set your own prices, to work with the people you choose to work with and do the jobs you want to do. In a sense, as a freelancer, you interview every new client to see if he "fits". And you can always fire him. Of course, the reverse is true also, but that's what makes freelancing so exciting – it's unpredictable.
In freelancing, everyday can bring a new surprise. For better or for worse. Sometimes you'll get a shiny new project, and sometimes an existing client will call and say:
"Sorry, I have to cancel" (sometimes without the "sorry"). Living in such an uncertain world takes a lot of faith. To me, it is like trying to keep your balance constantly while the world throws at you endless distractions, the biggest of which are, of course – your fears.
As a salaried worker, your fears are taken care of. In fact I would say that being a salaried worker is mostly the result of fear (which, by the way, I completely understand and sympathize with).
As a freelancer you have chosen to face that fear – the fear of the unknown - on a daily basis. This takes a lot of guts, and self-confidence and, I think a lot of faith.

Which reminds of this fable that sums it all up very nicely: The Dog and the Wolf by Aesop:
(I do not know where this version is from. It is much more elaborate than the usual ones. I remember translating it from English to Hebrew many years ago, but I forget the source. For this post, I translated it back.)

"A starved, bony wolf happened one night to meet a fat, satiated dog. After greeting each other the wolf said:
"Hey, what's up? How is it that you look so good? No doubt you are feeding well, while here I am, running around day and night trying to make ends meet, barely keeping myself from starving."
"Well, if you want to look like I do, just do what I do," said the dog.
"Really," said the wolf, "what does that mean?"
"All you have to do is protect the master's house at night, and keep away the robbers," said the dog.
"With pleasure," said the wolf, "seeing that I am in such a bad way right now. Life in the wild, in the cold and rain are very tiring. Methinks a warm roof, and a full stomach are not a bad substitution!"
"Certainly not," said the dog. "Come with me."
As the two companions were walking along the wolf noticed a strange mark on the dog's neck. Being of an inquisitive nature he couldn't help but ask what was the meaning of it."
"Hmmm, nothing," said the dog.
"Yes, but…"
"It's nothing, maybe you mean the collar that is attached to my chain," said the dog.
"A chain," the wolf cried out in surprise. "You mean you aren't allowed to roam where and when you please?"
"Well, not exactly," said the dog. "You see, they think I am quite a frightening creature so they tie me up during the day, but I assure you, at night I am as free as a bird, and besides, the master feeds me from his own plate, and his servants give me leftovers, and everybody loves me and…wait, where are you going, what's wrong?"
"Well, good night to you," said the wolf. "You can eat all the delicacies you wish, but I prefer a stale loaf of bread and my freedom over the pamperings of royalty and a chain."

But life is not always so clear-cut and there is a lot of gray area between "wolf" and "dog". Many free-lancers use a combination of the two, hoping to get the best of both worlds. This is a very good tactic, especially for beginners.
Also, being a wolf can be a lonely business while some people just need the warmth and security of human company. Freedom does have it's costs and ultimately the question is: are you willing to pay the price? Is it worth it for you?

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