Freelancing and Identity
Part 1: Turning Your Hobby into Your Career
I've done it twice. I won't do it again.
First with gardening and with paddleboarding. I always loved plants. Have gardened since I could walk. At each of my parents' houses I had a flowerbed that I could call my own. I dug up half the yard at one house. I commandeered the indoor wet bar to be my "greenhouse" and I had a million houseplants and terrariums. I also liked museums. So my mom found me the Public Horticulture program at Purdue University and I did that. Then I went to the University of Delaware and the Longwood Graduate Program for my Master's. I ate, slept, breathed plants, museums, and gardens. I still read books and enjoyed movies and traveling, but 97% of my life was tied up in plants. I pointed my whole life toward managing public gardens.
I had to leave my job at a public garden and I didn't want to move (I couldn't really move. It was December 2007, we had just bought a house, the economy was teetering on the brink of collapse.) When you manage public gardens for a living you have to move around. I was staying put.
I had to switch careers or I had to move. I had spent about 12 years working and dreaming and sweating and learning to have that career and it was more or less gone, not really by my own choice. I could tell, on the second day of work, that that job was going to be terrible but I stuck it out for two years. I had moved my husband and my whole life. I made it work.
I grieved the loss of that job and that field like someone would grieve a death. Like I have grieved deaths. Probably because a big part of me died when I left that job. A huge part of me.
Because IT WAS PRETTY MUCH MY WHOLE LIFE. I worked all the time-nights-weekends-all day. If I was the manager on duty for the weekend, I didn't get the week off. I just worked 12 days in a row. I vacationed and took pictures of plants. I planned every trip around a garden. Half of my pictures while on trips with my family were of interpretative signage.
After I left the botanical garden, I needed a job, any job. I applied at a local private city club to be their event planner (because I planned events all of the time at the gardens) and I applied to work at a custom embroidery and printing company that did all of their business online. I got offers from both, half of what I had been making, not in my field (except tangentially--marketing), and I went to work at the shirt company so I could learn something new. I worked with logos and customer service and learned how to do digital marketing.
For the first time since early high school I had a job I could shut off at 6 pm and leave.
(Of course that was when I was building up my freelance, so I came home and worked, but that was different work. I didn't have to eat, sleep, and breathe my job.
MY JOB WAS NOT MY IDENTITY
It was AWESOME!
The next time I turned my hobby into my job is when I started working with a standup paddleboarding site. I started by writing a blog post, which turned into "Hey, I can help you with your newsletter," which turned into, "Hey, I can help you sell advertising," which turned into, "Hey I can just manage this whole shebang for you."
I LOVED paddleboarding. LOVED LOVED LOVED LOVED LOVED it. I loved paddleboarding like I loved gardening. I ate, slept, and breathed paddleboarding. I was a "face." People associated me with this website. I got to go to races and stuff because it was my job.
Turns out when your job is your whole identity if something is not going right with your job, then your life is probably going to be a mess, too.
If you are made up of nothing but work, if everything you believe to be right and good about yourself is your work, if anything at all threatens your work, you will perceive it as an attack on your entire life.
I think this is worse if you're entire identity is your work and you work in a relatively smallish, niche field. (Paddleboarding is a REALLY SMALL FIELD. Smaller than the one I'm in now.)
In a small field where everyone knows each other, everything that someone else does that is even slightly related to your work can feel like a personal attack.
In my main field of writing there are not hundreds of thousands of people doing it. There are maybe a few thousand. There are a lot of generalists and there are a lot of people who focus on a single or a handful of subjects. We all know each other. All of what we do is largely part of the public domain. (There are only so many ways to tell someone how to grow a tomato or root sweet potato slips or save seeds from a squash plant and why you might or might not want to do that.)
Let me repeat this sentence because I have to repeat it to myself sometimes:
If my whole identity is wrapped up in my work, anything someone else does that is slightly related to what I do can feel like a personal attack.
When really, I'm just trying to do a job and so are they.
Part 2: Hobbies Let Me Do Better Work
"But Katie, what if I ALSO turned my hobby into my job?"
I say, get another hobby! There's no reason why you have to go through life with ONLY ONE INTEREST. OMG how boring.
I am COMPLETELY OBSESSED WITH RUNNING. This started in September 2017 and it has not faded. It might someday. It might not.
I've had friends ask me why I don't start a running blog or pitch to Runner's World.
I don't because I want to keep something that is just a hobby. It's just for fun. I do it because it makes me happy and healthy, not because my ability to pay my mortgage rests on it. If I wake up and I don't want to run I DON'T GO FOR A RUN. I have some space with something in my life where I can JUST RELAX ALREADY.
If I wake up and I don't feel like writing about plants, if it is Monday-Friday, tough, I'm writing about plants.
