Freelancing as a Multi-Hyphenate: Time, visibility, priorities, and thoughts on collaboration

I have been freelancing for close to two decades, in a variety of capacities. At its best, I feel respected, unfettered, and able to do a whole array of things that I enjoy and am pretty good at. At its worst, it is unstable, demeaning, and feels like you traded in one master for several, in exchange for no respect for your time or thoughts.

My primary employment is as a video editor for film and television. My secondary employment includes producing and shooting everything from features to web videos. My tertiary collection of income streams include designing, building, and destroying large scale mixed media sculptures, commissioned art, costumes, and staging interactive events. Most of these are done by collaborating with a wide variety of people, many of whom are close friends. Since there is no single word (other than weirdo) for all the things I do that bring in money, let’s just call them all projects.

I work with major networks and production companies, festivals, venues, non-profit activist groups, and a wide variety of small business owners and independent artists. My rates range from equity stakes in projects, to $100/hr, to free. Sometimes, the $100/hr job lasts for a month. Sometimes, I’m working for myself, 80 hours a week, with no profit.

A lot of people will tell you that you should never work for free as an artist. I think that’s a huge oversimplification. I do a lot of things, and I love most of them, but also work pretty much constantly, often on multiple jobs at the same time. Most of the time, I only see my friends if we are collaborating on a project. Because of this, the line between work and play is pretty heavily blurred. The line is basically nonexistent when that work is incorporated into what other people pay to do for fun. All of my hobbies have turned into paid work. And most of my friends have worked with me on at least one project.

Part of freelancing this long, in a range of creative fields, is the jaded knowledge that no single project is your magic bullet. No one thing is worth devoting all of your time to, because there is always a very high possibility that it will fall through. Or make you miserable. Or take far more time than it should for the amount of return you get on it. Or that someone on the gig will have a meltdown and torpedo the entire project.

The calculus in how my time gets prioritized is tricky. I always have several projects going at once — currently, my basecamp has sixteen active projects. Everybody knows how to behave on their primary gig, but navigating competing projects that are lower on the totem pole is the hard part. So, I start with the fact that the people I love are the most important thing, which is closely followed by making enough money to get by. Those two priorities are usually enough of a struggle for anybody to balance. From there, my next priorities are that the project is either meaningful or fun.

Often, I’ll sacrifice money for meaning or fun. Sometimes, I’ll take on a project because I really like the people, and want to get to know them better. Sometimes I’ll create a project as a gift to someone I love, as a means of making up for times I haven’t been as present as I would like to be. Sometimes, meaning, fun, and new people get put on the back burner for big money, or personal emergency. Sometimes I just need to do a fun project for myself, because I am exhausted and need it to keep myself sane. Occasionally, I drop a project entirely because the collaborators are either unclear or unrealistic about how to execute it, and I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to figure it out for them. And then, a few times a year, everything grinds to a halt when my body gives up on me and forces me to stop in some uncomfortable way.

This equation is hard enough for me to work through, in multiple streams, constantly. It’s harder for anybody collaborating with me at any given time. Most people understand the more money/personal crisis priority shifts. But many people that I work with in one capacity don’t even know what is involved in making my other projects happen. And now, in our delightful modern phase of hyperconnectivity, all of my collaborators can watch parts of my attention drift in real time. But, because I am a freelancer, and need to stay both connected and visible to everyone that I work with, who in many cases also happen to be my friends, I am actually required to have a constant stream of updates that include work related promotion, research, and perosnal updates. Sometimes, it comes full circle and I broadcast on social media to get the attention of other people that I am waiting for a response from. What a lot of people don’t understand is that I am usually doing several other things while this is happening, as well.

