Slave to the freelance life

I am sat writing this in the train between Berlin and Brussels. It’s the 7th time I am taking this trip (or the opposite direction) in 2015; in 2014 I did it 25 times. Yes, I could fly, and pump some more CO2 into the atmosphere to save myself 90 minutes each time, but that’s not the issue here.

I am off to a city – Brussels – that I visit too often for work purposes, to do work I have done too often and is hence no longer as fun as it once was, for pay that is inadequate given the time and responsibility it entails.

Back in Berlin – where I actually am supposed to live – my bank balance is close to the red. I scramble every month to cobble together enough money to pay my rent. Both my laptop and phone are on their last legs (and – as my work is in digital comms – I am heavily reliant on both) but I cannot afford new ones. I am almost 35 years old, I have two good degrees and speak three languages, and my work – past and present – involves considerable responsibility, and working with senior people.

This is clearly an absurd situation. But I am a slave to this freelance life, and I do not know how to escape my enslavement.

I have ended up as a freelancer, predominantly running training courses about online communications and social media in politics, because other things I had done were worse.

But this work I do comes dangerously close to selling snake oil – I am not sure I actually believe in it as much as I did, and as online communications professionalises, so those who had edge and ideas (as I hope I did on this blog in the early days) get pushed to the side by those who have the larger budgets. I also worry that what I would like to see politicians and organisations communicate from the point of view of a voter or citizen, and what I ought to advise them to do as a consultant, are diverging further and further. I also have always had this impending fear that I am making it up as I go along.

But I have to keep on as a freelancer, and keep doing the same stuff (that feels more of a drag, and takes longer, because I am not as motivated as I was), because what else have I actually got?

My writing is inadequate to work as a journalist of some sort. My research skills and lack of a PhD mean academic work or think tank work is not open to me. I have done web design and development work, but I am not really a coder – I just know enough to blag it with non-techies. I would like to try to write a book, but so few would like to read what I’d like to write (about EU communications and framing) that it would actually cost me to find the time to write it, and money is something I do not have. I have also proven myself to be pretty useless at the business aspects of being a freelancer over the years, and have let people down along the way. This nags at me.

I could, I suppose, take some sort of regular job. But then I would have to have a boss. And an office. And fixed hours. It might sort the financial questions a bit. But I do not actually know who would want my odd combination of comms knowledge and skills, mixed up with EU politics, blogging, and an obsession about borders and railways. I am half-good at a bunch of things, and in some kind of weird combination that I doubt could easily be applied in an organisation or company, and my ethics would also not fit in a whole lot of circumstances. I would also be like a caged bull in a regular workplace – I’d never employ someone like me if I were a boss.

So that then, is why I am a slave to the freelance life. I find myself in a spot where I have neither the professional skills nor the financial freedom to really do anything other than what I am doing. So much for the freedom of the freelance life, eh?

(Note: I do not blame anyone but myself for any of this, and I am not in any way seeking pity, or work suggestions. This is more a collection of thoughts in response to those who say to me “if something is wrong, change it”, but my menu of options feels rather limited.)

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  1. Nora

    Well being a slave in the European public administration, I envy you …

  2. Renato Rodrigues

    Hi Jon,

    I bumped into your blog because of the post about the awful ICE connection Belgium Germany. And then I quite liked most of the other stuff and regularly check your blog for new things. I don’t use Twitter, otherwise I’m sure I’d see more things from you. I’m not sure what I like but I think you’re the only truly EU citizen I know that writes and you’re ethics is quite close to mine. I’d vote for you anytime for something in Brussels but you stand no chance, as EU polithics is very connected to local politics and national interests. So you’re a bit like an app developer, you do something quite useful for many people but you don’t take much out of it.

    You could get to more people if you had a public FB page, even if it’s only just a mirror of your twitter account. Man in Seat 61 does that. This is pretty useless and selfish anyway as it’s the kind of stuff which doesn’t make you any money ­čśŤ


  3. Wim

    Hi Jon,
    You seem to be the perfect example why basic income should be considered.

  4. Duane

    Hi Jon.

    I know exactly what you mean! That cycle seems to be annual and some years are worse (and bettet) than others. Part of it, I think, is that we often fail to sell what we really want do (often because we are so busy – even when we have no work).

