Most freelancers I know didn’t start out freelancing. They worked in a corporate office somewhere, stifled by the buzz of fluorescent lights and surrounded by paper-thin cubicle walls. They calculated profit and loss statements, they managed networks, they sold condominiums.
At the end of the day, they went home and forgot about their job until the next morning, when they dutifully rolled out of bed and went to work.
Work was good, of course. It paid the bills. It put food on the table. They found joy in other places, outside of work. They worked hard, and they played hard. But the only joy they got from work was the joy of a paycheck.
Sensing a need to make a difference in the world around them, they volunteered at rescue missions, they worked with Habitat for Humanity, or they read books to kids at the local library. Their job, of course, was totally disconnected from these efforts. What they did at work they did for “The Man,” not for humanity.
Freelancing is different, though. When you freelance, there is plenty of joy to be found in your work, as long as you know where to look for it.
There’s also plenty of purpose, too. As a freelancer, you have the power to change the world. The things you write or create have an impact on peoples’ lives, sometimes a significant impact.
Yes, there are gigs that seem banal. There are times when you’re little more than a gun-for-hire, hawking someone else’s wares. We take these gigs because they pay the bills, and we don’t need to feel bad about that.
However, with a little effort, you can turn your freelance career into a positive force for change.
Freelance with integrity
Whenever I am offered a writing gig that is questionable, I think back to the conversation in Clerks. Dante’ and Randall are debating about the destruction of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Dante’ contends that the contractors working on the unfinished Death Star were merely victims when the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star, caught in the middle of a political fight they had no stake in.
A blue-collar worker steps up to the counter and adds his two cents. “I’m an independent contractor myself,” the man says. “Speaking as a roofer, I can say that a roofer’s personal politics come heavily into play when choosing jobs.” He then describes refusing to do a roofing job for a mobster.
When you take a freelance gig, it’s easy to think about it as “just a job.” Someone wants you to write a sales page for an unproven medication for depression. “It’s just a job,” you think to yourself, “it’s not like my name is even going to be on it. So what if someone buys this snake oil and it doesn’t work?”
But it’s not just a job. If you use your skills to convince someone to buy the product and it doesn’t work, the consequences can be disastrous. No, you’re not responsible if the buyer commits suicide. You didn’t cause his depression. But you may have prevented him from seeking professional help, and so in the grand scheme of things you’re part of the overall problem.
Pick your gigs wisely, and with integrity. Don’t whore yourself out for a fast buck.
Maintain high standards
One of the sad facts of the Internet is that the vast digital landscape is frequently marred with all sorts of substandard work. There is a case to be made, for example, that most Internet content would never make it past the editorial gatekeepers of the print world. I won’t discuss the merits of that argument here, but I will say there’s plenty of crap online. If it bothers you like it does me, the best way to fix it is starting with your own commitment to standards and to quality.
For writers, this means refusing to sacrifice good writing for SEO. While clients want and need to rank high in the search engines, it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the quality of your writing to get them there. The good news is that, as time goes on, the search engines are getting better about providing really useful search results, not just results that have keywords in the right spots.
On the design side of the freelancing world, there’s a lot of talk about “spec work.” As a writer, I don’t have to deal with the problem of spec work on any regular basis, but I do see where the designers are coming from. Spec work tends to water down an industry and negatively impact the market in a number of ways. So, one of the ways you maintain standards is by avoiding spec work.
Find your calling
So far, we’ve looked at a couple of practices that you need to do in order to make a difference with your freelance business. However, if you want to make a difference with your business, you need to see the larger picture. You need to figure out what the positive change you wish to effect on your world is, and then work towards it.
One of the core goals of my business is to help other writers. That’s what I do at my own blog, and that’s what I do here, too. Overall, I’d say that about a quarter of what I do in my writing business directly contributes to that goal. The rest of what I do, I do with integrity and I do it with high standards, and it still makes a difference. But this 25% of my business is where I pour my true passion, and where I most readily see positive results
Every freelancer has to find their own calling, however. You might, for example, devote a segment of your web consulting business to making web pages for non-profits. You might have a religious or political agenda you believe in, and volunteer to blog for a local church or political candidate, maybe even at a discounted rate. Whatever it is in the world that you’d like to change, there’s almost assuredly a way to integrate that into your freelance work.
It is this ability to make a difference and effect real change through your work that separates you from cubicle life. Seize on it, and use your freelancing to make the world a better place.