Right now, for example, I am at one paid job, waiting for notes. While I write this, I’m transferring files for a different edit that I shot last night, working on a graphic fix for a third project I am cutting, and having a conversation about design files that Jesse is going to cut for something we are building. I’m also checking up on responses for a press release I sent out for a film that I worked on last year, that is being shopped in Berlin right now. I usually have at least one hard drive for other projects in my purse, but depending on where I am working, often can’t do outside work, either because

  • I am too busy doing the job I was hired for that day
  • wherever I am working does not have the appropriate software
  • there are security restrictions on the computers at the facility I’m at
  • I am working with someone in the room
  • I’m working with my hands, or driving, and not even near a computer
  • something else has shifted in the priority pyramid

For similar reasons I can almost never answer my phone, and am now often struck with panic when it rings. I’m usually either

  • cutting audio
  • having multiple text conversations
  • in a room with a bunch of people
  • holding a camera
  • carrying something
  • using tools
  • on the subway
  • driving

Sometimes several of these things at once. Please, for the love of Bob, just send me a question in text form so that I can answer it when I am able, without being rude, ruining what I am doing, or endangering myself.

I’m getting better about drawing lines with how much energy I am willing to give to a given project, but new people are always a learning curve of establishing new boundaries. I usually try to be as clear as possible with anybody I am working with about the restrictions on my time, and give very specific windows about when I can do things. When people ignore those windows, they fall farther down the priority list.

I’m not home during waking hours that often, and don’t have much down time when I am there, plus there are a number of things I can only do on my home computer. So things like “cooking,” and “laundry,” and “cleaning the bathroom” go by the wayside. Sometimes I also like to see my husband and friends. Although, even when that does happen, we are usually talking about various projects.

As hiring practices change, and more people become get to a professional level with multiple skills, I know a growing number of people who are in work situations similar to mine. With all that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things to consider when collaborating with self-employed people:

  • Hiring someone for a fee, no matter how high, is renting their time, not buying it. Unless you have hired someone as a full time employee, part of their time with you needs to be spent responding to other opportunities for work.
  • The rule of three - fast/cheap/good, pick two - is no joke. Hiring someone for a low fee makes them a collaborator, not your employee. You need to make sacrifices, since they are making sacrifices. Usually, that will either be in response time, or quality of output.
  • “Collaboration” is not the same thing as “getting what you want when you want it.” “Communication” is not the same thing as “being told yes.”
  • Clearly defined agreements for compensation are critical. Whatever that means in the situation. But especially in something where there is actual payment, or a revenue share, everyone needs to be clear on expectations, and not be squeamish about putting them on paper, and following through with them. Otherwise you are just exploiting people.
  • Do not assume that because someone is on social media, they are not doing anything. Self-promotion is critical to being self-employed, especially in creative fields. And good self-promotion is a lot more complicated than exclusively talking about work online.
  • Every freelancer has other projects. Every. Single. One. You might not think they are as important as yours, but they are to somebody. And even if they are not that important, it is not your place to judge that for somebody else.
  • Respect peoples’ time — when they say they are available, and when they are not. Sometimes this means not pushing for additional time when they are booked. Sometimes this means responding in a timely fashion so that they can complete work while they have the time with the resources they need.
  • Know what you want. I’ve worked with plenty of people who I adore, who came to me before they knew what they wanted. If you want to hand over an idea for me to finish as I see fit, that is one thing. But if you want ownership of a project, and do not know what you want it to be, I do not have time to figure it out for you.
  • Consolidate revisions. No matter what it is you do for a living, making changes to something takes time. Making a list of changes at once always takes less time than making multiple individual changes piecemeal.
  • Do not ask for feedback/advice if you don’t really want it. This is more of a style foul, but it definitely diminishes how seriously I take somebody, because it usually means they don’t play well with others. If you are asking for feedback and don’t incorporate any of it, you just wanted me to listen to you talk about your project, and don’t actually respect my opinion.
  • If you can’t do something, say so. And if someone says they can’t do something, believe them. Find another way. Forcing it through will only make you both unhappy with the results and each other.
  • This collaborator is a human being. You chose to work with them because something about them spoke to you. Trust them to do their job, and give them the respect they deserve. Some people are actually unreliable, but once you get to a certain professional level, most aren’t. Everybody has the occasional crappy day, or gets sick, or breaks up with someone, or their dog dies. And if you are working with someone on a day-rate basis, nothing we are doing is so important that we can’t give people a little leeway for being human.
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