CAREER

Personal stories: Freelancers and their personal “baobabs.”

Working as a freelancer can often be overly romanticized, with the lifestyle’s challenges and limitations overlooked. Aliya Dzhimran writes about her own experience with freelancing and shares the stories of others who’ve worked in this mode, transparently showing both the ups and downs of going it on your own.

Aliya Dzhimran

February 16th, 2021

People joke that a freelancer can work from anywhere in the world (outside the office and all its stupid rules), but they still end up working from their kitchen table. And here I am writing this story, sitting at the kitchen table actually, and there’s some borsch stewing on the stove nearby, and a little further there’s an ironing board with a pile of laundry that I have still have to sort out.


I’m a freelancer. I’ve worked from coworking spaces and cafes, park benches and Black Sea beaches, planes and trains, picnic blankets, supermarket checkouts and playground swings. I can really work from anywhere — as long as things turn out alright.


Of course in theory you can work in the most trying of conditions, surrounded by stomping children and a house full of relatives. But even if you’re the reincarnation of Buddha, you won’t last long. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince said that if you don’t take the time every day to weed out the bad seeds, then you won’t notice they’ve grown into big baobab trees until it’s too late, their roots tearing the little planet to shreds. Freelancers have their own baobabs. And they need to really keep an eye out, so that on Planet Freelance the work/life balance stays in harmony.


When I started working on this story, I decided not just to share my own experience, but to also talk to two more young women who also work, or have tried to work, as freelancers. Each one of us has our personal baobabs.

Not having a proper work schedule and a place to work is the number one baobab for any freelancer

And it’s precisely this that debunks the myth that freelancers are some kind of liberated souls blessed with pure creative freedom. In recent years, freelancing has been heavily romanticized. Courses promise to transform you from a bored mom on maternity leave into a self-sufficient businesswoman with a ton of projects — in just two weeks. You’ve surely seen these kinds of articles, where the author loads scorn on office cogs and preaches the life of those who’ve been liberated from the system.

Story #1

I've been freelancing for four years. I spent twelve years working at big companies. After graduating with an Econ degree, I started quickly and confidently climbing the career ladder. I was given a company car and a flat, and even a personal driver. What else could I dream of?


About writing. Before heading out on my own, I made careful preparations, building up my nest egg for a couple of years. But to this day, in the eyes of those around me, I still look a bit silly. I still find that surprising, though — if anything, the Covid pandemic has shown the world the benefits of freelancing and working remotely. And even more, it’s made a crack in the system, exposing its weaknesses.

My work format suits me better than I could ever ask for. But it's important to admit that I had expected that freelancing would bring me a lot of free time
I imagined myself deftly maneuvering between commissioned texts and writing my own book, while publishing stories and poems in literary magazines. I thought it would be easy keeping that balance between work and creativity. But alas, that’s just not how it goes. Four years have gone by, and my creative plans are still on the shelf. In that time, I became a mother, and it was a challenge to freelance with a baby crawling around. Instead of studying free verse and storytelling, I learned about time management. Instead of putting my energy towards the plots of my stories, I put it towards keeping my everyday life in control. A friend of mine, learning that I wanted to write by commission, warned me that it would be like castrating my ability to write. Maybe she's right. But now it’s easier and easier to strike the right balance and find the strength to write something of my own. It’s a lesson I think I’ve learned well, about how to properly split my time between my work, my family and my creativity.

As a freelancer, nothing’s more important than scheduling. The only thing is that it’s not a company or an HR department that sets your schedule — you’ve got to do it yourself, by your own initiative
I really hope life doesn’t for me to go back to planning sessions and meetings in conference rooms. But we’re all different. For some people, going to an office five days a week, with its discipline, hierarchy and memos, is going to be the right setting for them to work. Other people might not want to have to choose one or the other, and will try to juggle office work with their own pet projects. 

Baobab #2 is not having the right self-discipline, and this is something that requires extra effort

It turns out that working remotely isn’t as dreamy as it may seem. In our fantasies, we’re under a palm tree on a sandy beach with a fresh coconut beside us and a laptop on our lap. But in real life, the glare on the screen will make it impossible to work, and it’s the concentration you need to get things done isn’t something like a pressure valve. It’s not something that you can just flip on like a switch. When you’re freelancing, sometimes the hardest part is just getting yourself out of the comfort of your bed and getting to work.

Story #2

To learn about the challenge of self-discipline when working outside the office, we spoke to Bota, who works for an event agency and hosts the podcast "Tea, Coffee — Let's Chat!,” all while raising two kids.

 

“I tried my hand at freelancing back when I was a university student. I wrote for several different publications, which is totally normal for journalists. It’s actually pretty rare for a journalist to work on only one project. It’s really more like a part-time job than freelancing - you work whenever you get free time, after classes, at night, on the weekends. But in terms of working outside the office, it’s the same idea.


After I finished grad school in England, I went to work for some major corporations in Kazakhstan. I changed jobs several times, and managed to work at the sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna. Keep in mind that when you work at state-owned companies, you have to understand the Kazakh context. There’s always feuds, people fighting over who gets what share of the pot. It’s often the case that if you’re in a top position, like head of a department, you need strong support. I was put in a lot of unpleasant situations where it made more sense just to quit and keep my sanity. Working within the system, I couldn’t imagine finding success, staying interested, or getting any satisfaction out of it at all..


By that time, I was already in a stable relationship with my future husband. We wanted to go to India for a month and a half. That's when I started thinking about freelancing. I already had clients, people knew me, and my services were in demand.


It’s when I was in India that I realized that it wasn’t that easy for me to get work done outside the office. I watched how my husband, Ben, could stay productive, even when it was sunny outside and the vibe was easygoing. But I just couldn’t. When I’m not in an office, I have problems with concentration and discipline. Maybe I just need a specific workplace? I blamed it on that.


