Free-lance. Doesn’t the word just tempt you with its promise of liberty? It did for me.
It originates from the medieval term for a military adventurer, a knightly mercenary. A friend recently described freelancing like being a modern day pirate, perhaps forgetting the actual modern day pirates which still roam oceans seeking plunder.
The word is also a warning. Yes, freelance life is definitely adventurous. Yet it is also scary, uncertain, unknown. It can be mercenary, as one moves between competing businesses. And, of course, it is free.
Leaving the comfort and shackles of employment, has led me to rediscover Existentialism, the philosophy of our existences not being restricted to an essence. That activity precedes being. Essentially, the philosophy of freedom. Reading existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Heidegger in my degree taught me so much which seems relevant to my new freelance life. I’ll now rob some of their concepts with zero academic rigour but a lot of fondness.
So, how does it feel to go freelance?
First and foremost; something about going freelance strips back the fat of life and shows you what matters. It’s so easy, as an employee, to get lost in the everyday routine, to turn up, be friendly and show willing. A continual gruelling commute can really dumb us to meaning.
Embracing the uncertainty and the possibility, the anxiety and the liberty of freelancing points you to those parts of your life which have significance, which have meaning to you. Not knowing what next month looks like can create real anxiety. And it is those things that you are most concerned about which are probably the things you value most.
Now, as a freelancer, you are in a better position to fashion everything about your life. To shape your life around what you value. You choose how to work, where to work, what to work on, who to work for. I wouldn’t say you are more free, as everyone can make these decisions. Instead, it’s a more active relationship with your freedom.
Yet through exercising that freedom, you become better acquainted with responsibility. Unlike in a corporate, where your performance is dependent on others, your performance as a freelancer is totally dependent on you. It’s truly beautiful to be totally responsible for your own mistakes, as it means you can really celebrate your own successes.
And what is success? As a freelancer, you are the master of your own definition of progress. It could be bigger wins, bigger clients. It could be learning, or ferociously collecting experiences.
Perhaps even on an identity-level, freelancers are in the driving seat. The self that you present to future clients is amorphous, adaptable, constantly evolving. Today, I am a commercially-savvy strategist, tomorrow, I am a creative, empathic, brand specialist. Each day is an opportunity to reinvent, and if you are capable of what you claim, you reinvent authentically.
Is this a solitary freedom? In some ways yes, the wayfaring freelancer is more independent than the corporate politician. But in my experience, I feel more intensely aware of the communal fabric of freedom that holds us together. I am reliant on my clients and the success of their projects in order to get work. I need to constantly meet and foster connections with a more diverse network of people and deliver on what I promise them.
It all amounts to an impactful sense of freedom and responsibility. Existentialism tells us that anyone, regardless of their situation, is infinitely free. But as a freelancer, you are more starkly aware of this fact.
I expect giving up employment to become an entrepreneur comes complete with a similar set of sensations. But there is an essential difference.
Entrepreneurs are trying to create something that exists outside of themselves. Their start-up is an entity created to live and breathe in the world independently of the founder. As their business grows, employs, gets invested in, it becomes a heavier responsibility. The exit is the entrepreneur’s way out.
They are employed by their own businesses. It’s all about the external entity. We freelancers are self-employed, it’s all about you and what you can do, our only shackle is the self. You could say the experience is is lighter, and like the entrepreneur’s heaviness, the lightness is, at times, unbearable (to rob Milan Kundera this time.)
Meanwhile, if you are an employee considering going freelance or becoming an entrepreneur, it will come with its own cocktail of anxiety and excitement. And if there is one thing that existentialism teaches us, particularly Sartre, it’s that our fear at the edge of a cliff is not of falling, but of the fact you can jump.
Employees, entrepreneurs, freelancers. All of us are in the same existential boat. We are all masters of our own destinies to the same degree. But in each state we will understand and experience both our freedom and responsibility in a different way, with varying acuteness. It’s when we move between these states of labour that the shift is exposed to us.
Soon, freelance life will stop being novel for me. This stark awareness of freedom and responsibility will plateau, along with the learning that the climb brings.
Which is why, just when I’ve made the leap, seems the right time to share these thoughts with you. Thank you for reading.