Are We Making Things That Last?

I teach, I edit, I write. To some that’s noble work; to others it’s a lotta BS. Words mostly, written in dust on a chalkboard, sitting idly on pieces of paper, or flitting ephemerally across a screen. Nothing you can touch and hold and use, at least not in the way that “useful” things are meant to be. Did you make anything today, Steve, other than some noise? Tomorrow you’ll make more of it, and that too will disappear.

Thoughts like those sometimes give me the urge to pick up a hammer and a nail or a needle and thread, or to go out and find what many people would consider a real job. Not a phony, patchwork freelance existence in which I get paid to put marks on a page and tap on a keyboard — and teach others to do the same. One in which I spend some of my time dreaming up mind candy for this blog, which doesn’t pay a cent.

Obviously, I see value in what I do, especially the teaching. And I’ve written about it many times. But there is something that gnaws at me — at us — as more and more of our time is spent making noise rather than making useful things.

If I were an economist, I’d be tempted now to launch into a boring lecture about outsourcing and the depletion of the U.S. manufacturing base. But there is a nugget of truth to the idea that making fewer useful things slowly guts a nation of its ambition, even its purpose. I think about all those people at the gym, most employed in service and office jobs, doing their “core” exercises and then, on the way out the door, passing vending machines filled with junk food fit for consumption in front of a high-definition TV. There are many ways to fill a void.

As a political junkie (yes, I consume even the TV junk), I wonder why speeches about the importance of developing green technologies don’t focus on an increasingly untapped desire to build and create tangible things rather than on climate change (an abstract concept to most people). “It’s time America gets back to making things that last!” I can hear a politician chanting. “In the 21st century and beyond, it’s green technology built with your hands in green factories that will last, that will make your paycheck last, that will last long enough for your children and your grandchildren to enjoy the fruits of your labor!” Politicians are in the business of making noise, though, so they probably don’t need my help.

My own noise is more muted, much less influential. It’s in the classroom, in my interactions with authors and editors, in this disposable little blog. I don’t know how long any of those efforts will ultimately last, useful as they usually seem to me to be. The best I can hope for is that my students will carry what they learn out into the world and make a living, make a difference, and actually make a few real, useful things along the way.

That’s the noise I’m generating in my own ear, at least today. Tomorrow I’ll make a different sound, and that too will disappear.

Who Do You Really Work For?

I’ve been freelancing for over a year now, and I feel more professionally independent than I ever have. I make my own decisions about what assignments to accept, organize my workday as I see fit, and sometimes carve out time for non-work activities in ways that make my calendar look like a gerrymandered congressional district.

But I’m not a true-blue freelancer. I teach part-time at a couple of local adult-ed centers, where I follow (and enforce) rules that others lay down, albeit with the consent and participation of rank-and-file teachers like me. The schools are, of course, very much social institutions, and I am just one small element among many that make the organizations thrive.

Overall, my work life offers a good balance between the truly collaborative experiences that I get on-site at the schools and the independent, off-site workshop atmosphere that my home has become. But can I call that “working for myself”? At face value, the phrase has a meaning that amounts to little more than the way I file my taxes. When I talk with other freelancers, however, I usually find that the implications are deeper — that the phrase means much more to them than “on my own,” something akin to “for my own purposes.”

To be sure, folks who work for money that they need are, by definition, working for their own purposes. They’re supporting themselves and their families, and trying to build a life that provides both sustenance and pleasure. But I often wonder about the mission of the freelancer (and my mission as one) — in other words, about purpose with a higher aim.

Non-freelance workers typically support an institutional mission, whether corporate, nonprofit, small-business, or government. They don’t all do it happily or mindfully, but just by virtue of being part of the institution, they do it in one way or another. The higher aim of a freelancer’s labor can be harder to pinpoint. Some freelancers commit themselves to the integrity of the work they do, always aiming for top quality. Others, weary of sometimes-narrow corporate goals, selectively take on clients whose work they believe in. Still others have self-fulfillment (for example, actualizing their talents) as the engine that drives the machine every day. And many freelancers are motivated by some combination of these, plus the aforementioned need to earn a living.

I, for one, focus much more on the educational missions of the schools where I teach than on my mission as a freelancer, the need to earn money notwithstanding. Yes, I’m a stickler for quality in whatever I do, and that affects my freelance work, most of which I enjoy. But for the most part, I use freelancing to subsidize the pretty low pay I get from part-time teaching. In a sense, I’ve put one mission in service of another, rather than pursuing each for its own sake.

Who do I really work for then? Is it for myself, for my students, for something larger? That’s a tough question to answer in a byte (I’ve already bitten off more than I can chew in this post). But one thing I do know is that I now score much better on my own 9-month-old quiz, called “Does Your Work Matter to You?”, than I did when I was with a single employer full time. A commenter on this blog reminded me of that quiz last week, and with another gestation period under my belt, the question of mission is reborn all over again.

May I ask you, whether or not you’re a freelancer, to explore your own answer here with me this week? What is your mission? Who do you really work for? Are you “working for yourself” — or for someone (or something) else?

Is This Freelancer a Fake?

