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.

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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.

3 Responses to I Ain’t the Boss of Me

  1. The notion of treating your “clients” as colleagues not customers is a very important distinction. As time goes by, I am recognizing that my role is not to be “the expert” or even to be right 100% of the time. My role is to help my “clients” to shine by helping them cope with their workload or by providing them with some additional tools to help them succeed. So it becomes a team effort. And hopefully as colleagues there will be an ongoing role for me to work with them and their organization and to help them achieve their goals. So I have ongoing work assignments and ever-stronger relationships with my colleagues in many different spheres.

  2. Lilith Fondulas says:

    I feel very much the same way about defined work spaces as you do and so did not have one until recently, for many of the same reasons. But then my husband left the company he cofounded 22 years ago to begin his own business and we discovered that the tax benefits of creating a designated space for our work are not exactly chicken feed. As I think of the reams of printer paper and mountains of ink cartridges (not to mention a portion of the electric bills and percentage of the mortgage) we could have written off all those years, I kick myself for not doing this sooner. What’s more, just because one has a designated space doesn’t mean one is forced to use it 🙂 On a beautiful day, I’m more likely to be back upstairs on the couch, laptop on lap, basking in the sun. The best of both worlds, methinks.

  3. Rachel says:

    I live in a two bedroom apartment. One bedroom is for sleeping, the other bedroom doubles as a guest room and my “office”. I needed a space where I could spread out and be creative so I created a space that inspires and motivates me to work. I have stacks of cookbooks, organized trade journal magazine racks, a desk and a bed. I spent most of my time sitting on the bed with one of those pillow with a hard top for laptop things from Bed Bath and Beyond and thats where I write all my articles…

    Thats one of my gigs, the freelance writing gig…

    my other job is a company that I work at almost full time as a ood safety/quality consultant and while I sometimes try to work at home in my “office” I have a hard time focusing on my food safety because that room seems to only work best for the freelance writing… so I prefer to drive into the office and work at the desk they have set up for me there-I just get more done.

    I have no idea where I am going with this… but i guess I need lots of spaces and places to be a freelance person.

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