Always Ready to Walk
I peer into my inner mirror trying to remember great things I've done, but instead I see things I don't want to see: the years that melted away. They didn't melt gracefully -- no, these were misspent years, and they left their marks on my present, like one-time ice that's left a muddy pool on the floor. You can't get back the ice and you can't mop up the mud either. If I gaze deeper into the streaky mirror, I see the underlying causes, the bad habits that wasted those years: some obviously neurotic and personal, others with an overlay of "business" wrapped around dysfunctional personal cores. (If you go deep enough, everything is ultimately personal.)
Right now I'm seeing some of those business puddles. They're all there, dimly in the glass: ghosts of projects I worked on but shouldn't have. Projects that were beneath me, or that were too comfortably familiar but didn't challenge me or develop my skills to a higher level. Ghosts of clients I should have cut off sooner -- because they were low-paying, or career dead ends, or pains in the ass. (I stayed with them because... because they were already there, I guess.) Ghostly images of money I could have easily earned but didn't. The personal ghosts: women I should have asked for a date, but didn't have the nerve... places I should have traveled to, but didn't... have the nerve... projects I should have turned down... clients I should have pitched... but didn't... have the nerve... it all sounds disturbingly similar, doesn't it? What is inertia, anyway? What is lost opportunity? It's mostly just fear. Maybe in large corporations there's a difference between "personal" problems and "business" problems, but if you work for yourself, they're all personal.
Brooding can be morbidly amusing, of course; but, trying to be logical, to be self-therapeutic, I remind myself that "wasted years" is a relative term. I've done lots of things, haven't I? Yes, more than most people -- but I could have done more, far more. Oh, I know the psychobabble axioms. We should focus on the future, not the past, because focusing on the future represents "opportunity" but brooding on the past just fuels depression. Oh, rubbish. I hate psychobabble (most of it, anyway) and besides I'm not depressed. I've been there and I know what that feels like. Depression is a low-energy state, a metabolic sleepy state, and I'm way too busy for a luxury like that. It's just that when I brood about lost years and opportunities, it makes me very, very sad.
Hell, I'm brooding now. Enough of this crap. Let's do something practical, okay? Let's talk about leaving projects and clients when you should, when it suits your career-advancement needs, instead of staying stuck in safe inertia and waking up twenty years later to be haunted by melted years you can never get back.
People? What People?
Here's some conventional advice I've read: as an independent professional, you need to constantly market yourself. Marketing never ends (or so goes the advice) so as soon as you land a client, you should be looking for a new one -- even, in the back of your mind, looking to replace the client you've just landed with a better one. The way this works, apparently, is that you sort your clients in a kind of private hierarchy, and you ditch the old "lower" ones as you land new "higher" ones. That way you're always climbing the ladder, or acting out some other metaphor.
Logical? Perhaps, but to me this sounds like some neat theory about a country dreamed up by somebody who was never there.
First of all, I usually like my clients. I mean, they're people like me (well, sort of like me, anyway) and I don't think of them as just rungs on a ladder. I think of them as Jim who loves my Web designs and whose kid has bronchitis and whose new page mockup I'd better get him by Thursday before his big meeting; and Wendy who likes my copywriting so much that she sends me thank-you notes (in the real mail, not by email) and always makes me feel a little better after I talk to her. I'm supposed to think of them as things to be maneuvered, as rungs on a ladder, as something to be ditched when I find something better? Okay, I guess I'm just a lousy businessperson, but I can't think of people I like like that.
No Time To Be Great
Second of all, when I get into a project I focus all my attention on it, and it sucks up all my time. When, exactly, am I supposed to be doing all this marketing of myself on the side? Yeah, the ruthless business types respond that I must have a "time management problem." Taking my work seriously is a time management problem? Think about the greatest projects in history (whatever turns you on -- the Parthenon, Rembrandt's portraits, the space shuttle, whatever). Do you think they were designed by people with half a mind on where the next project would come from, and whether they should cut this one short because it didn't pay enough?
