Thoughts On Freelancing, Mental Health, and Success.
There’s a misnomer pushed by highly driven people that to be successful you have to ‘hustle.’ “Run your own business and, if you love it enough, you’ll never work a day in your life.” But I’m here to semi-bust that myth. My experiences will not align with everyones, but hopefully, maybe, it might help someone who is going through the same stuff that I have. I’m sorry if this comes across as self-indulgent.
I left University in 2013 with a degree in Film Production. I was an average student, I came out with a 2:1, and I thoroughly my time there. Making films was fun, and to be able to do this on a daily basis was a dream of mine. During my time studying, I made films which I was proud of and, equally, films that I cringe at when I watch them back, but it’s not really about the films. What university gave me was the skills to tell stories, and gave me a technical understanding of the film industry that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.
Three years and the blink of an eye later it’s graduation, and the education bubble that has shielded me from the outside world for the first 21 years of my life bursts. I don’t know about you, but once I left, I floundered around for a bit. The rug was pulled out from underneath me. I moved back in with my parents and started to look for a job. While I was studying, I met a local filmmaker who lived near my parents. This opportunity was invaluable. I learned so much by helping to make films in a professional environment, and, I can’t stress this enough, he was great. But there was not enough work to sustain me, so I had to supplement film work with a ‘proper’ job. The Christmas after I’d graduated, I started working at HMV, a UK music and film retailer, to help me survive in the brave new world I had found myself in.
I enjoyed my work at HMV, it was rewarding, even if some customers were dicks. What’s more I fit in there. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, summertime is not a massively busy time for the industry, and everything relies on the Christmas rush. But I was given creative outlets. I was able to curate recommendations for customers and create displays in the store. However, at the time, I saw this job as a trap, one that was stopping me from pursuing my real goal; to be a filmmaker. I wasn’t sure at first, but I was persuaded to give up my ‘safe’ job and start working as a freelancer. I threw caution to the wind.
I continued to work with the freelance filmmaker I’d met while studying, but there still wasn’t enough work to pay me properly. This wasn’t his fault, just the nature of the situation and the work. Luckily, the opportunity to start running on TV shows came soon after. I couldn’t help but be excited; this was the next step in my carer! Except, it wasn’t. After two jobs, I ended up as an office runner for TV production company in London. One thing that I hadn’t realised at the time, and in retrospect has now become clearer, is that I have quite severe social anxiety. Office Runners thrive on interacting with people, and I just couldn’t do it. I ended up quitting after a month with my tail between my legs. This was my second attempt at a big move to London, the 1st being a short stint at QVC UK. I had failed both times, and now I was back at my parents with nothing to show for it.
Luckily, I had managed to get myself a freelance job filming for a university. A friend had received a pot of money to create a series of PhD films, and we had discussed the possibility of collaborating before the I went to do the running jobs. He recommended me to another department in the university when he knew I was coming back. They reached out on the last week of my office running gig and the rest is fate. I was now making films for people under the moniker of ‘TouchType Films.’ It wasn’t exactly the carer trajectory I thought I was going to take, but importantly I was making films! It’s what I wanted!
This is where education plays a key part in the story. My course impressed the opinion on me, and the other students, that if you didn’t end up working in Film or TV you were a failure. I know now that this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s what it felt like. I am now a firm believer that the key skills learned through filmmaking apply to most jobs, but at the time I didn’t see it like that. I didn’t want to be an art student not working in his chosen field. I didn’t want to be part of that statistic.
So here I was, making films for businesses, schools, and arts organisations. I’m not going to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but it took its toll. Remember that social anxiety? Well, turns out it also came with an undercurrent of depression, which I ignored like a true ‘bloke.’ To combat these worsening feelings, I worked. I worked and worked. I took any job that came my way, accepting whatever money they were offering. The problem was, I wasn’t earning enough money to move out of my parents, buy new equipment, go on holiday, and just have a life. What made it worse was that 9 out of the 10 jobs I wasn’t enjoying. There were highlights. I made a dance film with some friends that was seen tens of thousands of times, and the aforementioned history PhD films which I was also proud of. But mostly this work never satisfied me. What kept me going was the idea that making films is what I wanted to do. In reality, I was in a hole, and I couldn’t see the top. My ‘career’ had drained me and my personal life with in tatters because of it.
