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?

So You Want to Quit Your Job and “Start Over”?

In the fall of 2008, soon after the global financial crisis took hold, I quit my full-time job, returned part-time to teaching, and started editing and writing on a freelance basis. The decision was the right one for me for a variety of reasons, and I’m very happy to be back in the classroom. But the move wasn’t the wildly liberating rebirth that people often assume a voluntary career transition to be. It simply marked a new phase in a continuous personal evolution. No fireworks went off. No balloons soared. I didn’t speak in tongues.

That humdrum reality is at odds with a template in the American psyche about the nature of self-renewal. Its features include casting off the shackles of the past, reinventing yourself, and realizing a full potential that only “starting over” supposedly permits. The deceptive allure of Jay Gatsby’s “orgastic future” is alive and well 85 years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was published.

The American corporate workplace is the perfect breeding ground for this fantasy, with its almost pathological preoccupation with invention and innovation as metaphors for progress. Don’t get me wrong, these concepts are extremely useful when it comes to developing products and services, as the history of business proves in spades. But their psychological reach extends far beyond the domains where they have practical value. Indeed, the conceptual power of invention and innovation has been swallowed whole by many people who, naturally, feel the itch to change their lives from time to time, whether professionally or personally.

It’s just plain misguided to view that itch as evidence of a fundamental product flaw that requires you, as self-engineer, to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new design. Nor is it a malady in need of a cure or an evil from which to seek deliverance. The itch simply comes with having skin and flesh and blood and bone. As you walk through the world and its underbrush, you’re bound to get thorns in your side. No need to undergo a major surgical procedure to extract them — or to self-righteously cast blame elsewhere for being pricked. Save the stinging resignation sermon for the pulpit in your head.

Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable when I listen to folks evangelize about reinventing themselves by quitting a job — or when they ask me to evangelize about my own quitting experience. It’s not that I get offended (I rarely do about anything), but I can’t help but be disturbed when I witness people playing tricks on their own minds, perhaps because I have done it myself. As I’ve written before, hyperbole about new-found freedom gets old fast, setting you up for a big letdown or even a crash and burn.

But perhaps this, too, sounds like evangelizing — by someone who’s written one too many blog posts about quitting a job. Call me a hypocrite. I won’t be offended.

Managing Up When You’re On the Bottom

If you’re looking for tips about “managing up” — that is, on how to manage the person who manages you at work — you’ll quickly find enormous wells of advice. They range in quality from the patently obvious to the uniquely insightful, with the bulk on the former end of the spectrum. But what most of the recommendations have in common, regardless of their quality, is their having been written for upwardly mobile employees, or at least for people who think of work in terms of a career.

For the vast majority of U.S. workers, however, managing up boils down to figuring out how to just make it through the day. It’s about survival under the authority of managers who don’t themselves read the management literature or think much about managing people outside of the moments when they’re actually doing it, often mindlessly. Having grown up in a working class household, I have witnessed that firsthand. But I was reminded of it recently in the classroom, where some of my immigrant students spontaneously shared their stories about what it’s like to be “managed” when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy.

One of them, whom I’ll call Lydia, cleans the cages of laboratory rodents to earn a living. She shared an anecdote about being accused by her manager of taking a break when she wasn’t supposed to be on one. For Lydia, who is learning English as a second language, a quickly delivered verbal accusation is tantamount to a shot from a stun gun. She is paralyzed by the inability to find the words to defend herself against a charge that she needs an extra moment or two to even understand — and by her own cultural expectation that when your boss yells at you, you simply listen.

In the classroom, a safe place for Lydia, she was able to make clear to me and to her classmates — in English — that she actually had a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamic that led to her being accused, wrongly, of breaking a workplace rule. For example, she knew that her boss was stressed out about inadequate staffing that day, that missing uniforms were contributing to confusion in the lab, and that a new hire had botched protocol with some of the animals that morning. The context didn’t elude her — but communication did.

Given that, Lydia’s fellow students and I helped her decide which key phrases (phrases she already knew) to use the next time she finds herself in a situation like this one: “Please give me a chance to explain”; “May we sit down to discuss this?”; and “I understand why you are angry.” I even took the opportunity to teach the class the meaning of the phrase “managing up,” an expression which the students instantly found amusing, not to mention apt.

The wisdom we were sharing was, of course, nothing new or groundbreaking by any stretch. You can find it, and much more, in classic management articles such as Harvard Business Review’s “Managing Your Boss.” Yet it was clear how none of it had previously touched the lives of my students or, if my assessment of all the stories told that evening is accurate, even the lives of the managers to whom most of the students report at their jobs.

Lydia, fortunately, had finally managed to make clear to the manager that she was not on a break, but was actually hunting down the missing uniforms for herself and the floundering new hire. But the whole episode clearly took much longer — and created far more stress — than was necessary. Time squandered, another gray hair, a dozen more lab mice not fed on schedule.

On my way home that night, I wondered to myself about the vast segments of the workforce, even in the United States, who have been completely left out of the discourse on management thinking, or who get such diluted versions of it that none of it makes a real difference day-to-day. Why are the career-minded and the upwardly mobile pretty much the only people who find themselves with de facto access to the Management Laboratory? Surely language isn’t the only barrier.

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.