October 12, 2010 3 Comments
People who work for themselves often cite independence as the most appealing element of their work lives. They praise the flexible schedule, the lack of a boss, and the ability to select the work they do. I certainly value those concrete benefits, but what matters to me more is the freedom to assess quality as I see it, without the burden of internal politics or the sometimes senseless rules, both written and unwritten, of organizational culture. Despite not being bound by those strictures, some freelancers censor themselves, fearing to tread into territory that might displease a client. But that usually diminishes the value of their own work and denies them the sense of satisfaction that only calling things on the merits can provide.
Merits are relative, to be sure, especially in the worlds of editing and writing, where I spend about half my work life. But people with keen, analytical minds who try to honestly assess everything they encounter usually end up agreeing quite a lot with one another about what the merits are — even if it takes a lot of debate and deliberation, not all of it pleasant, to get there. Some organizations have managed to make room for this kind of honesty internally, but they are relatively rare.
Much more often, I have found, work environments function in one of two ways: a moaning and groaning culture, in which people routinely make things more burdensome than they need to be, or an “everything’s great” culture, in which people are pathologically positive and reflexively ignore flaws in the interest of preserving equanimity. Of course, most workplaces have a mix of those characteristics, in part because of the diversity of personalities, work styles, and subcultures in any one institution. But I must say that I have very rarely encountered a workplace climate that simultaneously (1) challenged chronic complainers directly on the substance of their exaggerations and (2) unmasked the type of self-censoring, Stepford Wives–style optimism that, by tacit agreement, keeps everyone creepily content and uncritical. Fear, self-interest, and willful ignorance are usually what entrench these mind-sets, but brute force is not the way to break their strangleholds. Dispassionate leadership-by-example does a much better job, though that can be hard to execute when you’re on the outside.
If you happen to be pretty good at influencing insiders, the outside perspective that freelancing enables still does not entitle you to preside like a robed judge over poor petitioners who seek your counsel, even if you’re explicitly being paid as a consultant. Loftiness is not what this freedom is about. Quite the contrary, it’s about allowing yourself to explore and question with the enthusiasm of a curious scientist, then negotiate the practical value of what you find with the deftness of a skilled diplomat. It’s, in short, the thrill of discovery and the craft of persuasion all wrapped into one. But plainspoken critique is sometimes required, and, yes, that could cause you to lose a client.
In my work life, an independent point of view is what I’ve always valued more than anything else, whether that perspective is mine or that of the people with whom I collaborate. Freelancing has allowed me a bit more breathing room as I try to do the best job of this that I can. And, frankly, it has given me the wherewithal to do some of my own writing, this blog included. Finding time for such independent expression still remains a huge challenge, especially for someone like me who struggles with saying no to people. But independence of mind is, after all, more about space than it is about time. And there’s more of that on the outside than there is within one institution’s four walls.