Not focusing your mind on the project you're being paid to do is like stealing. Besides, it doesn't even work. How many people, no matter how smart, can do good work with only half a mind on what they're doing? And how many IPs can build a solid career without a track record of good work behind them?
San Outlines His Secret Schizo Method
What I just said may sound like a contradiction of my earlier point. It may sound like a prescription for staying endlessly stuck with the same clients and the same projects even though you'll regret it later. There is, however, a way out of this box. The components of my method may sound exceedingly strange, and perhaps this wouldn't work for you, but anyway... there are two requirements. You'll need:
Let's examine each of these in turn.
As I've said, being committed to your clients and projects is good; for an obsessive worker like me it's not even a choice. However, this does not mean that you can't simultaneously have some distance from the process. You can juggle more than one part of a project simultaneously, can't you? So why can't you juggle more than one attitude? If you have enough completed projects in your past, you have the historical raw material from which to fashion a sense of perspective. In retrospect, do any one of those past projects seem as critical to you now as they did at the time you were immersed in them? What I'm suggesting is total commitment to your current project, but at the same time (though on a different plane of thought) the understanding that this project won't make or break you forever. Actually, there is no forever. Certainly no project lasts forever, no client lasts forever, and there may come a time when you should walk away. (I mean walk at a natural break point, not by breaking your contractual obligations in the middle of something critical, or screwing your client). Be totally here now and simultaneously be on a future cloud looking down at yourself. Creative schizophrenia. I'm one with this project, I'm totally on your side client, but if I need to I can always walk away. In fact -- pay attention, now, this is difficult and important -- being always ready to walk means that it's less likely you'll need to walk. Don't try to deconstruct that logically; just "think" about it in your gut to make sense out of it.
For an IP, there's no such thing as being "unemployed." If you don't have a client project to work on, then you automatically have other projects to work on. Marketing yourself becomes a project. Improving your skills becomes a project. Plotting a new business strategy becomes a project. This is bad? Nonsense. This is good. Of course, in order to tolerate periods with no client work, you must have money in the bank. Acquiring that buffer requires discipline and luck and a number of other things. That's a subject I may tackle some other time, but I'll just say here that if you don't have money in the bank (or a line of credit or a supportive relative or some equivalent buffer) you'll have a hard time succeeding as an IP no matter what you do.
I know what my more conventional readers must be thinking -- what am I, nuts, espousing periods of unemployment as a good thing? That's the definition of failure, for chrissakes! Well... bull. Conventional wisdom is that being a "successful" IP means you always have a client project in hand -- or, more likely, three of them. May I humbly disagree? Downtime can be creative; downtime is when you can grow; downtime isn't downtime at all if you approach it constructively. And being truly "successful," in my mind, means your skills are so polished that you earn so much money when you're doing client work that you can afford not to do client work some of the time. Notice I didn't say not to work -- you should always work, the best play and the best work are indistinguishable -- but you work for yourself, remember?
Walking Towards Autonomy
What autonomous commitment and constructive downtime add up to is a frame of mind that actually constitutes a method. It's a method for turning down projects when you should, for walking away when it's good for your career to do so. As I've said, the conventional method is to always have new prospects in hand, or be actively pursuing them while working on your current project. If that works for you, fine. It doesnt work for me. My method is to cultivate an attitude that says, 'I can just walk away any time I need to.' Does this sound like I don't give a damn? Quite the opposite, it lets me focus more on my project's and client's needs, and do better work. When I do walk, I may not have other client work in hand -- and it doesn't scare me. I work on my own projects, and emerge to take on a new client project as a stronger, better person than I was.
You know, there's a simple word that pretty much sums up my idea of being Always Ready to Walk. It's called "freedom." Or maybe "independence." And what's the point of being an independent professional if you're not independent?
San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.
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