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?

About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

10 Responses to Who Do You Really Work For?

  1. Matthew O'Roruke says:

    Seems like a very difficult question to answer regardless of whether one is a freelancer. Why do we work (other than to make ends meet)? To whom are we accountable? Ourselves? Sounds self-centered. Bosses? Sounds authoritarian. Investors? Sounds wicked abstract. The system? Sounds unbelievably depressing. At its best, the answer seems to be some nexus of ourselves, our co-workers, and the people who are the focus of the work (the reader, the user, the student, etc.). But there’s a lot of ambiguity there. Makes me sympathetic to the people with a “Jesus is My Boss” bumpersticker. Now there’s clarity. But it’s not something I can subscribe to. Always been more of a “Jesus is Coming: Look Busy” bumpersticker man myself.

  2. As a freelance writer and communications consultant, my strongest motivation is self actualization. I want to learn more and expand my skill set. I need lots of variety – write software documentation in the morning and develop a training module on business communication in the afternoon. I want to be paid well enough to spend unpaid time exploring topics that interest me but are not currently of monetary value. And I want to invest in myself rather than in an organization or a boss who will discard me if I’m no longer of apparent value to them. It’s working for me – I am not wealthy, but I’m happy.

  3. Rachel says:

    First of all, I agree that Matt Daemon is cooler then Ben Afflick. Ben ruined everything when he dated JLO, he cheapened his image. Now he is just a boring married guy who has lost his edge…

    But in answer to your question.. who do I work for! I am technically an hourly contract worker for a company that employs me for 40 hrs a week. However, I have the luxury of taking off (and not billing the company) when I need it (assuming no work emergencies) to go and do other jobs that I like to do-like write articles, go to trade shows (that don’t pertain to my current specific job), attend food and wine tasting events.. and basically support my own mission of being a chef, food scientist, trade show junkie and writer-all while supporting myself by working 40 billable hours a week.

    • Kristina says:


      For almost five minutes after having read your post, I didn’t feel trapped by much job. I could really take a lesson on how you view your work commitments.
      I aspire to feel this good about the time I put in. I ended up here via google search “quit your job”.
      Unless you really feel good about what your dedicating your time to, I imagine it will always feel like you’re working for someone, even if it is yourself.

  4. Katharine says:

    I’m a freelance copyeditor of books and medical-journal articles. I’ve been freelancing full time for 15 years now. I went solo to continue supporting my family but to be able to do so while physically around my family. When I first became a freelancer, I had just given birth to my second child and could not imagine being able emotionally to go back to work for someone else, away from my baby most of the day, commuting by car, train, and subway from Long Island to Manhattan and back again five days a week.

    But after all these years, it’s become not just about being near my family but also about contributing to international understanding–and thus, perhaps, world peace–through my work. That sounds grandiose, but I do think I’m doing at least a little something to further cooperation among different cultures. The majority of my projects these days concern medical editing, and of that majority, a large percentage of work is on manuscripts from authors around the world who want me to do ESL (English as a second language) medical editing so that there will be no language barrier when they submit their manuscripts to U.S. medical journals.

    I feel honored to work with these authors. I do my best to make their experience of working with an American editor a good one. I research their cultures so that I can understand where they are coming from; I send them e-mail greetings on holidays celebrated in their countries. I pay translators to translate into the authors’ languages my instructions to the authors for reviewing my editing. I like to believe that because I make extra efforts to accommodate my authors’ needs, they develop a good feeling about Americans. And in helping clear the way for their manuscripts to be accepted for publication, I believe that I am helping knowledge be shared that might not otherwise be available and am helping American researchers understand the value of work done by their international counterparts.

    It’s unlikely that I would get the chance the specialize like this if I were still a publisher’s employee. Many journals don’t have large enough staffs or budgets to take the time to do heavy-duty ESL editing. I believe that if there weren’t freelance medical copyeditors out there doing what I do, far fewer international researchers would see their work reported in U.S. medical journals, and everyone would be poorer for that.

  5. Pat French says:

    Maybe it’s because I left an academic research organization to become self-employed, but my mission continues to be to get valuable medical information into the hands of those who can best use it, and thereby improve patient outcomes. I know it may not seem that way every day, but I like to think that some of what I do will be important to others (besides the authors and journal, of course!). Now I have the added bonus that it’s interesting to me, too.

  6. To remain independent by retaining and constantly expanding a variety of writing, editing, proofreading, desktop-publishing and teaching assignments.

    Technically, I work for a variety of clients, but I still consider this “working for myself,” since I don’t report to only one employer or client, and I find and put the projects together to create a freelance editorial business; I’m free to accept or turn down projects, and I set my own work times and methods.

  7. Terry levine says:

    Interesting post. As someone who’s just launched a full-time freelance career, my immediate answer to your post’s question seems to be ‘I’m working for myself.’

    I can make my own hours, choose how much to work and which clients’ projects to take on.

    In theory.

    The truth, as you point out, is more complex. I will still have to answer to my clients, their deadlines and budget constraints. What I will no longer have are two masters — agency and client (unless the agency is the client of course). If I choose to work ‘overtime’ I’ll be the one rewarded for it, not the guy in the corner office.

  8. swabhava says:

    Hi Steve,
    One of the very first blogs I read when I was contemplating leaving my job to gain control of who I was was your HBR blog when you quit. I am a senior IT professional. My job made me tired, angry, wistful. But all my self worth came from the job. My huge pay packet defined who I was as far as I was concerned. Money was my aggressive self defence against all that I did not understand , that did not make sense for me in this world. I was scared of myself -how lost I would be without the job, I was scared of what people would “think” if did not earn so much. I was at once proud and desperate about where /who I was. The only rational thought and feeling within me was towards my child. There was not much of a mom for her, there was just this frenzied money earning machine who gave her all the material things she asked for. It had to stop and I am quitting. I do not know for what or who I was working for – but to say the least it was a very imbalanced life. I quit to get out of it all and see what is left of myself. I really do not recognize any passion that I can ride. The only clearly human feeling left in me is the tenderness I feel for my child and the desire to be a good mother ro her. Still I do not want to burder her with my attention all the time nor do I want to make her my new obsession. So I will find something that makes me feel alive and free in an uncomplicated, real world. M wors are strong but for some reason today I do not want to edit them.

  9. Barbara Saunders says:

    When I was younger, I used to hold down several jobs at a time. I told myself it was about the money, but I’ve since concluded that I did it so as not to feel “owned” by a single employer.

    I don’t have a specific mission in freelancing: I freelance because my life mission(s) and sense of morality preclude putting myself in the position of being an instrument for other people’s agendas.

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