Putting the “Free” Back into Freelancing

Most people know that the term “freelancer” dates back to the days of chivalry and knights, when the “free” lances were basically guns for hire, medieval mercenaries with no allegiance to any king or queen. Sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it? A bit Lancelot and Lady Guinevere. But of course guns for hire are also lances to be broken. “To break a lance for someone” is now a little-used idiom, expressing a willingness to go all in for a person or a cause. In German we have the same idiom “Eine Lanze brechen für…”.Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.38.13

I am certainly willing to break a lance for self-determination aka freelancing. For the idea of being able to decide for yourself where you draw the line. When to say yes, and when to say no.

We get to set the terms, and as long as we are supplying something that is in demand (freelance whingers are out of luck) we can (within the confines of market forces) set down our rules. So, if you are an urban nomad or want to work out of a backpack (with good hotspot facilities nearby) or in a wooden hut (ditto) or only at night, or only for Russian poets, or automobile PR companies, then go ahead. You got the skills, then you get the thrills.

But I had a few years where I forgot about the free in freelance. And I am pretty sure many of you will recognise yourselves in this scenario:

It was going to be a short break with the kids and friends. I had planned to hang out in the hammock, drink beer and shoot the breeze every evening, with days spent lazily watching the kids jump around in the lake. What actually happened was that I ended up bent over my computer in a shady corner of the garden (sometimes with a towel over my head to aid visibility!) where the internet was just about viable (I needed half an hour sweating bullets to send one document) for the entire three days of the “break” because I got a last-minute job that paid enough to cover my entire month of living costs. I almost got a stomach ulcer from the stress of it (it was also a field I wasn’t completely au fait with but when I had voiced doubts they were brushed away by the company, who were simply desperate to get the job done) and spent much of my free time apologising to my hosts (who possibly didn’t care that much, and certainly didn’t understand, because they all had regular nine-fives.) I would say the word “freelancer”, shrugging, as if that magical word was reason enough for me to forgo my holiday, because after all, I did get to drink coffees in the sun at random times of the day and pick my kids up from school myself.

It was less this:

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And more this: Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 21.40.47

It was that moment: where anxiety gnaws at your stomach, you realise you bit off more than you can chew, and yeah, the money is great, but this voice in your head is asking “When does it stop being worth it?”

I delivered the final docs to the client (who, when I spoke to him on the phone to clarify some terminology, was on a mountaintop in Oregon, skiing with his two children, and spent half the conversation shouting at them to be quiet. He didn’t really seem to care which words I used anyway) and I remember thinking, “So this guy is rich enough to go skiing with his kids in June, but isn’t rich enough to be able to switch off his phone?” So, a week later, when he confirmed everything was fine, I said “And by the way, please do not plan me in for any future jobs. The job is more suited to someone using CAT tools and would work out much cheaper for you that way too.” A consternated silence at the other end, and then “Really?” To his credit, he never called again.

And I remembered then, that the whole point about being a freelancer are the four letters at the front of the word.

Free.

When did the world of work get to be so omnipotent that getting a couple of days’ worth of work or winning a new client makes us want to break out the champagne? It’s great to love your job, and I mostly do, but nevertheless it is something I do mainly to pay the rent. Otherwise I would spend my time translating biographies for free. As freelancers we pay for our own healthcare, we forgo many benefits and safety nets that your classic employee enjoys (calling in sick anyone?) and for me the trade-off is clear. It means we should at least get to decide when and how. Of course nothing is going to protect you if you are not good at your job. But that holds true for any line of work. (Well, unless you’re a banker or a politician…sorry, couldn’t resist.) You need to get training, get qualified, go get. But for all others:

We need to RELAX!

We paid our rent, we will most probably continue to do so. And if we have a dry spell, we will figure things out. Which we have been doing all our lives. Barring major health issues, are our kids actively inhaling illicit substances as we speak? No? OK then.

No client is going to ask you if you are nearing breakdown when they request a quote. And they aren’t ever going to ask you when your last free weekend was. Why should they? That, as a freelancer, is your job too!

And because you shoulder all these extra responsibilities, it is also OK to charge more than your local barista. But above all, it’s about claiming the freedom that only you can claim. Going on proper holidays, writing an automatic reply that says “I won’t be in my office during this period. In the case of urgent translations feel free to contact Wilbur Wordsmith or Anna Apostrophe, my trusty colleagues.”

So….I am currently renting a pretty flat in the old town of Barcelona for a month. I have no phone and am only available via email or whatsapp. It is scary and new. But until now, my clients are still with me. I told them I was taking a holiday, and that I’d be back to work for the last two weeks, but Catalan-chola style. I want to wander around a strange town with my daughters without having to raise my forefinger at them when the phone rings, signaling that I need to concentrate on the call for a minute, even if one of them is about to do “the best handstand evah!”

It feels thrilling, exhilarating. And yes, I am grateful to be FREElance!

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15 comments

  1. Loved this!

    By the way—there is a ton of perfect, colorful sea glass in Barcelona. If you like pretty garbage, I recommend you spend a couple hours combing the beaches. (But beware, there may be women who sneak up and try to start massaging you.)

  2. Fabulous post Galina. I can (or should I say could? – as I’ve gotten better than I was!) relate to everything in this one. I hope you’re having the most marvellous time in Barcelona with your girls. Enjoy every second and the world of translation and all of us will still be here when you get back 🙂

  3. Sounds like written by a bird who finally understood what flying is all about. And do I see that both girls have their feet off the ground too? Enjoy Barcelona !

  4. Great post! I really like your writing! And totally relate to the ‘stomach ulcer’ bit of it. Some assignments can make you feel like this. Have a great time in Barcelona! Regards, Petra
    P.S.: I also love biographies.

  5. Good point. I think what makes it so hard to take time off is that, if you’re going to be successful as a freelancer, especially as a translator, the chances are you’re more than slightly obsessive – with your work, with the prospect of earning so much money at once, and most of all with the possibility of the work all suddenly drying up and leaving you with no income (this, of course, from someone who was working until 11 pm last night in “preparation” for her own trip to Barcelona!)

  6. Lovely post as ever, Galina – and I can vouch for the fact that you looked very free and relaxed when I met you in Barcelona! We definitely do need to keep on saying the NO word and keep in mind that we make the rules, set the terms and make the final decisions. Yes, we need clients, but they need us too! Enjoy the rest of your time in Barcelona – I visited the El Born district on my last afternoon, and wished I’d had more time to explore. Next time!

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