1 year of freelance life: reflections and learning
5 themes, 5 struggles and 5 things bubbling up
It’s been a year now since I ventured into freelance life, a significant moment for me personally and a chance to reflect on where that now leaves me. The short version of the story though is — I feel really happy, aligned to the work i’m doing, with lots of agency, earning fractionally more than I was before (while holding the risk and responsibility of potential sickness pensions and taxes which I’m yet to have to navigate) and sitting with live questions about how to find a balance that works for me.
The longer version of the story explores 5 themes from the last year, 5 struggles and 5 things that are bubbling up and wanting more attention.
Five themes from the past year:
- Learning to reclaim the daytime
Part of the motivation for making the shift to freelance life was to make time, beyond the screen, to do all of the things I’d accidently designed out of my life. It’s taken constant work and attention to reclaim the day time. I’ve had to reframe reclaiming the daytime as a radical act in a culture that wants us to be busy and not stop as a way of justifying it to myself.
And this last year has been a constant balancing act — getting it right, getting it oh so wrong. In the autumn I would proudly talk about how I was reclaiming the daytimes well, getting beyond my desk often, meeting people, playing sports, and being outside. Then the winter hit and I felt busier than ever — back to back meetings, barely a moment to make lunch, but this time, with no organisation to blame — only myself. It took almost 9 months to have the ideal day that felt like the perfect balance (it included a mix of a walk in the park, chatting with friends, cooking a proper lunch and a few hours of work I love).
I’ve been shocked at how ingrained the 9–5 pattern is and the strength of the lure of the screen, particularly live for those of us who get a sense of self worth and identify mediated via our shiny screens. I’ve made small hacks like making a hot pink diary category for non screen / fun activities so I can see from a quick glance if i’m making time and space in a week. But I’m frustrated I still have to schedule them in. It’s not feeling like there’s flow and spontaneity here, so it’s one to keep working at.
2. Making space for things that matter
Connected to the above — I’ve made more time in my life for quality time with friends, colleagues and new connections — be that coffees, walks and lunches. I feel more present and less distracted when spending time with my young son. I’ve got back into the habit of reading — still too many non-fiction books (always after great fiction recommendations). I’ve been writing and finally taking time to reflect and consolidate on the learning from being part of the Peckham Coal Line (blog to follow). I work less in the evenings and when I do, I choose to do it on my terms.
3. Healthier Relationship with Money
I feel like I have a healthier relationship with money. I’m more aware of what’s coming in and going out of my bank account. I’m more choiceful about what I’m spending money on and not. Gratitude to the beautiful design of Starling app and basic excel finance tracker (I’ve never given a spreadsheet so much attention) that have enabled this. I’m finding I’m also more able to have conversations early on about rates for work and don’t feel embarrassed by it and have been playing with a rate spectrum, being transparent and honest about this has helped me. A brief bout of covid that knocked me out, plus a slew of toddler illnesses and scrabbling of last minute childcare has given me a glimpse of vulnerability and precarity that comes with this set up so I need to think more about contingency and what happens if I can’t work for an extended period of time. Then there’s a nexus of time- value — money — which feels like a rich space for continued exploration.
4. Creating a supportive ecosystem, rich in relationships, collaboration and learning
Freelancing for me really hasn’t been as lonely as I thought. Sure I have days where I am physically working alone, which I quite like to be honest — but for most of the work I’m doing, it is in relationships and collaboration with others. That’s been a continuation of working relationships from when I was part of an organisation, being matched up with new people and part of a vibrant slack ecosystem of fellow freelancers in the social change space. This group has also co-written a set of top tips for freelancers (also relevant for those who are tempted to try or those who work lots of us). I’ve also put attention to designing the support ecosystem for myself, where things didn’t exist — trying out seasonal intention setting, regular light touch learning retreats with those I trust and want to be learning with, regular writing accountability spaces, investment in a therapist and buddying up with people to inquire where there’s shared questions or interests.
5. Working across the change ecosystem
I’ve chosen to write about ‘the work’ I’ve been doing as a small, symbolic marker that demonstrates Living Change is more than just the professional work we do, but is about how we choose to live our lives. Nonetheless, it’s been a year where I’ve been testing out standing in different parts of the change ecosystem, predominantly in the UK with a little bit of work across wider Europe and North America..
