Monday, January 2, 2017

Seeing 2015 Through the Lens, Part Two

Alright, well, now that it's officially 2016 2017, it's time to finish my 2015 photos post!  What can I say--nothing redeeming here, so let's get to the photos!   (The first half of my 2015 round-up is right over here.)

July.  Every July, we visit my family in Michigan for about two weeks.  One of the highlights of the trip was taking my niece on Panera dates.  I had work to do for Austin Writing Shop, so I asked her to pack some stuff she wanted to work on, and we enjoyed several afternoons doing our thing together.  This photo is a little blurry, but I love it so much.

August.  Guys, meet Tooti.  Tooti is a beautiful cat who lives with Paul's sister and her family in Houston.  In August, Paul spent three weeks in Houston, mannying for the kids and doing various jobs around the house.  I visited the gang on weekends.  Those drives between Austin and Houston happen to be some of my first solo long-distance drives!  This is what happens when you don't get your driver's license until you are 32.

September.  One day in September, I decided to ride my bike through east Austin to the bank and back.  I came across this urban farm, where they had the most adorable donkeys!  Love!

October.  Here are Paul and Lu together on the couch.  They have a special relationship, which completely melts my heart.  In a lot of ways, Lu is really my cat--I do the bulk of the work to take care of her.  But it's important to me that Paul and Lu bond, so I love seeing them together.

November.  Here I am with my (then) brand-new Bernie bag!  In many ways, the Democratic primary really dominated my thoughts during the second half of 2015 (and into 2016, too).  It marked my pdolitical awakening as something more than vaguely environmentalist/socialist/man, Texas politics are terrible/I'm definitely not voting for Ted Cruz!  I should probably write a separate post about where I am now, politically speaking, but suffice to say that I loved my new bag (which was my birthday present to myself).

December.  Oh, once again, I couldn't help myself.  I couldn't pick just one photo for the last month in this post, so here are two favorites.  The first one is Paul with someone's fun Bernie sign.  We must have been at a rally or a protest--I can't even remember what or where--and he posed for me with the sign.  We love Bernie so much.

The second photo is Lu underneath Courtney's Christmas tree.  Isn't she the cutest?

* * *

Now that it's 2017, I can see that 2015 was a year of gearing up for what would be a very big year in our lives.  In 2015, I finished my first academic year of freelance tutoring.  Paul and I got engaged.  We immediately got involved with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.  All of those things would carry over into 2016 in big ways, which underlines how arbitrary time can feel.

But regardless, happy new year!  This week I hope to do some 2016-related posts and then (finally) I can write about my 2017 word of the year.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Freelance Love: Two Pieces of Advice

{Street art at Magic Garden in Philadelphia}
Recently I was asked to share a short piece of advice for freelancers.  But when do I ever keep things short?  Rarely!  Today I'll offer two pieces of advice.  My thoughts are especially relevant to anyone who wants to try full-time freelancing.  Those of you who have side hustles might not need to worry about this stuff as much, but you're still welcome around my campfire.

* Tip #1: Do not go full time without at least three months' worth of living expenses.  

If you, like me, hope to be in the freelance/self-employment game for a long time, you need to be prepared for the long haul.  For most (if not all) freelancers, there are dry months and dry seasons.  It's better to be prepared for that reality by having a chunk of money stashed away in case of emergency.  In order to know what three months' of living expenses are, you must track your expenses for a few months--I would recommend doing this for a whole year if you can.

I want to be really honest with you here.  I was really prepared financially to weather the storms of freelancing, yet I still found myself completely overwhelmed by the money side of things.  I have been slapped with a huge tax bill two years in a row.  I have worked my tail off for very little money in the hopes that my time investment will yield fruit eventually.  For me, learning to take these things in stride is part of the game.

In the spirit of being prepared for anything, make sure you can bankroll your own freelance lifestyle.  Three months is a pretty modest recommendation, but my hope is that it feels do-able if you are dying to quit your job to go freelance.
* Tip #2: Identify your North Star.  What do you really want out of freelancing?  

