Why Freelancing Is So Much Better Than Having an Office Job
Being your own boss isn’t for everyone, and it’s definitely not easy, but for me the tradeoffs are worth it.
Photo courtesy of Paulette Perhach
If I even open Instagram, my morning is over. I’m supposed to meditate/read/write, then start my day, but if Twitter gets involved, I only realize thirty minutes later, when my phone buzzes yet another reminder at me, that I’m losing time. My boss gets pissed.
“Ok, stop it,” I say, as the boss. From my chair, I throw my phone on the couch, where it often bounces and lands face-down on the rug. I open my laptop to start my morning playlist. The first high hat cymbal beat, then the drop of the piano of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” — Tsss, dun dun dun dun— gets me shakin’ it toward productivity.
She has me at “Tumble outta bed, and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition, yawnin' and stretchin' and try to come to life.” I sing along knowing my neighbor, the musician upstairs in this building of old rooms converted to 150 sq. ft. apartments, is probably laughing at my voice.
Today, I’m back from a Tuesday/Wednesday jaunt up to a mountain town with my boyfriend. I worked all last weekend, while the sun shone outside and a music festival blared from a few blocks away. I’ll work through the next weekend, too, when the lake we enjoyed will be packed. On today’s colorful Google calendar: learning animation for a client, listening to recorded interviews with the kind of experts I always feel lucky to chat with, and finishing up details on my book launch, a book I wrote for new writers to convince them to go for it. So this is where Dolly loses me.
“It's all taking and no giving,” she says of 9-to-5 life. “They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
I remember why I choose this life. There is no they.
My freelance epiphany
Six years ago, it was a spring day in Seattle, a Tuesday, the first day that the sun fed us for the rays we’d been starving for all winter. I stood there, a returned Peace Corps volunteer with a tech writing job I lucked into and needed to get me back on my financial feet, remembering a sunny Tuesday afternoon like this when I followed my host grandmother across a creek and through a field of ostriches. The button of my black pants dug into my vending machine gut and my polyester work socks slid in my heeled boots as I leaned in the doorway of my boss’s empty office, looking out his window. My deadlines weren’t until the next week, and the weather would turn crappy by the weekend.
In strolled our freelance graphic designer. He had his meeting with us, and, as I watched him walk out, into the afternoon sun, and the door closed on me, I had the thought: I’m not allowed to leave the building.
That day, I bought the 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I read it, but it didn’t really resonate. It sat on my shelf until a year later, when I had another bad day at work. This time, it gave me a solid idea, and I spent the next few years wiggling my way out.
How I make the numbers work
I’ve had a lot of different jobs, but it mostly went: small-town reporter, Peace Corps, tech company, then part-time before I took the big plunge. As Papa Ferriss suggested, I started an online course for passive income to cover my ass in lean times. It about covers my rent, and has been essential. The guy who writes me the checks has claw marks on his door.
The course became the book, for which I got $9,000, but will set me sliding down the rainbow of brand and platform and everything else that’s supposed to land at the pot of gold. Or, at least I hope, a steadily four-digit bank account.
Billions of people on this planet would slap my face for snarking at the opportunity for a corporate job. We are lucky to have the jobs that are available, but just because we’re lucky to have one thing doesn’t mean we can’t reach for more. For those of us who can access the freelance life, I think an increasing number will. By 2027, freelance workers are expected to be the majority of the working economy. We, especially younger people with skills that can be utilized over the internet, are making the big vote. Our vote says: fuck this.
I often wonder how someone from the 1500s would look at our lives today. Hot water without swinging an ax, food without running through a forest, clean laundry without red knuckles. And we get up and tie fabric around our necks and drive to these boxes and sit in there all day away from our families, and we’re only allowed to leave for two weeks out of the year.
Whoa, stop right there, why?
Making space to be happy
“If you were looking for somebody in history who thought this was bonkers, you wouldn’t have to go back to the 1500s,” Sarah Kessler tells me. She’s the author of Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. “Before the industrial revolution, people worked independently. They weren’t part of companies. There wasn’t this concept. So it’s not like it’s a new idea: work for yourself. It’s just not the predominant way people work right now.”
If forming humans into companies is an experiment, I’d argue that that experiment is failing many of us. Even with all the stability traditional employment is supposed to provide, half of Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency. Almost 40 percent of us are obese, which I think partially results from not having the time or community to cook or exercise. In a world where we are so free to connect, more young people than ever are feeling lonely, a condition that’s actually as deadly for the social animals we are as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“You seem happy,” said a friend recently who I hadn’t seen in a while. It’s more that I have the space to be happy. I am not lonely. I am rich in the freedom to be around and work with people I like every day. I am not unhealthy. I am rich in the time I need to exercise about three times a week and cook for myself. We all are, really, we just aren’t allowed to take advantage of our time.
With the current constraints of most offices, commuters waste 42 hours a week on the road, and studies show we waste 60 percent of our time while at work. That’s 24 hours a week we’re not working. We’re just in a required location at a required time wearing required apparel in the proximity of the people we’re required to be in the proximity of, even if they’re the kind of people who yell at their wives on speaker phone while clipping their toenails.
I've got less money now, but it's worth it
My life is my life, though it is, I readily admit, “worse” in many measurable ways. My apartment is smaller. My bank account is scarier. I just had to get a $3,000 loan, and the first thing I did was buy socks. I know my book will be a platform on which I can climb up another rung, and see over the bills of health insurance, retirement savings, and investing.
I make $100 an hour with clients who pay me to do everything from redesigning PowerPoint presentations to building websites to rewriting their work bio, but haven’t saved enough for my taxes yet this year. But I’m playing the long game, building a business out of myself. What kind of business? Books like The Multi-Hyphen Method are showing us new ways to make lots of mini-businesses. I think, mostly, I want to be a writer who helps writers be writers.
Yes, my life is worse in many ways—sometimes the toilet seat in the bathroom I share is warm, doors to art experiences I used to enjoy are closed to me now because of the ticket cost, and I often find myself enjoying a lovely lunch of one microwaved yam due to its economy both the temporal and financial realms. But my life is better in the ways that matter most—connection, growth, independence, all that Daniel Pink Drive stuff. This is my hypothesis. What I’m doing with my time is my test case.
While there are great companies, and I’ve enjoyed working for some, as a whole, we know corporate life sucks. (See: Office Space.) The thing about it being the predominant way people work right now is that most people have never known anything else. We don’t have the tradition of the gap year that so many other countries have, and we go breathlessly, clutching GPA records and resumes, from school to college to internship to work, or directly to work.
We don’t take time to think. My main differentiator, as a Peace Corps volunteer, is that I’ve tried it the other way around. Smaller space but more time, more control. Everyone thinks it sounds dreamy, until you start talking about doing it within the borders of regular life.
I prefer reality. Ask a whale: Would he prefer a life in a tank with a food supply and no predators, or taking the risk in order to swim freely? I’m taking my chances out in the wild, trusting that if I bring enough value to the world, I will earn my life in the way I choose. Am I working four hours a week? Ha. More like 60, for now, but the work feels less like work. It just feels like living.
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