I’m among the thousands of people who dreamed of being their own boss. For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought about the day I might get to work on my own terms. And twelve fateful months ago, I finally took the plunge and became a freelance graphic designer.
Well, it’s actually been about a year and a half since I left my digital marketing career behind to pursue this wild dream, but as I took up a part-time job straight after, 2018 has been my first year of freelancing full time – just me, on my own out there in the world. So what better time than now to reflect on the last twelve months, and how much has changed in that time.
I’ve learnt a great deal about myself and this lifestyle since I quit my job, and I’m here to share a realistic account of what freelancing has been like for me so far. There are plenty of benefits and perks to being self-employed, but there are also a lot of downsides which not everyone talks about.
So let’s put away those rose-tinted glasses, because here’s what you should know about the realities of freelancing, should you decide to take the plunge.
It can get lonely
When I was in the 9-5, I spent a lot of time working while listening to music, or plugged into my favourite podcasts instead of joining in the office chatter. And while I’m still doing just that, the thing I’d been most unprepared for in freelance life is how much I’d miss the company of others. While I’m definitely not shy, I’d be classed as an introvert by definition, meaning I’m often very content in my own company. And so, I never expected I’d miss the conversations of people around me as much as I did at the start of my freelance life.
Twelve months on though, I’ve totally readjusted to this newfound working environment, and now I’m both happy and comfortable working on my own for days and weeks on end. But it’s taken me a long time to get here and work past that feeling of solitude, especially after being surrounded by a work team every day for several years.
Don’t underestimate the effects of cabin fever at the start, no matter how independent you are.
However, loneliness isn’t the only thing you have to look out for…
The negative thoughts can be overwhelming
When days get tough and I’m on my own, sometimes negative thoughts can be the only ones I hear. I’ve never really spoken about it on here or in real life, but like many people, I struggle a lot sometimes with mental health. I’m not an optimist by nature (more like a cynical realist), and on quiet days when I’m feeling low, being isolated can only amplify that bad inner monologue.
But the trouble with those days is it can also make me not want to go out and see people, and while I’m very self-aware and can recognise when these moods take hold, it’s definitely harder to free yourself from those feelings without the distraction of others around.
On the flip side, however…
Say goodbye to office politics
Towards the end of my 9 to 5 life, I grew to despise some of the bureaucracy I had to deal with. Not every office or company will have this, of course, but if like me you’re sensitive to sycophantic behaviour and office politics, regardless of whether you’re involved in it or not, then removing yourself from that corporate structure can feel incredibly freeing.
Working for a big company also made me severely anxious at times about whether I was doing or saying the right thing, because I was hyper-aware that I was always ‘representing the company’. That’s not something they made me feel, by the way, but part of the pressure I put on myself to do well in a role I felt fortunate to have had.
As soon as I became my own boss, however, I noticed immediately how much more comfortable I felt when dealing with clients, and even when using social media – views are my own and absolutely do reflect those of my employer. Who I am is now my business, and frankly, that means I can do and say whatever the fuck I want.
There’s a lot of perks to working for someone else though, primarily…
Money does buy you temporary happiness
I gave up a pretty well-paid, stable job to pursue this dream, and although I bridged my income gap by taking a part-time graphic design job when I first started, getting my monthly pay packet suddenly cut in half was not easy.
I’m privileged enough to be able to say that money doesn’t mean everything to me, but no matter how much I mentally prepared myself for giving up a regular income, you will never truly know the fear that it brings until it’s actually taken away.
And even though I’m really
boring sensible with my money, had some savings to fall back on, and had my mortgage covered each month from my part-time job, I still spent the first few months in constant stress about my financial situation – am I making enough? How long will this last? Can I really afford to go out for lunch today?
And when the few clients you do have at the start aren’t paying their invoices on time (which are already dated 30 days from when you completed the work), it was easy to start worrying whether I’d made a terrible mistake.
Twelve months on though, I’ve relaxed a lot and gradually learnt to deal with the peaks and troughs of freelance life.
Your family and friends don’t think you do anything
Other than when I’m called into a client’s office, I mainly work from home, which to some means what I do is sit around all day.
I’m not sure what it is about freelancing that gives some people this impression, but quite often it actually means working when most people aren’t – on weekends, in the evenings, and even in the hotel when I’m away on holiday. I used to be able to step out of the office on a Friday and largely leave my work behind, but now I carry it with me everywhere.
Of course, freelancing does also give me an incredible amount of flexibility in exchange – I’m no longer restricted by annual leave, I can have a weekday off if I don’t have any pressing work, and I can generally set my own working hours, as long as I’m around when clients need me. But not every freelancer will have this luxury, depending on what they do, and this flexibility certainly doesn’t mean I’m not working just as hard as everyone else the rest of the time – you’ll still get paid in a 9-5 job if you slack off for a day, but a freelancer won’t.
However, that’s not as bad as the fact that…
Not everyone values your work
There is an endless amount of people out there who expect you to work for free or insultingly cheap. I knew this fact before I set off as a freelancer, and vowed never to work for free right from day one. But when I just started out and was still controlled by The Fear, it was hard not to take some of those lesser paid jobs, even if it meant I wasn’t being valued for my I do.
A year on, I’m grateful to have built up a roster of wonderful clients who not only value my work but keep coming back, too. However…
Life is full of uncertainty
When your week is planned out only a few weeks or months in advance, it creates an endless amount of uncertainty that can’t be ignored.
How long can I keep freelancing? Will I still be able to do this in my 40s? Or 50s? What happens if I don’t find any more work?
I read an article recently that predicted another recession might be on the way, and it made me question the longevity of what I was doing all over again.
I’m a very organised person by nature and have always needed to have some sort of a life plan, but this lifestyle doesn’t fit around that. What it has done though is teach me to take each day and week as it comes, and focus more on the now rather than be always looking ahead.
I don’t know what’s on the horizon for my career anymore, but that’s OK as long as I enjoy what I’m doing now.
It’s not for everyone
Just like selling everything you own to go travelling around the world, freelancing is also not for everyone. Being your own boss is often glamorized as a lifestyle that’s better than the alternative, but that can be far from true.
When I first thought about working for myself, I pictured relaxing mornings sipping tea in my garden, spending my afternoons working in cafes when I’d had enough of the home office, and pretty much getting out of bed and dressed to the sound of chirping birds. In reality, I avoid working in the garden because of screen glare, I’ve never worked in a coffee shop because being at home is way more comfortable, and I only ever wear my slouchiest clothes at home to go with my unwashed hair.
Yes, you have to be disciplined and self-motivated to make freelancing work, but having a traditional job doesn’t make you any less hardworking or ambitious – and not working 40+ hours a week doesn’t mean you’re ‘lazy’ either, while we’re here. Being your own boss might not be right for you, and that’s more than OK.
Having said that…
There’s no going back
For me though, I couldn’t have hoped for my first year of freelancing to go any better.
It’s been filled with anxiety and stress at times, especially at the start, but I’ve also loved the excitement that it brings; whenever an email lands in my inbox from a potential client, I get a buzz I never got working for someone else, and that feeling carries right through until I deliver the work I’m proud to have gotten the chance to do.
And a few weeks before 2018 ends, I’ve officially hit my pretty ambitious income goal for the year, and that’s something I’m really proud to have achieved. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who’s worked with me so far, and for helping make this girl’s wild dream of self-employment come true.