Why I Quit My Permanent Job to Become a Full-Time Freelancer
Trading in a soul-crushing work environment for a hectic but fulfilling career
I remember sitting amid a huge audience at a design conference in southern Germany. I felt like I got hit by a truck at the time, having had the flu right before we took the flight down south. Even though I felt like crap and my mind was fuzzy, I decided not to stay at the hotel and attended the conference. After all, it was the first (and last) time the company I worked for paid for any kind of professional development. I wasn’t going to give them a reason to say no the next time.
The first two speakers were pretty good. Though I can’t exactly remember what they talked about, I remember that it did spark my interest.
Then came on a speaker I will never forget.
If you’ve ever seen an interview with Gavin Strange, you will remember that high-pitched, fast-paced, and insanely enthusiastic voice. You could feel the crowd go silent when he entered the stage, partly because of a cleverly put-together presentation of moving GIFs and the sheer energy emanating from that rather small British dude on stage. You could physically feel the joy radiating from him while he went through his presentation. I never got close to being that excited about my job in the few years I managed to endure full-time employment as an art director (or graphic designer for the non-agency people reading this). Gavin manages to give common knowledge a new spin. Most of the stuff he is talking about, like simply enjoying your job, isn’t groundbreaking. You know you should probably just quit your job if it makes you feel miserable every day. But if it’s Gavin Strange saying it, you can’t help but believe him.
One sentence truly hit home:
If you don’t like what you do, do something else.
Coming from any other person, you could easily brush it off as some tone-deaf advice. How dare he suggest that without knowing my situation? It’s easier said than done. The problem is, he actually did it and keeps doing it. You can’t help but be infected with the pure joy he gets from both his day job at Aardman Studios (which created classics like Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit) and his various, mostly pro bono, side hustles.
The contrast of the speaker’s energy to my situation hit me like a brick.
The flu might have amplified it, but it made it crystal clear how miserable I felt at the time and had been feeling for months, if not years. The talk led me to examine why I was still hustling through a day job I came close to hating and why I should try something else instead.
Three weeks later, I quit my job with around 200€ of savings in my combined bank accounts. While it highly contributed to me coming close to having a nervous breakdown (and some late-night panic calls with my older brother), it was one of the best decisions of my life. I didn’t have a plan how to move on once I quit; I just knew if I didn’t, I would burn out sooner than later (and did it anyway, but that’s a matter for another article). After a couple of interviews for a new full-time job and loads of conversations with friends and colleagues, I found that my personal reasons for becoming a freelancer far overweighed the downsides.
I want to enjoy what I am doing for a job
I took one of the main statements of Gavin Strange’s talk and turned it into my mission statement. Knowing I wanted to do something with design since the fifth grade was always a privilege compared to friends who still didn’t really know what they wanted to do with their lives far into their twenties (or up until today).
But there is a downside to turning your passion into a job. It becomes your job. It means you can’t turn off your mind when you go home and think about other stuff. If your job sucks, everything sucks. From what I gathered over the year, almost every designer I know hit that corporate (or agency) wall hard when they entered the joyous world of having a full-time job to make a living. While some of it is true, most of the shiny cliches people have of the job as a creative do not correspond to reality.
Nowadays, you don’t get to sit on a couch all day drinking your alcoholic beverage of choice in a Mad Men fashion. You have to take care of the day-to-day business, changing the copy in a file for the hundredth time, making that newsletter button “pop” all the while navigating corporate life and mood swings of your superiors. And that is okay. After all, Art is not Design, and I knew that before choosing my profession. But it starts to suck the life out of you as a designer when you have to do nothing but maintenance work all day. I saw many opposite examples working with other agencies and clients over the years, but the companies I worked for almost exclusively used their designers to scrub away the day-to-day business.
The interesting work, such as designing new web design concepts, was frequently left to incoming freelancers. In the manager’s eyes, it was more economical to leave the menial tasks to the employees instead of giving them to the more expensive freelancers.
I started to hate a job I wanted to do all my life. I realized that it wasn’t so much the job itself but the surrounding circumstances that made it so exhausting. Freelancing, for me, was a way to break the cycle and be able to specifically choose the jobs I liked instead of being a replaceable worker drone.
