It’s a good thing no one has ever asked me to kill someone for them. Because I am highly likely to say yes. I am the kind of person who worries for two hours after having given a tourist directions, in case they get lost despite it all. I hate the idea that I could somehow negatively impact someone with my actions or lack of them. The other day I picked up a jacket a woman had dropped on her way past and sprinted 200 metres down the road to give it back to her. Mainly, because I knew I would be ridden with guilt all day if I didn’t. Strangely, I am perfectly fine with saying no to my kids. This people-pleasing trait is ominously restricted to strangers and work colleagues.
Beyond the cliché of “caring professions” and burning out from giving too much, some character traits, despite contributing to your career success, can also become a hinderance.
Of course being a freelance translator is a dream job. Theoretically you can work anywhere, any time. At a secluded lakeside cabin, in bed, in your favourite café. You can schedule your work around the needs of your kids, PJs at the desk and all that. But wouldn’t it be equally great NOT to work in all those places too?
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I often wake up looking forward to getting my teeth into an interesting project; I get a big grin on my face if one of my favourite clients calls, because I know it will give me enough adrenaline (deadline pressure) to make me feel the “flow”, combined with fascinating content where I will get to do lots of interesting research (and get gloriously sidetracked in the process), gathering nubbets of fascinating information as I go. (Regrettably I forget it all within a week: I am a translator for god’s sake, my brain’s hard drive has to be cleansed regularly to make room for the next job.)
But the problem comes when it is time to shut down the computer and switch off. These damn smartphones make it so hard…but of course no one is forcing me to leave it on or check my work mail during dinner. And as I recently learnt from a tech-friend, when I was trying to make excuses for the fact I had been working every weekend in living memory, you can even selectively filter certain numbers for times of day and days of the week, so that client calls aren’t even put through.
The real problem is: I am a people pleaser. I enjoy the rush of being “can do” and flexible. I thrive on the relief I hear in my client’s voice, when I say “No problem, we can squeeze that in”. I like being part of the solution and not the problem.
And I haven’t been taking my own advice, and have been working waaaay too much. So when I was told repeatedly by people who care about me that I NEED to take a proper holiday (at least 10 consecutive days of non-screen time, with no emails and no work, not even small projects) I said yes, yes, yes, but deep down inside I wasn’t even sure if I really even wanted a holiday, because my identity and feeling of self-worth is so wrapped up with my job (where does the translator stop and the me begin?) and the feeling of being needed is pretty addictive, as all people pleasers know. Plus, I simply love the English language and words in general. A conurbation of commas to kill? Repetitive use of “thus” to excise? Finding a solution to the word “Auseinandersetzung” being used 10 times in one page? Wondering if I can get away with coining the word “multiperspectival”? Not for nothing do I write a blog in my spare time. And it doesn’t stop there. When we are on holiday (armed with laptops of course), my colleague and I love photographing menus and sending each other snaps of badly misspelt signage. Never quite off duty, not even when eating “crisply fried cancer scissors” at a beach restaurant.
My “aha moment” came this summer when I was heading off for a couple of days’ bird watching with my dad and kids. I had completely cleared my schedule, informed my major clients and was determined to switch my phone off as soon as we hit the road. It was a Friday morning, a key time for translators, which makes or breaks the weekend. I needed the navigator on my phone to get us to our destination, and no sooner had we hit the borders of Berlin, did my mobile start to vibrate. I only answered because I was turning into a petrol station. Although I did manage to stutter the words “Er, actually I am on holiday right now…” (pat on the back, that wasn’t easy for me) I also added the words “but don’t worry, we’ll take care of it, I’ll get back to you asap to let you know price and schedule”. My dad and kids patiently sat in the lay-by with me, watching me send urgent whatsapp messages to my colleague, whilst cursing the lack of internet connection, begging her to take the job on which (bless!) she did, forwarding it on to her, (dammit, PDF, 1.8 megabytes) and then calling back to coordinate with the PR company. That day I knew something had to change. I realised I couldn’t be a people pleaser to everyone.
I didn’t want this horrible feeling of guilt toward those I wanted to spend time with, and accountability toward my clients. I didn’t want to feel angry about clients “stealing” my time, because that was unfair too. I was the one who needed to set clearer boundaries. I didn’t want to have my feet in the lake while my head was in the office.
I used to feel indignant when reading the jaunty “I won’t be at my desk all summer” kind of out-of-the-office emails from clients and colleagues, thinking “Well, they obviously don’t love their job!” but now I nod appreciatively and realise that that is probably someone who has wised up to the fact that if they really want to do a good job, they also need to recover from the long evening sessions and weekends that they spend working. As freelancers we don’t have a boss to stand up to, and no one to tell us when it is time to go home. We know the bottom line is, if we stop “people pleasing” our clients we are out of a job. But there is a difference between people pleasing and being a doormat.
So, despite really enjoying being the solution to other people’s scheduling issues (we translators are so often the forgotten link between journalists writing an article and having it layouted and then go to print, or websites that need to go live tomorrow but haven’t been translated yet) I have set myself a few new rules:
- I don’t have to answer the phone right now. To be a good translator I need to concentrate, so it is perfectly acceptable to have my phone off. I have email and if it is urgent they will write. Or I can call back later.
- Office hours: After four I’m not at my desk. I have written office hours into my header so that everyone can see I am available between 8 am and 4 pm. After that, even if I am working on larger projects in the evenings or weekends, I don’t have to react to requests until the next morning, or the following Monday.
- Take a leaf out of other people’s books. Read other people’s out-of-the-office emails. See? Other people really do go on holiday and are not destitute or out of a job, and what’s more, they still have all their friends.
- Tell your kids when you are planning not to work. There is nothing like a small kid giving you a disapproving look after you promised not to check your mails all Sunday to make you realise that your priorities might be skewed.
- Pricing. I now have a pricing scale. I offer a “normal” three-day turnaround, or fast-track 24-hour service. This is my way of training my clients to plan better to save them money and me stress. If the project is REALLY that urgent, then the client won’t mind paying a 25% premium to get quality work in such a short time. Surprising how often the job can actually wait till Monday after all…
and just to prove it, the next few blog posts won’t have anything to do with work at all. Promise!