I Ain’t the Boss of Me

I don’t have a home office. There’s no room or cordoned-off area where I retreat to do my work, prepare my invoices, and rule over my freelance roost. Technically, I’m called a “sole proprietor,” yet I own almost nothing that’s exclusively work-related. Sure, I have a laptop, but it migrates from room to room, even sometimes from town to town, as I piece together my living.

Freelancers vary, of course, in how they define the boundaries of their work spaces, both physically and psychologically. On the opposite end of the spectrum from me is my soon-to-be landlord. I recently went to his home office to sign a lease on a new apartment. His professional domain was a mini-empire, with all the machines, tools, shelves, cabinets, and other trappings that make a freelance entrepreneur feel like the king of his castle. Sure, the dividing line between professional and personal was not absolute (his wife was changing the baby’s diaper mere steps away), but this man made clear that he enjoys lording over his territory. If I hadn’t seen his infant son pee in his wife’s face with my own eyes, I might have assumed the odor of urine was from the father’s scent-marking. In short, he is a businessman, and I am his client.

In my relationships with the people who pay me, “clients” is definitely the wrong word. What I do for them feels like work I took home from the office, not tasks I am “contracted” to perform. I treat these folks like colleagues rather than customers, whether or not I have previously worked with them face-to-face. There’s some risk in that approach in the short run, but in the long run everyone wins.

My non-proprietary attitude, odd as it may strike you, is also essential to my psychological well-being as a freelancer. You see, I’m really a full-timer in my soul, in the sense that I prefer an elbow-rubbing informality as I collaborate with people and create things of value. Overly prescribed professional niceties tend to inhibit my work. And a rigid proprietor/customer mind-set gets in the way of producing high-quality results, at least in editing and writing, where the bulk of my freelance activities lie.

So why in the world did I quit my full-time publishing job a year and a half ago if I’m not really a freelancer at heart? Without rehashing my many blog posts on the subject, I would boil it down to a desire to feel unencumbered in a variety of domains, not just one. I teach English and math part-time, for example, and I need the dynamism of the classroom and the give-and-take I get from fellow educators to sustain me. Yet I also want to have the time and the opportunity to be stimulated by an array of professional activities in publishing, where my impact is much less immediate but where I feel connected, albeit indirectly, to larger audiences.

Where that leaves me as a freelancer, though, is without a single domain that I can claim as mine. I have no urge to hang out my shingle, lay down a welcome mat, and fill a little plastic rack with crisp business cards. I don’t even want to be my own boss. Indeed, I’ve come to accept that my bosses are many — but they don’t own me either. Ownership, in the business sense, is not what I’m after, no matter who holds the purse strings. My professional philosophy is strongly independent, yet my day-to-day actions quietly serve others, and that in turn serves me.

Territories are hard to mark on this sort of landscape, and that may seem frustrating to those who prefer to know precisely where they stand in the professional world. I guess I’m more interested in the topography.

When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

Even the fussiest, text-driven editor has to admit that the boom in interactive, infographic, and other visually engaging content has greatly enhanced the value of what publishers of all stripes are now able to offer readers. “How can we show what we say?” is a question that publishing professionals now routinely ask themselves as they develop material. That’s a good thing, for the most part.

But with the allure of what’s possible comes the illusion of what’s necessary. Many editors, intoxicated by the power of new tools and techniques, have begun to assume that visually arresting presentation adds value by default. Got information to share? Create an infographic. An interactive feature worked here; let’s use it over there. The availability of the medium starts, in effect, to drive — rather than to serve — the content.

Witness “Infographic of the Day,” a feature on Fast Company’s website that I was amused, but also disturbed, to come upon last year. The title says it all: We’re creating an infographic every 24 hours, come hell or high water. Quite a few of my editorial colleagues got all jazzed by this initiative, like they were rooting for the local sports team’s new rookie.

One of these daily infographics that made folks swoon was called “McDonald’s Heat Wave,” a U.S. map in which points of light were used to visualize the distance to the nearest McDonald’s from any given location in the lower 48 states. The result was an eye-catching image of, for lack of a better term, “Big Mac density” in the U.S. It looked cool and kind of made you go, “Wow, dude, you really can’t get away from Mickey D’s east of the Mississippi or on the west coast.” But then I quickly realized that if I put this sparkly thing next to a simple population-density map, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between McDonald’s density and pop density. And if there were a difference, where was the comparison population infographic to prove it? In short, if something new could be learned from the map, the map makers hadn’t bothered to teach it. But, hey, it was an infographic — a picture worth a thousand … no, a million — maybe a billion … served. I mean, words. Are you swooning yet?

You see the phenomenon on TV, too. CNN developed a truly excellent, interactive, wall-size U.S. map, deftly manhandled by John King during the 2008 election season. But then the so-called “magic wall” started being employed, in an enlarged form, for every two-bit display of information that the network could force into it. We viewers lapped it up once, maybe we’ll keep licking our chops every time the thing gets used. The tasteless CNN news editors now seem to pay little mind to whether the tool actually helps to illuminate the substance of a given story. The magic plaything entertains the kiddies, so go ahead and crack the lid of that toy chest again. And again. And again.

So does this unrelenting blitz of the at once brilliant and banal mean we should pout and whimper as we pine for the editorial substance of yesteryear? Of course not. Besides, yesteryear had its own overused dazzlers, even if they weren’t quite as glitzy. Today’s have the power to do much more, though, and in the hands of folks with sound editorial judgment they really can turn good content into great content. But it’s incumbent upon editors and publishers — and everyone in the chain who works for them — not to allow themselves to follow “hell or high water” dictums about when and how the new tricks of the trade should be used. If tools drive your material, haven’t you, in effect, become the tool?