It took me a couple of years to achieve that very privileged position, but in the end, I did it.
I wanted my labor to be appreciated
Another thing that can crush any semblance of motivation in a job can be the lack of appreciation for your labor.
It still seems to be a valid agency model to use up designers (and other employees) to the point of burnout and simply hire new ones after the fact. It makes you feel replaceable in the worst kind of way.
I remember a client meeting that did not go very well, the client being unhappy with the end product we presented. The scolding was completely justified because it went through a feedback loop from hell with a superior internally, ending in an utterly bland and uninspiring design. But I feel that a large chunk of good leadership means to have your subordinates back in those situations. Instead, our superior instantly switched gears and fully agreed to the client’s grilling of the team, not owning up to his own input that led to the design we presented but completely putting the blame onto the team (in front of the client).
After the meeting, we got to work a late shift to “clean up the mess we made” while he went home to attend a party, telling us to lock up when we leave.
That complete lack of appreciation for the work you do can be soul-crushing to the extent that it gets hard to motivate yourself to get out of bed each day. I dreaded going to work, anticipating the next situation where my work was belittled.
Honestly, the quality of my work did suffer as well. It was easier to take the safer path of doing it the way we always did instead of experimenting and risking another berating.
As a freelancer, you usually get booked when sh*t hits the fan, or they need your specific expertise in the project. That, combined with the fact that on paper, you are exponentially more expensive than a full-time employee, means that appreciation for your work inherently comes with the package.
I wanted to be more flexible with my time
Across the internet, there are loads of articles about people quitting their 9–5 jobs to work on their own terms. Books like The 4-Hour Workweek kickstarted a paradigm shift to a form of “New Work”. A certain pandemic contributed to this shift to a more flexible and ultimately more productive way of working. So nowadays you don’t even have to quit your day job to be more flexible.
Back then, the companies I was working for had a strict amount of hours — you had to be there every day (overtime included, of course).
It went so far that you had to get a doctor’s certificate if you needed to take just one sick day. Needless to say that the approach backfired because people ended up getting sick leaves for a whole week instead of just a day. Still, taking some time off for physical or mental reasons became a chore and generally frowned upon by the higher-ups. If one employee got sick, chances were half of the agency was sick the week after because they still dragged themselves to work.
When I got a job in Munich, I wasn’t able to go grocery shopping during the week because all supermarkets closed shop at 6 pm with me working at least until 6:30 pm. I got incredibly unhealthy in part because I didn’t have another choice but to order junk food when I got home late at night.
The other day I talked with a freelance friend about how we couldn’t fathom managing day-to-day life without the option to plan our own time. Of course, you have to abide by your clients’ business hours as a freelancer, but in the last couple of years, I transitioned to projects where nobody really cares when you do the work as long as you pull your weight.
I wanted to be responsible for my successes and failures
As Mark Manson puts it, you have to take responsibility for failures, even if they weren’t your fault. Not being causally responsible for an error doesn’t absolve you from owning up to it when you are part of a team.
Being employed amplified a feeling of not being in control of any outcome. Ultimately, your superiors decide what clients the agency will take on, the timing of new projects, general workflows, and the final vision of the product you will present to a client. You should be aware that even as a freelancer, you still realize someone else’s vision and therefore have to be fine with giving up some level of control.
I just wanted to take charge of the very foundations of my career, being able to pick my own clients, create my own workflows and surround myself with a network of people I trust.
When I decided to try out a freelance career, I was privileged in the way that I didn’t have to give a crap. If it didn’t pan out, my worst-case scenario was running out of money, a solid blow to my self-esteem, and eventually having to move back in with my parents. While my parents probably wouldn’t have found it very pleasant to have their mid-twenties son crashing their life, I would’ve been alright.
I know there are many reasons you can’t just quit and jump into the deep end. Yet, when I took a moment to be brutally honest with myself, I realized that most arguments I had for not quitting a job I started to hate were excuses. Being comfortable with being miserable, I was happy to blame others for my situation.
I got lucky meeting the right people at the right time, kickstarting a freelance career I wouldn’t have dreamed of beforehand, but I also never would’ve experienced it without taking a leap of faith.