How could this be? If you do something that you love you never work a day in your life. Here I was, miserable, struggling, and losing any sense of reality. I would lug equipment to conference centres, film, go home, edit, and repeat. I had tricked myself into thinking that corporate filmmaking was what I truly wanted to do. It wasn’t, non-fiction filmmaking had never been my passion, and here I was trying to drum up business when I didn’t even believe in what I was doing.
I had never enjoyed the craft of filmmaking. But I had forgotten that. What I did enjoy was understanding the technology behind my favourite films, and I enjoyed writing screenplays. Straight after University, I had been constantly writing, but my enthusiasm, and time I could devote to writing, dwindled as the freelance carer took more of my time. I had lost it. I was lost. The spark had gone. I had tricked myself into thinking that I liked filming. Let me tell you, it’s hard to get up in the morning when your hearts not in it and nobodies telling you to be someone by a certain time.
Throughout my time at ‘TouchType,’ I had tried to get ‘proper’ employment at a production company, but these were half-hearted attempts, and honestly, something that I knew deep down I didn’t want to do. I took a part-time job as a film technician at a university as a stop-gap. It used my passion for understanding the technology involved in filmmaking and made a practical use for it. If there’s one thing that my time as a film tech taught me, it’s that I could get satisfaction outside of the film world. More importantly, having structure suited me. The film tech job wasn’t going to be long term, there was nowhere for me to grow in a reasonable timeline, but it helped me realise what I need to do, and helped me step into the job that I’m in now.
At the time I had told myself that I didn’t really want the job. Why should I even bother applying? Depression does that, it warps your reality and takes away any sense of rationality, but I applied for the job anyway, certain that I wasn’t going to get it. Turns out I was just who they were looking for, and this job was exactly what I needed. Ironically, my new employer is my old university! (But it’s not really my old university, due to a massive upheaval in how things are run at the institution over the last few years. And with that has seen a positive culture change in the university since my time studying there, it’s a night and day difference.) I had to move to London for the role, something that I had failed at twice before, but this time it felt different,_I felt different_.
It’s hard to reflect on life when you’re living it, but it just so happens that currently, life has kind of stopped due to the global pandemic. It’s given me time to reflect on the last 6 months. I’m happier now than when I was chasing the idea of my ’dream.’ I have enough energy to be able to do my job as a technical specialist in esports broadcasting in the day, and write in the evenings and weekends. Both things I love equally. I’m thriving in London and enjoying everything it has to offer. Sometimes, when I think back, I get a tinge of sadness, a feeling that I should have taken this step before, but I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do it before I did. I am who I am because of what happened before my life now. I will always carry around the scars of my time as a freelancer; I will use them to learn. The freelance part of my life exacerbated my mental health problems, and it’s hard to reverse the damage done, but currently, I am as happy as I can be. What’s more, I have multiple projects in development both at work and as a writer, this is truly exiting and gives me purpose. I’m going to carry on writing and see where it goes, I’m not going to push it, and if anything does happen it will be on my terms. Most of all, my own health and wellbeing comes first, and if that’s not growth, I don’t know what is.
I know I’ve been incredibly privileged throughout my life. I was able to go to university, work in TV, run my own business, have a roof over my head when things got tough, and I lucked into the role I have now. That privilege doesn’t escape me, but my hubris steered me down a destructive path, one that only now, I can start to right.
What I’m trying to convey is that we often have a sense of obligation bestowed upon us by the people around us, and the idea of ‘what we want’ and ‘what we should do.’ Some people thrive once they leave education, others don’t. Some people want to lead, others less so. But both ways of working (and living), can be equally fulfilling and creative. So, take a hard look at what you’re doing and ask yourself whether this is something you truly want. If it is then great I wish you luck, but if you’re doing it out of some form of obligation, then it’s not too late to change.