When you are super burned out on your day job(s), freelancing can sound like an escape.  And it is, sort of.  But I think the sweetness of freelancing can be easily lost.  It's not always easy to bring in the cash on a freelancer's hours.

My North Star is that I want to be lay-off-proof.  By not having a single job, I have diversified my career portfolio.  I am very fortunate that education is a field in which you can freelance and bring in a steady income nine months out of the year.  (Summer is still my albatross.  Don't ask how much money I made in July...)

I also want my work to be fun and energizing.  I am arriving at a place in my freelancing where I feel I can say no to work that I don't particularly enjoy.  I have not always felt this way--I'd say for the past two years, I took on any and every job that came my way.  And I'm glad I did because all those jobs kept me trying new things.  They kept me floating financially.  But I'm in a different place now where I need to be more deliberate.

Once you've identified your North Star, it's time to dig deeper.  Why does that thing matter so much to you?  For me, feeling lay-off-proof is empowering.  I like the feeling of being able to make money in lots of different ways.  My career is agile, nimble, crafty.   Trying to work as a science postdoc made me feel helpless and trapped; what I do now is the opposite of that.  And I love it.

That being said...I do enjoy the benefit of one huge regular stream of income from one of my jobs (Science Guide at Acton Academy Southwest here in Austin).  The path that I'm trying to navigate now is how to invest in something I enjoy, something I believe in, while keeping up with my other freelance work.  A lot of my work at Acton has been a labor of love (meaning it has been a lot of work for not much money).  But it's work that I wanted to do.  Sometimes freelance life is like that: your purpose in doing the work is more than just the money.  That's a beautiful thing and something to be treasured.

To summarize this tip: 1) try to figure out what your North Star, your guiding principle is for your freelancing ambitions.  And then 2) try to figure out why it feels so important.  If you really dig for why, I think you'll discover an emotion or a value that you want your career to embody.  And once you find that, you'll find more ways to manifest it in your work and the rest of your life.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Seeing 2015 Through the Lens, Part One

Hello, friends!  Happy New Year!

I promised myself that I would try to do these year-in-review posts each year because it's so lovely to be able to look back at the year in photos.  Sadly, though, my old iPhone died, trapping most of my images from January through May.  I suppose it's okay; those months were kind of a blur anyway as I rushed from one place to another, chasing my freelance dreams.

Without further adieu: the best of January through June, one photo at a time.  

January.  Ah, January, the month of fresh starts!  In January, I picked a feeling that I hoped 2015 would embody: flow.  I wanted to be more easy-going, and I hoped that my life would feel easier too.  Flow was a great core desired feeling for 2015; it reminded me again and again how walking and running always make me feel better, how a bath is a great way to relax, how even driving can be relaxing when you aren't sitting in traffic.  It made me pay more attention to the moments when things felt like they were moving in the right direction.  And that made me feel like I was moving in the right direction, too.

February.  I always love seeing blossoms in springtime.  So fresh, so pretty.

March.  In March, Paul and I visited his family's cabin together for the first time.  And I have to say, I totally fell in love with the place.  It was our spring break destination.

April.  Sadly, I have no photos from April now.  Did April even happen?  Who can say?

May.  May is missing in action, too.  May was finals season for all my students, so I was working a lot.  Not much more to report from May.

June.  Whew, finally, back in action!  After five months of hectic work, June was a month of rest for me.  Here I'm steeping tea with spices to make chai.  Homemade chai is the best!

June, part two.  Since April and May have no photos, I'll give June a bonus photo.  I spent many an hour walking in the park down the street from my house.  There are deer who live in this park; here's one of them.  So lovely.

Stay tuned for part two of this series...

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Full-time Freelancing: The One-Year Report

Yes, the rumors are true: being your own boss is pretty much the best thing ever.  Except when it’s not.  After more than a year of full-time freelancing, I can say that being self-employed is one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever attempted.  I thought it would be fun to write a report from the frontlines of what many people would call “living the dream.”  For me, the two keys to long(er)-term success have been keeping the faith and keeping my sanity, depending on how much I am working at any particular time.

