Facing the blank day
The inner life of a freelancer
When I was 10 years old my parents and I decided to send me to boarding school in a different country. We packed my trunk — an old fashioned device with brass rivets and a padlock (no one explained why a trunk was needed but it was on the list of required items), and my mother and I caught the InterCity 125 together from Scotland down to the south of England, passing through the exciting, fearful octopus of London on the way. It was my first term. From that day on, 3 times a year for the next 6 years, I traveled almost always on my own, unaccompanied.
My brain has embedded the sights and sounds of that journey, from Edinburgh’s Waverley station — at that time still stinky with the urine of homeless alcoholics who would wander in from outside to escape the cold — via London’s King’s Cross, often mobbed by football supporters who would pile up their beer cans on the tables like headhunters piling skulls. After nervously crossing London in the back of a Cockney black cab, my local train would rattle through night time darkness from Waterloo to the small Hampshire town where my school was nestled.
My school was a progressive, liberal one, and I have only happy memories of the classes and (mainly) of the teachers. But the dark places of my memory — the unopened trunk of my life, if you like — are reserved for the weekends and half terms I spent on my own at school during term time, when most of the other kids went home to their families who lived nearer by.
Those days I would spend walking around the grounds aimlessly, throwing tennis balls hypnotically against a wall, fiddling in toilet cubicles, and irritating other pupils in a successful attempt to elicit attention (the result, bullying, seemed an OK substitute for love —or so the therapy books say).
I had no idea what to do with myself. In the absence of family structures, I had to somehow generate my own feedback loops and do my best to bury the feelings of resentment, loneliness and panic that inevitably came up.
So with the best of intentions, my parents and I — we had agreed together that this cool, arty school 450 miles from home was the best place for me to grow up — managed to etch into my hard-wiring a lifelong inability to cope with free time.
Ironically, since then, I have spent most of my career as a freelancer. Or not ironic, depending on which way you look at things — since life seems designed to face us with the very blocks that we must remove in order to thrive.
It is 30 years since I left that school. I have a young family and I make my living coaching groups and writing.
So this has been my life: Coping with free time, managing an unpredictable flow of work, learning how to structure my hours — simultaneous with fantasizing about one day joining the perfect company, full of kindred spirits, where everything would be magically ordered for me and work dropped daily onto my lap like golden fruit from a fairy tale.
At least two or three times a week, just like those days in the old school yard, I sit at my desk in the morning and realise I am facing the same blank canvas. Um — what am I going to do now?
Some people have the ability to wrestle days into careers as a native gift — they were brought up with a lot of structure or they have a natural talent for ordering time. I don’t.
Some times I find my way; I breathe; find my core, write down my priorities, and work through them — just like I’m supposed to since I wrote an actual book about being in flow.
And sometimes I panic.
If I had a chart of panic days it might look a bit like this…
Panic flares up unpredictably (but often on Mondays). In-between times it stays at a lower pitch, vanishing completely when I am totally in the flow or working with other human beings — which only happens every week or so.
The big flare ups (agitation, tight breathing, desperate rounds of tea) don’t happen often, but just enough — like a cold sore — to remind me that fear is still in my system, and that working alone can be very uncomfortable.
I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered this roller-coaster; it’s an ongoing quest to stay soothed and focused, learn how to channel my anxiety into action and not get spooked by the ‘I should get a job’ narrative. But even on terrible days I can normally ride the storm and come out the other side by late afternoon — in time for a short burst of creativity or some box-ticking admin tasks. By the end of one of those days — days in which my abandoned teenage pain-body gets temporarily awakened — I achieve a kind of pummelled softness, like a trampled olive ready to squeeze out some oil.
My struggle is my gift. As a result of my 15 years of self-management, I know my inner scared kid well enough to help other people hang out with theirs for an hour or so — whether they’re a group of execs trying to crack an idea or an individual creative needing inspiration to get unstuck.
People in leadership, it turns out, have as little idea as the rest of us what on earth they’re supposed to be doing most of the time (qv Brexit). In fact, the higher people rise, the fewer models they have to follow, and the more they need to get comfy with uncertainty. Or else fall, hard.
So if I’m in a room with people in this situation — whether one or many — my job is to convey an actual living experience of what it’s like to be open and relaxed in the face of uncertainty.
People will pay for that.
So my actual work, though it seems like I’m doing coaching or moving a team towards solving a problem, is actually to bring people into a space they’d usually sell their grandmothers to avoid, and then — once they’re in it — to help them harvest the goodness from it.
Cos all good ideas come from that space.
And of course, while doing this work, I have also developed some insight into what happens when people like me — freelancers, artists and the gainfully unemployed — face a blank day. In fact, anyone who is engaged in the creative act of generating something new out of the unknown.
This article is for you.
By the way, when I first drafted this article, I laid out a list of tips to help people to think about and navigate their own uncertainty — since no Medium article feels complete without a few bullet points at the end.
But it felt boring… I couldn’t finish writing it. I kept putting it off. Something was in the way.
Then eventually, I realised — it’s absurd to talk about the unknown as if it were something I know. Facing the blank day is something that no one can give you advice about. Uncertainty is a paradox, not a formula.
The real dilemma of doing anything new, creative or undefined is that you have to simultaneously know and also not know what you’re doing. When you’re self-employed, this can be almost a permanent condition.
You just have to be OK with it.
But before I end I will share one thing that has helped me.
Almost all stress has at its root the same cause: A belief that ‘I have to be doing this and there’s no choice’. So when I’m spinning on the event horizon of my own personal black hole, instead of blindly pushing on with whatever I’m doing I have learned to pause, sit back and quietly wait for something better to happen. Either that or do some push-ups.
Pulling out of a bad-feeling zone stops the stress cycle, at least for a moment — long enough for a new direction to suggest itself.
And if I can’t — if I’m too stressed and the day is just spiralling into teeth-gnashing agony — I have at least learned to be compassionate and let it go. I borrow from the art of accountancy and declare my day a write-off. I’ve fought bravely and now I need a bath. My core is still wounded; the boarding school kid still lives inside me. He needs a little looking after. And maybe a cup of tea.
What a relief that is.
Laurence Shorter is author of The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life (2016, Hachette Books) and The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life (2009, Canongate). He lives in the UK with his partner and son.