If I have a bad race, time wise (I'm looking at you, OBX half marathon), I take what I can from it (Super cool views, fun weekend in the OBX, touristing in a place I'd never been, nice race course), and move on.
If I have a bad client interaction or poor results with a marketing email, there are REAL LIFE CONSEQUENCES to that. I might not be able to pay my bills. I will feel really bad about myself and my ability to do work.
IF MY WHOLE LIFE IS MY WORK AND SOMETHING HAPPENS WITH MY WORK I'M GOING TO SPEND MY WHOLE LIFE FEELING LIKE A MISERABLE FAILURE.
Part 3: Public Persona & Imposter Syndrome
I think that the rise of the internet has led to a crisis of imposter syndrome feelings with freelancers. The "If I don't constantly share what I'm doing about my work I must be a fraud." It aggravates the already pretty common feelings of impostor syndrome that come from watching tons of other people do the same thing that you do. (Which is unavoidable in life. There are only so many jobs. There are only so many subjects. What separates you from other people is YOU.)
Like it or not we live during a time when a lot of our life is shared with the public. As a freelancer, particularly a freelancer in a relatively close-knit or small field (of which there are many), you become friends, network, and work for or have your peers working for you.
You see what your other friends and colleagues are doing and you can't help but compare yourself to them.
Here's where the boyband comes in. I have learned a lot about living in the public eye from watching Harry Styles (He's the one in the picture on the left up top) and watching Niall Horan, both young men from the band One Direction.
One Direction went on hiatus in January 2016, not coincidentally, I don't think, when the world, as far as I'm concerned, really started to fall apart. COME BACK ONE DIRECTION.
The guys have embarked on solo careers. I follow Harry's, mostly, because I like his music and his personality (from what we see and it isn't much). He has an extremely dry sense of humor, likes to read, and is a kind individual. (Everyone who meets him remarks on how kind he is.)
This band of KIDS (they were 16-18 when they started) were SO INCREDIBLY OVEREXPOSED when they started out. They built their brand on social media. Their handlers put them together as a flash in the pan group and ran them into the ground, sent stalkers after them, and shared their every move on twitter/facebook/tumblr.
When they went solo, they all were, to some degree, able to have a little more control over their images. Harry, essentially, shut down any speculation, answers, etc. about his personal life. He is very very very guarded about what he shares. He's not at all active on social media. It is kind of a running joke about how much he can swerve answers to questions. He keeps all of the focus on his work and he says, during interviews, all of the time, "I like to keep my work life and my personal life separate." And he's doing fine.
Niall is doing AMAZINGLY well, and he has been somewhat different. He is pretty cagey. We don't really know that much about him, but we have the ILLUSION of knowing him. He has, essentially, chosen about a half dozen areas of his life that he shares with his fans:
- Hanging out with his band
- Sporting things
You can see that reflected in his Instagram. (He's friends with Pro golfer Rory McIlroy. That's who the Rory is.)
UNDOUBTEDLY, Niall has more interests than those. AT some point over the last 7 years he must have dated somebody but HELL IF WE KNOW WHO THAT IS. (And the One Direction fandom is like the FBI so if there was any chance of knowing, it would be known.) There have been glimpses of him cooking but he got teased so mercilessly after posting a picture of an unseasoned chicken on Instagram that he NEVER SHOWS PHOTOS OF COOKING anymore. He probably likes cooking and decided he didn't want to be ripped to shreds about it.
The point is that you don't HAVE to share your entire life on social media and the internet to be seen as a human. You can decide to share NOTHING but work and you can decide to share NO WORK and you can decide to share a blend but you don't have to share everything.
You can choose what aspects of your life are off limits and what are for the public domain.
IT IS EASIER TO DO THIS AND TO DRAW SOME LINES WHEN YOUR WORK IS NOT YOUR ENTIRE LIFE.
That way, even IF you hold nothing but your work up for scrutiny, and someone criticizes it, they're not criticizing YOUR ENTIRE EXISTENCE.
If someone talks smack about ONE of your hobbies, they're not criticizing YOUR ENTIRE EXISTENCE. Because you haven't shared everything about everything you do and love and hold dear.
You've created a framework, "These are my subjects. This is what is fair game. Everything else is not."
My running friends have said that I am much much more relaxed now than when they first met me a year ago. I think one reason is that I have an intense hobby that requires a lot of my focus while I'm engaging in it that is in no way related to my work, and it had been a while since I had one of those.
I know that some people will read through this and think, "Just grow a thicker skin." Let everything hang out and don't care what people say. Or, "Be a closed book" and never share anything. In some fields you can be a contractor and nobody will ever know anything about you other than how well you code or how efficient you are at making spreadsheets.
I don't have the luxury and most of my friends and colleagues don't either.
But we can:
- Have hobbies and interests that are unrelated to our jobs.
- Decide what we want to share in public.
- Stop comparing ourselves to others in our field based on EITHER their work OR their internet presence.