I’ll start with the highlight reel: the best parts of self-employment for me.

* The pride of building a career from scratch.  I don’t think I have talked about it much on the blog here, but I really did try to find a more “traditional” job in 2013.  It didn’t work out for me—I didn’t get hired for the jobs that interested me the most, and then I was laid off from a one-year lab position for which I was hired.  By the end of 2013, I was starting to realize that if I was going to find happiness in my work, I would have to build the house myself.

There are days of work that are really, really hard.  The commuting, the cancellations, the occasional unhappy student—it all comes with the territory.  But I have such deep love for what this work entails.  I find a way to endure because the reward is love—a love for learning, for my students, for independence and inspiration.  Love is bigger than hard work.

* A new love for science.  After my heartbreaks in 2013, it took me a long time to return to a place where I could love science again.  I felt very betrayed by academic science and all of its trappings.  Working independently helped me find my way back to a place where I can honestly enjoy my work as a scientist.

Am I still a scientist?  Having earned a PhD, I think I’ve earned the right to call myself a scientist.  Interestingly, in our work with Acton Academy Southwest, Paul and I serve as teachers and mentors, which is something that science professors do.  And a lot of science professors don’t spend much time in the lab.  Instead, they read, analyze and think about data, write grants, and promote their science at meetings.  A lot of scientists don’t spend all day in the lab.  I count myself as one of them.

* Incredible, inspiring students.  My students work so hard, and I feel very honored to work with them.  They are smart, funny, lovely people.  They are at the heart of a tutoring business, the reason I’m able to do any of this.  I cannot thank them and their families enough for their support and their belief in what I do.

* More opportunities to be creative.  Teaching and tutoring are full of chances to be creative.  I feel more connected to my creative energy these days.  In addition, I’ve been writing for a science blog that my friend Michelle has started, to which I’ll link once the site starts sharing articles.

On the science blog, I’m writing about cancer.  Inspired by that work and by my biology students, I’m thinking about writing a popular science book about cancer…that’s the long-term project I’m contemplating.

(By the way, have you listened to this wonderful talk about curiosity by Elizabeth Gilbert?  Go now, listen!  It’s great.)

* Choosing my own schedule…kinda.  My schedule is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of students, homework, and exams.  I have “anchors,” regular events which create a framework upon which the rest of my work is built.

There is this myth that freelancers can work whenever they want to.  That is both true and not true in my case.  I have my independent work that I can do any time: writing, billing, studying, working on our website.  But my work with students is completely dependent on when they are available; much of my schedule revolves around them.

The most important decision I’ve made about scheduling is taking Fridays off.  I work hard to protect Friday as my day for self-care and fun, and it’s been an essential part of my work. 

And amidst so much good stuff, there are hard parts on the path I’ve chosen.  Here are some of the challenges with which I wrestle:

* Following the rhythms of the academic calendar.  As I write this, we are finishing up winter finals.  And dear reader, I am exhausted.  December and May are now very hard months in my calendar because I am so booked with sessions.  On some days, I barely have any time for exercise or cooking.  Finals season is a short period of time that feels very long and daunting.

* Drivin’, drivin’, drivin’.  Paul and I drive A LOT for work.  We have put a lot of miles on our car.  We’re getting better at grouping our sessions into the same part of town and saying no to inquiries that are too far outside our travel radius.  In one day, I might be in three or four different locations, meeting with students in coffee shops, on campus, or in their homes.  Commuting stress is its own kind of hell.

I will say that one of the advantages of doing more work on the weekends (when my high school students are more available) is that traffic is generally lighter and faster.  Sunday is typically a long work day for me.  But it’s satisfying to get so much good work done in one day!

* Uncertain income.  This is the bane of all self-employed people, and I’m no exception.  I’ve been fortunate so far in that I have had long stretches of steady work and similar levels of monthly income.  For tutors, the summer is predictably drier than the rest of the year.  But it’s still hard to make peace with the anxiety of billable hours instead of a salary.

