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!