I call myself a freelancer, but I might be an impostor. First of all, I spend half my time working as a teacher in adult education. It’s a position I very much enjoy, but it’s not freelancing. Four days a week, I go to a school, where I run a classroom (several in fact), interact with colleagues, share an office, and comfortably inhabit the workplace culture. When I’m not teaching, I do editing and writing that might be more traditionally called “freelance.” But, frankly, it doesn’t feel especially entrepreneurial, since I’m not really building a business — and I’m quite happy with that.

You see, I do my best work when other people are depending on me, expecting me to produce. They might be students in a classroom, editors who need me to help them meet deadlines, or writers who are (by their own admission) swimming in their own verbiage without a guiding hand. But what so many freelancers tell me they love about independent work life is the ability to build your own little enterprise — in effect, to own your own labor.

I’m not much of an owner, though. Don’t get me wrong, I like the partial control I now have over my schedule. But I still get much more of my energy from fulfilling others’ needs than from cultivating my own. Knowing that another, specific person is waiting for my work — even at the other end of a cyber-connection — is what motivates me to deliver and to excel.

My freelance life, satisfying as it is, is pretty much devoid of self-advancement goals, beyond the basic earning of a living. That doesn’t mean that I’m not exceedingly busy, or that I’m not motivated by excellence. Anyone who has ever worked with me would tell you I’m a stickler for quality — and a discerning critic of how quality is defined. But the rewards I get are not quite “mine”; they’re the benefits that direct recipients of my work derive.

Take, for example, the blog I wrote for Harvard Business until last December. The editors wanted something from me every week, and I was chock full of ideas, and often five or six weeks ahead of schedule. The writing came easily to me, as I imagined delivering the best possible product to an editor on the other end. Furthermore, that editor needed my work on time — and often benefited from my early delivery of it. Sure, the whole thing felt sort of self-indulgent, given that it was a blog about my own career transition. But the fact that someone was waiting for me to deliver my drivel made it feel less like drool and more like lip-smacking food I was cooking up in the kitchen for someone else — someone I know — to taste.

Nowadays, my blog posts don’t get “received” by anyone whose face I would recognize on the street, beyond a few friends and colleagues. I put them online at will, and anonymous readers (not very many) wander in and out. Some offer lovely comments that I deeply appreciate.

But I have to tell you it’s not the same. I’m not terribly motivated to write posts without being able to feel a direct need from a person with whom I have a professional tie. And here you are reading my blog. And here I am disrespecting you by saying that that’s not enough, not enough to write about “freelancing” for an audience (of freelancers?) whose hands I cannot touch.

Is that irony or hypocrisy — or just downright boring? Can you even relate, fellow freelancer, fellow reader of drivel about a stranger’s career transition? Set me straight.

Your Freelancer Can Be a Low-Cost Consultant

As any project manager knows, finding good freelancers can be tough. Once you have one who efficiently delivers high-quality work, the seamlessness of the operation is addictive. Everything’s functioning beautifully, so you just keep running the well-oiled machine. That’s a success to celebrate, of course, but it can lull you into overlooking additional value that the freelancer could offer, if only you’d pause a moment to extract it. I’ve seen that value both as an in-house project manager and as a freelancer.

Where is the value hidden? It’s buried among the insights that the freelancer is constantly acquiring about your systems. Not every reliable freelancer will be able to articulate those insights in a form that can be put to practical use; that’s something you have to gauge based on your interactions with her. And even if she is a good candidate for this kind of meta-analysis, her time does mean money. But it’s a fraction of what you’d pay for a high-priced consultant, not least because the freelancer has already done the up-front investigational work. That’s low-hanging fruit you’d be wise to pluck.

Here are some small-scale assessments you can ask a freelancer to do. Different types of outsourced work are likely to merit different types of assessments, many not in this list. And, clearly, they cannot substitute for a consulting task that requires a very broad scope.

1. On an isolated job, have the freelancer keep a running catalogue of things that went better or worse than expected. Ask her to briefly explain why she thinks each outcome was unanticipated, focusing in particular on systems- and process-related obstacles.

2. Over time, have her note which parts of the work you deliver to her have become easier to handle, and which less. If she finds that the level of difficulty fluctuates, have her identify the contingencies, systemic and otherwise, that seem to be responsible.

3. If your relationship with the freelancer is especially trusting, ask her to identify one process or protocol that she uses with one of her other clients that she thinks would serve your needs. Have her explain how it might best be integrated with your existing systems, even if modest ripple effects would be unavoidable. Obviously, make clear that you are not interested in the name of, or any proprietary information from, the other client and that if either revelation cannot be avoided, she should skip this task altogether.

4. Ask her to write a one-page analysis of how your overall systems can be improved. The analysis should include both a brief narrative assessment and specific, bulleted suggestions. Encourage her to be honest yet practical in her recommendations.

Small-scale consultative tasks like these should be assigned to a freelancer only on a periodic, or even a one-time, basis. You obviously don’t want to gum up the gears of the well-oiled machine. Also, be clear about how much time you’d like the freelancer to spend. If in the end you derive value from her assessment, compare it — and the cost — with what you got from your last consultant. There’s no guarantee of comparatively better value, but the experiment certainly will have been worth the low price you paid to conduct it.

How have you managed to derive value from your freelancers, beyond the usual deliverables?

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