    Why don’t we talk about possibilities for teaming up on some things – I have a few ideas/plans and thoughts on how to get them moving without a long lead time.

  5. Jon

    @Johanna – thanks! ­čÖé
    @Marian – I must spend too much time in EU circles! Maybe I need to look more towards tech? Also don’t take this as being against freelance work per se – I have done it longer than anything else I have ever done, and it has many up-sides. I have just lost my way a bit, somehow.
    @Marko – I hope you’re right. But both you and I have this kind of love-hate thing with politics and government. We’re forever attracted to it, realise its importance, but also simultaneously do not fit fully within it. And I think you have more concrete, marketable, practical skills than I do.
    @Nanne – What sort of projects? I can plan and organise, but I am not good at holding together teams of people doing things. I’m better as a person who can beaver away on their own I think. I managed a bunch of projects for JEF-Europe in the past – I can do it, but I do not think it is really my skill.

  6. Nanne

    Jon, have you ever thought about doing project work?

  7. Marko

    All (and I mean all) articles and experiences show that modern employer will seek people with wide variety of skills and they are particulary interested in people who have analytical mind and creative ways of seeing and solving problems.

    I think that you are wrong that you will not fit in a company, it is just a question which company needs your talent and have company culture where you would fit in. So, it is not that you are a slave, but just the opposite, you are not framed into particular occupation and you are much more free (and learned to do that on s daily basis) to adopt to new situation then most people.

    And as for fearing of making up as you go along; what did you expect? To read a manual or a book and go on from there? It does not work that way, our experience determines our choices and by definition you will change your position and your advice; sure, sometimes you will be wrong but plenty of things we do is uncharted teritory. It is perfectly normal to have a feeling of inadequacy, to sometimes think that this (life) does not make sense or leads nowhere and probably much more doubts – this is a mark of smart people.

    Plenty of people have same doubts and quite similar problems, it is just that we are all taught to project something else to the world around us which then makes us look alone. This is simply not true.

    The path you have chosen is not an easy one, but I strongly believe it is the correct one in the long term and you should stick to it (I know I will).

  8. Marian

    Jon, thank you for this post and the honesty of it, it’s refreshing when I am just about to start romantisizing a writer/freelancer life. Given the digital industry are closely aligned with, I am surprised though that you describe a ‘regular job’ as a very traditional corporate environment. That is often not the case anymore. Take a look at young, small organisation, not just the startups, and very often there is no sign of a micromanaging boss and a boring beige office. I can’t remember the last time I did a 9-to-5 day, and there is plenty of space for odd interests.
    Or, of course, start a thing of your own, who knows even on railways and borders?

  9. Johanna

    Well I┬┤d read that book!

  10. Jon

    @marco – thanks! ­čÖé

    @Petru – I have coped with bosses and offices, but not very well. I can play office politics, and do what I need to do to keep people content, but it does not come easily to me at all. I am better at message formulation and advice, than I am at negotiation and delivery.

    @Michael – I’ll keep an eye open. I did recently see a few posts at Bombardier in Berlin that I could have applied for. I think I better build a more systematic monitoring system for these sorts of jobs. I’d very much like to do more rail campaigning work, but there the problem is there are no organisations to work for that actually employ people, hence my musings to build one

  11. Michael Holden

    jon, this is amazingly honest. I bet you feel better for having written it even if the problem refuses to go away!

    Given your interest in rail and comms, why not try to combine the two? There must be lots of freelance roles in this arena, particularly with the German rail network opening up to competition now. Each bidder for a concession, and each company proposing to start a new open access operation will need advice from someone such as yourself. I have lots of experience of this sort of work in the UK and some other European countries and it is well paid and can be very satisfying.

  12. Petru

    Hi, Jon, I understand what you feel. You are an expert in European communications and I am sure you will be able to cope … with a boss and an office. I am also sure you are able to find a solution if the freelance status does not longer suit you. All the best to make the right decision and to work out… a solution!

  13. marcoRecorder

    Jon, I gotta tell you. This is one of the best posts you’ve written. This is blogging, which is something we, digital communicators, tend to forget.
    Keep it up