I had a lot of clients, and was getting invited to plenty of projects. But I couldn’t feel that there was any structure - I didn’t have a boss managing me from above, and I didn’t have any employees to manage below me. I couldn’t see the whole picture; instead, I saw separate shreds that I needed to work on.

Because of that, I missed deadlines and I let a lot of clients down, and I still feel ashamed about it all
At the same time, I never aspired to work as a freelancer. I knew that it’s not as dreamy as people think, because I studied abroad, where your academic work requires a lot of independence. But then I got married, moved to a new country, and I didn’t have a work permit there. I’m sure that a lot of employees who were forced to lockdown at a remote location had the same experience.


Now I’ve realized that the best thing for me is to hold down a stable office job while having personal projects on the side. After two years passed, I received a UK work permit and immediately started looking for office work. I had a conscious desire to work somewhere with schedules, with structure, and with a range of responsibilities.

Three main challenges you might face when freelancing:
The first challenge is interacting with people. I’m a people-person. I need people: talking in person, having control and delegating responsibilities.
The second challenge is discipline. I can walk around in my pajamas all day, work in bed, eat in bed. I get demotivated.
The third challenge is not having a vision of how the project looks in a big picture sense. It’s really important for me to be a part of something big.

Baobab #3 is not feeling passionate about your freelance work

When you’re on staff you can get your paycheck at the end of the month as long as you’re disciplined and stay relatively involved in what the company’s doing, but when you’re a freelancer it’s just you and your tasks. Either you’ll get the work done and go above and beyond, or you won’t get many more jobs in the future, or you won’t even be able to make a living . You need to constantly invest in your name, your brand, and the quality of your services in order to have a stable income.

Then take your workflow and add kids to the mix, with their constant demands, and everyday chores that eat up your precious working time
Then of course you want to go out, go to the gym, meet up with friends - now you’re a free bird, and you can fly wherever you want. All dragons can be tamed. You just need to remember about balance."

Story #3

Our last story is about Zhenya Orlovskaya, an illustrator and the founder of the brand Piu Wiu. Zhenya was honest about the other side of freelancing, though it still doesn’t stop her from enjoying what she does:


“Officially, I’m actually still on staff at Gazpromneft as the head of management in the Department of Organizational Development. I went on maternity leave and could go back to the office. My job there was to optimize work processes - basically, it’s about creating efficiency within a large corporation.


My transition to freelancing turned out to be very gentle. I had the perfect career, a big salary, interesting things to do, cool coworkers. But occasionally I felt like leaving so that I could work on my own self-development. After I got a nice position and a good salary, I started to torture myself with the question, “But what now?”

 I’m also somebody who can be quickly provoked, so I always had this letter of resignation in my box
But it’s scary to just step into the void. It kind of felt like this strange idea, something unrealistic. Though everywhere freelancing was getting more and more fashionable. A lot of my friends had succeeded and gone their own way. I'm a rather nervous person. The question of whether our family would have enough money or not never came up (I always had support), but I was afraid. But it stayed on my mind. Everything got decided when our first kid was born, I went on maternity leave and my husband was transferred to Georgia. Then everything was new - new lifestyle, new scenery. Still, people from St. Petersburg have a very different way of life from people in Georgia And I began to paint.


What I like most about my new arrangement is the flexibility - I only take on as much work as I can finish. I set a price based on what I invest into the project and that I feel is fair. I can adjust everything to my own needs, not just to the needs of the people I’m working for.


And with freelancing, you can really feel the effect of earning something - you do your work, the customer pays for it and you take this money and ... I don’t know, buy some apples. You can feel directly how your efforts are transformed into actual money. And that makes me happy. When you’re working in an office, you don’t feel that. Getting a paycheck at the end of the money is a different story.

By the way, to be entirely honest - I didn’t end up with the kind of income I hoped for
Now there’s Covid, the borders are closed, there aren’t any tourists. Some of my products are souvenirs, and my sales depend on all of this. But I know that I can make good money - I just have to invest, work hard and develop my business. I think everything will turn out fine. I have to admit, I never sought out customers — they found me themselves. Because I sincerely believe: if you are passionate about your work, develop, grow, that’s what people come to you for and are ready to pay for. They wait for packages from Georgia, agreeing to whatever terms and prices you set for them.


Another thing that’s hard is that when you freelance, you’re constantly working hard. With an office, you can leave and go live your life. And when you’re a creative person, it is difficult to just go try something else. I worry a lot, overthink things and then get tired. Another challenge is combining freelancing with parenting. During quarantine the kids were with me 24 hours a day, just “wash-clean-cook.” Now they’re in kindergarten.


A lot of the times there are difficult moments, like when the kids are staying at home and I have a lot of work to do, and it can be very hard. I try to balance my work with the time I spend with my kids. If you mix it up, you’ll only end up frustrated - you’re not with your kids, and you haven’t finished the work you wanted to do. Or if you only deal with kids, family, chores, you get burned out. Just being a mom isn’t enough for me.

If you’re thinking about freelancing, there are some things you should be ready for:
Your financial situation might decline.
At least at the beginning, when you’re still finding clients and trying to get to the right rhythm. That’s why it’s important to save up a nest egg so you don’t go crazy. If you have thirty three loans, I don’t recommend going solo - since you’re always going to be dealing with financial problems, you won’t have enough time and energy left to look after yourself.
You’ll have more responsibilities.
When you’re freelancing, all the responsibility is on you, not on your company, boss, clients or coworkers. If you’re a nervous person, then work will take over your life. Other parts of your life will start to suffer, and you can get burnt out."
Illustrations: Aziza Kireyeva
This project is supported by a grant provided by the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan.

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