For 2015, I think we’ll break even.  We’ve had enough money to support a comfortable lifestyle, one that reflects our values and preferences.  We won’t have much left over once we pay our 2015 taxes.  I’d love for us to have enough cash to put money into savings each year.  I’d also love for us to be able to save for a dual maternity/paternity leave and retirement.  Those are big goals, and I think we’ll get there, with time and patience.

* TAXES.  Paying self-employment taxes is still no fun.  No surprise there.

* Saying no.  This has probably been the biggest game-changer for me this year.  Like many people, I hate saying no and I have a hard time doing it.  I’m learning to say no to situations that are not a good fit for me, which gives me more time and energy to say yes to good things!  I have faith now that I can afford to be more selective about my work. 

In short, life is good.  We’ve had a good year in Austin.  I’m keeping the faith in freelance life and all the good things it has brought me.

PS  Another good link to inspire your creative flow: Danielle LaPorte on freedom-based creativity.  She is so inspiring!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What 34 Feels Like

Autumn in Austin

Yesterday I celebrated my 34th birthday.  As a treat to myself, I wanted to take some time to update my poor blog, which remains so neglected in the hustle and bustle of this new life I’m building in Austin.

34 feels good.  I’m now in my second year of full-time freelancing.  It’s definitely easier this year than it was last year.  I feel more confident, more sure of myself and what I’m doing.  I love the work and the students.  I’m getting better at saying yes to the right things and no to the wrong things.  I’m still learning and growing, which feels wonderful.

34 feels busy.  Very busy!  Due to the logistics of sharing a car, Paul and I have longer days of work, more time away from home.  I was not on board with sharing a car, but now I am.  Somehow we are making it work.  It puts some boundaries on my work life because I can’t meet students in as many locations, but I think those boundaries are healthy.

34 feels accepting.  I’ve learned to let some stuff go in order to feel more peaceful.  We eat more meals out to alleviate some pressure on the cooking/cleaning front.  Our house is usually a little dirtier than I would like.  I’ve developed a tiny Starbucks habit, just to give myself something to look forward to on my longest days. 

34 feels assertive.  As a freelancer who works with other people most of the time, it’s hard to prioritize my own projects and professional development.  And yet, part of how we get better at our craft is through concentrated effort at climbing the next mountain.  I’m inching my way toward the weekly decisions that give me time for growth.  This is hard for me because 1) I really like helping people and 2) I really like getting paid for my time.  But if I don’t take time to refill the well of my intellectual and creative powers, then I’m not doing anyone any good.

34 feels well-loved.  Sometimes, I look around my house filled with people I love, one furry cat, books and art and good food, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude.  How did I stumble into such a good life? 

Totes for Bernie cropped

34 feels optimistic.  So many things give me optimism for the year ahead: Bernie Sanders is running for president.  Everyone in my house is gainfully employed and moving in the direction of their dreams.  My family is healthy.  Love is the law of the land in this country.

34 feels big and small.  Building a life is big.  But I think we find more pleasure and happiness in our daily routines, our daily treats.  The small stuff comforts us.  It gives us the strength and the courage to carry on with the big stuff.  34 feels like the perfect blend of big and small.

34 feels committed.  Paul and I are engaged!  And if I can ever get over my paralysis toward wedding planning, we will be married within the next year or two.  I love him so much.

The Ring

And just for fun, here’s a rapid-fire Q&A on a few things wedding-related:

Who proposed?  We both did!

When is the wedding?  Either summer of 2016 or 2017.

Where are you getting married?  Probably Michigan, near the shores of Lake Huron

Are you excited?  I am equal parts excited and terrified.  I’m less afraid of being married and more afraid of wedding planning.  But my sister just gifted me with two fantastic books that a dear friend gave her, so I’m feeling like I have a roadmap to hold my hand.

Do you guys want children?  Yes.  We’re hoping to have one child, and after that, we’ll see how we feel about more.  (To the moms and dads whose “first child” is twins, I salute you!)

