The volunteering called ‘freelancing’
Looking over my resume I couldn’t help but notice that while during college, and even during getting my PhD, I was doing lots of voluntary work, this volunteering stopped once I started my own company. I used to do lots of things, from being a final editor for my high school student newspaper to being the secretary of the board of an organisation for youth with disabilities. I developed, arranged and taught weekly junior youth empowerment groups in my local neighborhood, taught philosophy at schools for bright but burned-out youth, I was a final editor for a TedX at my local university, set up publicity for a local amateur theater group.
I did things simply because I thought they were important. Because there was a need. Because I wanted to develop personal skills. Because I wanted to make the world a better place. Advancing lives of young people, advancing art. Things I felt deeply for.
And I still feel deeply for all those things. But from 2014, I stopped doing voluntary work. At least, according to my resume. 2014: the year I registered myself as a freelance philosopher.
They didn’t know which box to tick when they had to classify my ‘one person company’. Consultancy, teaching, writing. Something like that. But I walked out of the local ‘chamber of commerce’ (KvK in the Netherlands) with a big smile on my face. It was real! I would continue to do what I felt was necessary for the world, but now have an official title to back me up. You know, I would contribute to society, apply my talents, following that famous line:
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” ~ John F. Kennedy
So I went all in. Did everything I did before, but now it counted towards an investment for my own company. I still wrote lots of articles and reviews. Gave talks, trained financial managers, organised conferences.
I also kept applying for jobs, gigs, positions, for work that I knew I would be able to do. My letters were overflowing with experience and commitment. Sometimes they would tell me that my resume was too full, they’d rather give someone a chance who hadn’t done all those things. But most often, I would not even get a response to my carefully crafted research proposals or job applications. I would simply hear nothing back. This has gone on for years. It still is going on.
Not For Nothing
I did have jobs throughout the past years. And I still do. Some of which actually look pretty good on my resume. Some of which even paid enough to almost make me break even with the costs of basic life (not a new pair of shoes, but rent and food). Pretty much all the work I have, I created myself. Courses I developed to teach at an art school, a research project I’ve designed and which hopefully will take place depending on a big grant the research group still needs to get. Coaching sessions with individuals and groups of people. All work that pays below minimum wage, and even less when you count the amount of hours spent on it.
I am a freelancer, so of course I kept investing my time in professional relationships, in personal development, in taking opportunities in the hope a paid opportunity would follow from it. I kept doing things for no money, or next to no money, happy if they would simply refund my travel expenses. So that I could share my skills and talents and knowledge with people, but at least wouldn’t have to pay to get there.
Except that I did pay to get there… I paid my way through college, through a Masters degree, through a PhD (which contrary to how it is maybe organised in other countries, I had to pay for myself). I pay for rent, for food, for library cards. I even pay for a Medium-account.
I’ve been living below minimum wage ever since I started my freelancing. I know for a fact that many freelancers are much like me, doing the same thing. Relying on friends, on savings, hoping for that big break. But I wonder how we, as a society, think this is tenable. Why do we expect people to collect all kinds of experience pro bono? How did we let this become common reality? How can this be the norm, while people still come up to me to ask if I am taking care of my pension, setting money aside for later.
And no, I’m not poor. That’s not what this is about.
This is about what we consider ‘success’. And how skewed this system is. My CV looks pretty good. I have some academic work, positions at several universities around the world. I published my first book, a monologue called ‘the diagnosis of the modern philosopher: why philosophers are mad’ (in Dutch). Some major English publishers seemed interested but then decided to reject the translated English version, as it was “too risky”.
Being a post-doc research fellow is great. But to get ahead in academia, to get a further job in academia, I need to publish more — which is unpaid labor for an independent scholar like me. To be able to get more experience teaching, which I would love, I need to get a job first. A teaching job, yeah, that so many people write about because it’s so much under-paid. Ever wonder why they are still doing that job? Why people like me would like to have a job like that?
I’ve been tempted to write a automated motivation letter for jobs for years, but I have so far chickened out. I care too much. I continue putting in hours of effort, and each automated rejection continues to hurt. Although perhaps I should consider my luck when they even tell me they choose someone else.
Personally I consider myself very successful. Even when I get letters from people telling me I don’t even understand the basic thing about philosophy (and they do). Every day I get to do what I love doing. Which is perhaps the only acceptable measure of success. Still, there is this big pull towards giving in to security, to a position in which I do not have to feel ashamed about the holes in my coat, being able to explain what I do for a living besides ‘everything and nothing’.
At every crossroad I ask myself what to do next. Why keep trying for a tenured position that might not even be the best place for when you want to write a kind of philosophy that defies the kind of logic that academia thinks it is built upon? Why keep spending days writing project proposals you know will be rejected because there are only old white males on the judging panel? Why keep writing in a style that is considered elitist and stupid, by most of the world at least? But most of all, why keep feeling bad about being rejected, for failing in the eyes of a world whose standards are not your own?
So I rearrange my goals again. Focusing on new projects. Doing what I consider the world needs. Below layers of hurt and bitterness, there is still that same idealist. So I took up writing fiction, together with all those others ‘working on a novel’. Because why should I keep writing academic papers that keep being rejected and that nobody reads anyway, when I can also write stories that have at least the potential to reach many people, sharing philosophy in this embodied form? And sure, it doesn’t pay my rent (although I got my first monthly subscriber through Steady last week!). But neither do automated rejections.
And in the meantime my resume doesn’t show any more voluntary work. To some it might look as if I stopped caring. But this is because now I classify the things I do voluntarily as part of my freelancing. Perhaps that’s my mistake. My perseverance in failure.
Sure, you can say that if you want to have a job, want to earn money, live a decent life, you shouldn’t study philosophy in the first place. Maybe you’re right. But maybe we shouldn’t need people to work for nothing. Maybe when we offer to cover travel expenses, we should include the road it took to travel to wherever you are.