Some days I have to remember that a lot of things in life revolve in cycles. Women deal with cycles with their bodies (man, do we ever). The business is somewhat cyclical through seasons – there are definitely slow months and busy months and after 4 years we can sort of predict now where they fall (but it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t worry when sales slow down). Freelance work, well, that is sort of the wildcard.
When you’re in it though, when you’re down at the bottom of that cycle and you can’t seem to catch any momentum or when things slow down and make you nervous, it’s hard to remember that there’s an upswing at the next turn. But usually there always is. Currently, however, I feel like I’m on that proverbial hamster wheel. Running, running, running to keep money flowing in so that it can flow out as necessary to run the household smoothly without any hiccups, to maintain that middle class status quo we find ourselves in. Running makes you tired, but you can’t stop because then everything will stop. So you keep running.
I feel lucky that freelance work has been very steady over the years. While there are still a few moments where I start to feel uneasy if things suddenly lighten up, for the most part I haven’t dealt with any real panic attacks or month-long depressions in a long time like in the early years of freelance whenever there was a dry spell. Those were scary, especially because I was also a new parent. I would say that for the first 5 years I would obsessively run mental calculations in my head every other day trying to figure out how long our money would last if I couldn’t find work for a few months. Knowing our situation down to the penny was comforting. But as I near my 10th year of working for myself, I understand now that freelance is a constant moving cycle too. It’s pretty ridiculous to believe that you’ll never work again even though you may have been lying face down in self defeat on your bed thinking it was truth. If anything 10 years is a convincing track record that there is always something around the corner.
But back to that hamster wheel. Sometimes I want to get off. I’m grateful that the work keeps coming (for now) and it keeps the engine going, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere or that the business is going anywhere. We’re just running to maintain orders and deadlines, to pay bills, to pay for dance classes and soccer and summer camp. I think it’s good to stop once in awhile and reassess things because it’s all too easy to just keep going and then when you look back, a whole year has passed. What have you accomplished in a year that was different and new than the year before?
Sometimes I think, well, if you could do anything right now, what would it be? I’ve struggled with the question before, but I think I know now. I think I would like a year to just try things out and work on all these ideas I have and see where it could take us. This is a fantasy, so in this fantasy there are no money issues, no pressures to make the numbers every month, no risk of losing freelance contacts when the year is over. When you’re working, there is an expectation and pressure to make clients happy. There is no room for failure. You don’t go into a project expecting to fail. Neither does the client. So you churn out the work and hold your breath at each design review and repeat with the next. I’d like to just work on something without all that pressure to succeed. To be free to fail without affecting someone else’s budget or deadline. To fail so that I can confirm what I’m good at and what I’m not and to discover if there are any surprises. To have the time to create something so bad and ugly and awful and not have it matter. A year to fail. I suppose you could call that a sabbatical, but those don’t exist for most people.
I think my nightly ritual of staying up till 2am is an attempt at trying to carve out this time. It doesn’t really work all the time though. The logic is there, but I often just end up working more and if I’m not, I want nothing to do except zone out on the internet because I have no brain capacity left.
So, there really is no point to this post or a moral to this story except I can attest that getting 5-6 hours of sleep every night is stupid (don’t try this at home, kids!). Being 40 year old adults with school age children doesn’t automatically mean that you have everything figured out in your life, despite what your 20 year old self once thought. I know we all make our choices. To have children, to not have children; to live in an expensive city, to live in a rural town; to save money or to blow it all on a trip of a lifetime; to keep saying yes to keep everything running while you keep thinking no. Though sometimes it seems hard to imagine, I’d like to think that those choices that got you on the wheel in the first place don’t mean that you’re locked into your current way of life. I’d like to think that there is some way off this hamster wheel…