A few months ago on a chilly Saturday afternoon, my two young children and I took the subway from our home in Astoria, New York to midtown Manhattan and rode the M20 bus all the way down to the East Village — just for the fun of it. With the big, 360-degree windows and slightly elevated position, I always appreciate the point of view the city bus affords. This one made its way down Broadway lined with store after store, bursting with busy shoppers consuming denim and flatware and mineral-based cosmetics. As we passed high-rise apartment buildings full of tufted sofas and imported olive oil and closet systems, I was filled with the astonishing phenomena that money was everywhere my eye landed.
Politics and healthy living aside, I delighted in this sight of consumption. It gave me a sense of abundance. There is plenty of money in the world — and not just in the filthy-rich land of New York City. There is enough money on this planet for every single woman, man and child to have enough. It is just a matter of getting some.
I haven’t always felt that way though.
I grew up with the message that getting by is hard. Get a good, salaried job. Marry rich. Join the military — they will pay for college and have good benefits! The lesson was that there isn’t enough to go around. Find some external factor — a husband, a corporation, a G.I. grant — to take care of you.
That advice never really sat well with me. I dreamt of doing bigger things, but growing up in a small, middle-class town didn’t afford me many role models. So I chose a hybrid route: a risky business (writing) in a conservative model (staff newspaper job with poor pay and benefits), and I paid the rent on my own (before and now after my divorce). It suited me okay for awhile.
Then, five years into my career, I took on a freelance writing gig. I did some simple math: I could earn 10 or more times per hour working for myself than working for someone else. And while self-employed I could do what I knew made sense, not seethe in my cubicle over being forced to take on some inane task just because my boss said so. Instead, I could find efficiencies that made more money and made my life better and happier. And I could make more money: I was now free from any income cap imposed on me by a boss or an HR schedule.
Being self-employed also meant freedom from financial risk of traditional employment. If one client disappears, I’d always have others to fall back on (whereas when working in the tumultuous world of newspapers, I was constantly terrified of layoffs, which would have meant zero income for an unforeseeable future — a risk inherent in any staff job). As an entrepreneur, if I lose a bid on a project, I have the freedom to find another, better one.
I was sold. In fact, I’ve found self-employment is inherently wired with the promise of a better day. Each and every morning I fire up my email there is a very good chance of a new client, a better project and an awesome opportunity. At a job, you are at the mercy of the boss’s priorities and prerogatives, and very rarely does this include employees’ personal happiness.
Self-employment has afforded me yet another giant freedom: The freedom to do my best work. With the only restraints being the public’s attention, I have had the liberty to experiment with new ideas. The result for me has been finding my true voice as a writer, my power as a public personality, and developing as a business person in ways that a staff gig would never have facilitated.
And then there is the flip side of financial and professional independence. It is not for everyone. And it is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it is grueling. In the past few years, the freelance writing market has tanked. The fees for freelance writing first stalled, then nose dived, and many previously lucrative markets now do not pay writers at all. But I do not despair.
In fact, my next chapter looks like it will be my most exciting and lucrative yet. As I transition into the information product and media business, I see the potential to truly scale my time and skills into something that can earn far more than my hourly output has ever afforded me.
Here’s the thing: As an independent worker, it is up to me to define my success. Some years that has been earning as much as I could. Other years it’s meant spending the majority of time with my children while earning just enough to buy groceries. Other years it means something in-between. But one thing is consistent: The decisions as to how I manage my career and life are my own. And that is the ultimate freedom.