There were 5 undercurrents I was working with from the previous decade, that I hoped my work would be situated in now. These have provided the backdrop for where I’ve been working across areas over the last year and please that some of these areas are starting to come close together over time.
Much of the work has been with ambitious and pioneering innovators and collaborative groups and organisations, who are often in the swampy middle of creating big change from within the hues of the current system. Its been a good balance of online and increasingly in person work — and it’s been a privilege to support and enable many passionate and committed individuals and their endeavours. I’ve been surprised that much of the work has also been with the funder ecosystem directly, and not (due to the gravitational force they have on the change ecosystem).
The work has spanned coaching individuals and system change coaching experiments, designing and facilitating learning journeys such as Citizens Lab and Investors in Change, strategy and (heart led) work for Doing Social, Engage Britain and evaluation work with Nexus Evaluation for Paul Hamlyn Foundation . There’s been facialition and strategy support for collaborative endeavours like Farming the Future, Food Farming and Countryside Commission and Transition Network. Plus time to explore and inquire more into the transformational governance field and into the emergent loss and grief space with Iona Lawrence and Stewarding Loss.
It’s not all been plain sailing and there are some of the struggles and niggles that have recurred through the year. These won’t go away in a hurry and are things I want to inquire and lean into further:
- Personal accountability. Noticing I find it easy to make time and commit to seeing and meeting others, but still find it hard to make time for the things ‘beyond the screen’ that I want to do. A lesson in accountability and how do I become more accountable to myself?
- Saying no. Learning how to say no to work, particularly with those I want to maintain a relationship with.
- A platform to share? Where to put and share insights, observations and learning — I’ve often been feeling like my head is full and I’m missing a platform and a place to share and for them to add into something more. Writing is helping, but can also feel self indulgent, I can’t help but feel like there’s something missing
- A coherent portfolio of work. How not to have a scattergun portfolio of work. Feeling like I need to consolidate and make sure it’s contributing to something more. Or is it ok to just continue if I’m getting what I need from it? Seeing my work as being like acupuncture has helped, standing at different points and applying pressure to see what makes a difference and unblocks things.
- Organising forms. What are the organising forms, beyond organisations to learn and inquire with others? Organisations are too often the default, but there are many creative options for doing this. A continued question about where I need to stand to do the work, and know it’s likely to be a plurality of places and spaces
Five things that are bubbling up:
From the span or work I’ve been doing, there are some observations about where work / attention is needed now. These are things where I see potential and where i’m lightly starting to play and experiment with:
- Parenting in an unjust and climate changing world — it’s becoming a source of personal anxiety and for me, feeling like a huge responsibility and something that needs deep and sustained work. Which is the exact opposite of the reality of the quality of time and space you have as a parent.
- Identity shifts -and specifically how we navigate the joy and the grief that come with them. Reflecting on coming to terms with my own journey of becoming a mother, a freelancer, an aspiring writer as examples of shifts and identities I’ve been musing on. We will all gain and shed many identities through our lives, how can we get better at oscillating through these?
- Crisis of democracy — where is the next generation of political leaders? What is needed to cultivate a healthy culture and genuinely transformative democratic systems? It feels like a desert in the UK, with few signs of grassroots movements you see elsewhere in the world. What would shift that?
- The deep narrative work to revise our relationship with grief, death and loss. The tides are changing, but they can be hard to see. I’m starting a newsletter to chart the shifting currents of the mainstream.
- There seems to be next wave of interest in governance and recognition of the need for further attention and investment in it as an imperative for healthy organisations and a prequest for any organisation’s contribution to transformation. What is in the shadows of self organising teams, do we have the structures and practices needed for when we have truly diverse places to connect and work together?
While it’s been a good year — and I’m keen to keep freelancing at least for another year or so, I don’t necessarily see this as a long term set up. I am seeing this time as a chance to replenish and energise — so that I am ready to commit to a question or cause be that a role, or organisation or something else more fully. Knowing when I do, I will want to fully commit and will want to have the energy and reserves to do so in a fully hearted way.