Does Quitting Your Job Seem Sexy?

Quitting a job without a new position in hand is an act that sticks with you for a while, even if you’re sensible enough to do it coolly. It doesn’t quietly recede into memory, precisely because it’s both risky and calculated — and because the danger period lasts, certainly longer than a bungee jump or even a week-long wilderness adventure. Thrill-seeking might be part of the allure, but it is not the reality. Most people who see quitting as a ticket to liberation are tilting at windmills, making something mythic out of the mundane. Quitting might very well be the right choice for you, as it was for me. But its aftermath is usually quotidian — Ps and Qs, not Xs and Zs.

It’s been almost 18 months now since I quit my full-time job. At the time I had a sense of where I wanted to go — back to teaching at least part-time, freelancing to pay the bills, doing my own writing where I could make time for that, studying foreign language again if possible. For those of you who have asked for an update, here’s the short version:

On the teaching front, things could not have been more positive. I quickly found two part-time posts that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve become involved with a group that works on standardized testing in adult education. If anything, I have to watch myself to ensure I don’t say yes to every request that comes down the pike, especially given the low pay. But it’s mission-driven work that sustains the soul, and that is priceless.

Freelancing has sustained other parts of my mind. I continue to have the chance to work with great thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in a variety of fields. That said, the nature of being an outsider as you contract with clients isn’t without its frustrations, as I’ve discussed in several posts on this blog. On balance, however, this segment of my life has provided intellectual stimulation of a sort that I continue to need, not to mention the bulk of my income. And, for now, I’m enjoying the freshness of an outsider’s perspective.

Writing has been a mixed bag. Yes, I’ve been issuing posts for this blog every week, and I like the regularity of that self-imposed deadline. But I’ve been so busy with teaching and freelancing that time for non-blog writing has been pretty limited. I am currently enrolled in a poetry workshop, but beyond that and the blog, the yield has been thin.

On the foreign language front, I’ve taken just one Spanish refresher class (last summer). And I practice that language briefly with a couple of my night students on our way out of the school building twice a week. Pretty paltry, I know.

All in all, my new professional life feels pretty workaday. For the most part, I do things on my own terms, and that’s a change. And my own results on my quiz titled “Does Your Work Matter to You?” have greatly improved. That’s progress, of course, but it’s not the awe-inspiring transformation that so many quitters want it to be. I didn’t really harbor those kinds of illusions from the get-go, so I haven’t been disappointed.

“Quit” is a funny English word. It’s pithy, and in the right mouth it sounds potent. But I just think of it as a quirky curiosity that, when you boil it down to its essentials, is unremarkable, even humdrum. As an English teacher, I can’t help but reflect on its identical principal parts: quit, quit, and quit (the base form, simple past, and past participle, respectively). It’s a rare verb in English that exhibits such sameness (“burst” is another). I guess your point of view depends on whether you want to be seduced by the sexy rarity or reflect soberly on the sameness. I obviously tend toward the latter. What about you?

Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

Everyone wants to feel motivated at work, and managers know that motivated people produce better results. So it’s not surprising that the literature on motivating employees is vast. But it’s hard not to feel depleted when you sense that “motivating the team” is a line item on your manager’s agenda, a means to an end, a notch in your boss’s belt.

Articles and books about motivating employees don’t put it that way, of course. The tone is usually energetic, even inspirational, and certainly practical. Confronted with low morale, managers who read the literature looking for tips and solutions have learned to wheel out the team-building efforts, listen more actively, increase positive feedback, and use an array of other no-brainer tactics to make people feel valued at work. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The end goal is a worthwhile one.

But most employees know when they’re being tinkered with, when attempts to motivate them are coming from a calculated place, when there’s simply too much deliberate effort in the endeavor, well-intended as that effort may be. People, especially the talented ones, recognize the prefab packaging of an off-the-shelf purchase. Sometimes you even see it lying around, like when I noticed a dog-eared magazine article about employee motivation on a manager’s desk, only to find myself a participant in the article’s recommended team exercise two weeks later. Sure, the effort was better than apathy and inaction, but I felt pity for that manager, and that’s pretty much a downer.

I have never conducted rigorous research on employee motivation, as many who write about it claim to have done. But one thing I know is that data-hungry managers seeking valid, usable evidence of best practices will eventually see, if they’re honest with themselves, that they’re on a wild goose chase. Even the rare manager with enough research savvy to analyze the data astutely will find that the very act of casting about for solutions and trying to apply them in a troubled situation looks pathetic at best — and cynical at worst — to the people he wants to motivate. That perception is inherently depleting, not motivating.

What to do then if you’re a manager with an unmotivated team? Give up? Well, maybe so, if you find yourself routinely in need of imported tools and prefab crutches as you try to motivate people. But the problem might instead be that you’re looking around for answers instead of looking within. People get most excited when motivation is incidental to the task at hand, not an end in itself. Motivation endures when you learn from someone who is enthusiastic about the intrinsic value of the work, is fascinated by how colleagues and subordinates think, is able to articulate her keen observations, and is just plain good at what she does. I’ve seen that happen time and again in both the workplace and the classroom. Never have I witnessed anyone respond in a genuine way to a canned motivational plan.

Motivation, like laughter, is casually infectious. It blindsides you when you least expect it. Administering it via syringe doesn’t work, precisely because people see the needle coming.

Sure, some managers get deft with needles and seem to obtain results despite their inorganic approach. All sorts of little tricks are out there to help you in that effort. But tool kits and bags of tricks make me feel numb. And you’d be surprised how many people would admit that if you weren’t the one assigning them grades or writing their performance reviews. “Yes, sir, thank you for giving me this motivation. Here it is on my desk. I love it. Very beautiful.”