* * *

That seems like a good note on which to end.  Onward and upward, friends!  May you always be moving in the direction of your heart’s desires.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Budgeting for Freelancers, Part Five: Tax Time Confessions

It’s that time again: another Budgeting for Freelancers post!  This series is my way of sharing my imperfect approach to freelance life.  Emphasis on the imperfect part for today.  Click here to read Part Four and find links to my earlier posts.

One of my motivations for writing this series is that most of the advice for freelancers on the internet is idealized.  By “idealized,” I mean the advice assumes ideal-case scenarios, which makes freelance money strategy seem easy and do-able.

The truth is that it’s not.  It’s really not.  It’s messy and uncertain, and it comes with a steep learning curve.  Today I’m going to share with you the backstory on why I’ve been freaking out about taxes.  (Don’t worry—this story has a happy ending.)

In October of 2014, I became the official accountant for Paul and me.  I manage our shared budget, tracking our expenses and our income.  I keep tabs on how much money we have saved for summer (our dry season—we’re both academic tutors).  I am also in charge of taxes.  Paul is in charge of some of his bookkeeping, but I manage our overall financial life.

In August of 2014, Paul and I completed our move to Austin, and I transitioned to full-time freelancing as a tutor.  I had been working two part-time jobs before we moved: tutoring and managing a lab at Texas A&M University.  I had taxes taken out of my lab job paychecks, so I was paying some taxes for most of 2014.  But once I started freelancing full-time, I paid no taxes.  Whoops.

Actually, it’s not quite so simple.  In June or July, I had checked on my “tax status” to see if I should send in a payment for my freelancing income.  And the answer was no.  After we moved to Austin and I started hustling for work, I was so freaking busy with work that I didn’t even think about taxes.  Plus I was making so little money for the year that how could I possibly owe any taxes on top of what had already been withheld?

The answer is a lot.  I could owe a lot in taxes, because self-employed people bear a huge tax burden, something on the order of 20% in taxes.

So now I owe some money because of my own negligence, and Paul owes some money because he didn’t make any estimated tax payments.  Fortunately, the late payment penalty is very reasonable, so I can breathe a sigh of relief about that.

Altogether (because I think the numbers matter), we owe about $3500 in taxes.  I’ve been freaking out as I scramble to find $3500 in our budget to pay taxes on April 15th.  And I think I’ve managed to do it, though it will drain our liquid assets.  I’ve been pretty upset about this situation.  On the surface, it seemed like maybe I was just upset that self-employment taxes were unreasonably high and now I had to drain our bank accounts.  I mean, I was definitely upset about that.  I was in despair: it’s so hard to be self-employed, and on top of that, 1 out of every 5 hours I work is to pay taxes just for the luxury of working my ass off with no benefits.  I started thinking, I can’t afford to be self-employed!  It was just too hard.  But every time I thought about going back to having a boss and letting someone else call the shots in my work life, I thought, Absolutely not.  I’m not giving up just yet.

So that gave me some clarity on how I feel about self-employment: grittingly determined to make it work.  But I still felt very upset, even lashing out in anger one night over something petty and stupid at the house.  That night was a turning point for me: there was something deeper going on here.

What I came to realize is that I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had fucked up our taxes this year.  I didn’t know what I was doing, and I hadn’t built taxes into our budget.  My negligence came from several places: 1) I had been paying taxes and thought it would be more than enough to cover my tax bill, 2) I hadn’t fully assumed the responsibility for budgeting for Paul’s taxes, and 3) I was so freaking busy during the fall semester that taxes didn’t even cross my mind.  It sounds na├»ve, and it totally was, but there you go: sometimes all your hustle gets aimed in one direction.

And now that I’ve unpacked the shame, I’m actually feeling much better about taxes.  It’s interesting: we don’t owe any less money, but I feel much calmer about our situation.  Now that I know better, I can do better.

Another noteworthy observation: if I had known in 2014 how hard it would be to establish myself as a self-employed person, I don’t think I would have had the courage to start.  I really think the deck is stacked against the self-employed; it is so expensive to support yourself and a business on freelance income.  It’s so expensive, in fact, that I have increased my tutoring rates.  I feel much less apologetic about how I run my business now, which is an unexpected gift from this whole experience.  I still want to help students, but I feel more confident about my boundaries.  This is a very good thing.

Freelancing has been trial by fire for me, but I have no regrets.  I’m glad I made the leap.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Six for Saturday: Reading, Watching, Thinking

Porch Swing at the Cabin

Paul Working on His Puzzle

Paul and I took a little vacation this week to his family’s cabin in the woods.  It was the perfect break except for the fact that it was way too short.  We read our books, worked on a puzzle, cooked, and lounged about with no to-do list.  I still did some work (haven’t quite figured out my work-life balance as a freelancer), but it was so nice to work with no appointments to keep and no place to go.  I figure that in this first year of full-time freelancing, every mistake is a chance to learn.  What I learned this week: I need a longer break during spring break—two full days away from the hustle of real life.  As it turns out, most of my students who wanted to meet with me this week canceled their appointments anyway, which makes the idea of being “available” during spring break seem silly.  Next time: a longer break and more lounging!

At The Cabin, I worked on my taxes, and you guys, taxes are seriously bumming me out.  A little backstory: I’ve been doing my own taxes for ten years, so I know my way around a 1040.  But 2014 is my first year of self-employment (SE), and holy god, doing SE taxes SUCKS.  I owe the government close to $2,000, and that’s despite the fact that 2014 was not particularly lucrative for me.  If I thought before this that self-employment was tough, I must amend my statement: I’d say it seems damn near impossible to make it work, to actually make enough money to live as a self-employed person.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t know how bad the tax burden would be, so I carried on cheerfully, meeting students and building my business.  I’m actually really grateful for my ignorance now because not knowing made my life less stressful at a time when I didn’t need any more stress.  I feel like I can handle the reality of SE taxes now, and moving forward, I can make decisions with that knowledge in hand.

But that’s the end of my sighing about taxes.  Onto the Saturday six!  

{ONE}  My book of choice at The Cabin was The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.  If you haven’t heard of Sam Harris or his work, you are in for a treat: few people are as thoughtful and rigorous in their writing about religion, spirituality, and ethics as Sam Harris.  I’m a huge, huge fan of his work, most of which I’ve only experienced through youtube.  So far, I’m really enjoying The Moral Landscape, and I’m thinking about adding Waking Up, his book about non-religious spirituality, to our next Amazon order.

{TWO}  I’ve been really bummed about call-out culture.  Call-out culture, for those of you who live under a rock like me, is the practice of publicly shaming people who say or do oppressive things (think homophobic, trans-phobic, misogynistic, that sort of thing).  I didn’t even know this practice had a name until today.  But Paul shared this piece with me, and I think it really articulates the problems I see in call-out culture, namely that it’s alienating and dehumanizing.  It seems to bring out the worst in people.  The piece was an interesting read.

{THREE}  I’m thinking about buying some new makeup to go along with the subtle makeover that I’m doing on myself.  At Target, I saw the Pacifica line of products, which are vegan!  Anybody have any experience with Pacifica makeup?  I saw this good review on-line and am thinking about plunking down $14 for a lipstick (but see above re:taxes, hence I haven’t bought any new makeup yet…)

{FOUR}  This piece on pop culture exhaustion made me smile and nod.  I feel the same way: with a few exceptions, I just don’t care much for pop culture.  I have no mental bandwidth for it!

{FIVE}  My Twitter friend Fran recently posted a day in her life as a second-year med student who is studying for boards.  While I am so, so glad I did not go into medicine, I find the lifestyle fascinating.  Fran seems so calm and balanced!  She makes it look easy.

{SIX}  We’ve been making a vegetarian version of this gnocchi recipe with greens and sausage, and it’s outrageously good.  Just sub in your favorite veggie sausage and you are good to go.  It might become your favorite busy-night dinner.  Maybe I’ll post our version of it…

Whew, that’s it from me for now!  What have you been up to lately, my dears?