A couple of weeks ago (February 5th, 2018) I was asked to be part of a panel of freelance media creatives at University of Lincoln, answering any questions that students had about a future freelance career. That’s right, ladies, I’m wisdomous now.
Here’s my first nugget of wisdom: When it comes to writing personal things like this, Spellcheck isn’t the boss of you. Okay? Say wisdomous as much as you damn well want.
My initial instinct to that invite was to politely decline. Students were scary enough in 2009, in 2018 they seem to have disregarded a need for socks entirely. Then I had a word with myself: “Listen, Spadge, you’re almost 30, you’ve published two of your own books, you make a living doing what you love and you haven’t cried in public for at least four days. Stop avoiding opportunities to terrify yourself and hiding at the back of the classroom like it’s 2001. Pussy.” I still Googled flights to the Maldives that day, but that’s not really important.
I think my former tutors were surprised to see that I had featured on that panel. You see, I used to avoid public speaking and presentations like the Plague (in fact I think I used the Plague as an excuse of absence once, and that was for an audience of five). So what made me say “Sure, I’d love to.”? I figured “Hey, if I can help even just one young creative live out their dreams of being their own boss and working in their pyjamas all day, then I’ll be glad to contribute my story.”
Ten years ago I was in the same shoes as these students, worried about the future and what my options were. We weren’t given the same kind of opportunity as this: to listen to some absolutely golden first-hand advice from very intelligent and good looking freelance individuals. So, with that thought in mind, I harnessed some much needed determination, somewhere between all the nervous sweating.
Preparation for which you can’t prepare:
Apart from being sent the location of the lecture theatre and the time I was due to arrive, I wasn’t given any other instructions. Part of me was happy about this, it meant that I just had to be myself and wouldn’t need to spend time organising a presentation. Another part of me, however, was much more nervous about the lack of possible preparation. I didn’t know what questions would be fired my way, I didn’t know what answers were acceptable (I swear a whole bunch), and I had never met any other members of the panel.
It would be highly likely that, between us, our experiences of freelance work would be very different. I could work from anywhere with a flimsy internet connection and my outgoings as a freelance writer were pretty much £0. My career was low risk, low cost and therefore highly in demand. Would these students all jump at the chance to become my competition? What was I doing?!
On the day:
Since the event was taking place at 5:30pm, I had a feeling that not many students would still be on campus. I decided to let this denial calm me for the majority of the day.
I arrived at the venue at 5:15, gripping Rick’s hand like a child being dropped off at the dentist and picking up our favourite sexy librarian on the way (Hi, Alex!). The lecture hall was roasting at about 31 degrees (twice as hot as I generally like rooms to be), but I was happy to see an audience of only one or two people sat in the pews. I watched as the organisers set up the tables on stage, and greeted other members of the panel when they arrived. I was feeling pretty calm.
At 5:29, a flood of about 60 students piled in through the doors. It turns out they had been waiting patiently outside the lecture hall, and my stomach dropped directly into my knees. I was more nervous now, but also really flattered that so many students had grabbed hold of this opportunity that I’d have loved back then.
The wisdom we shared:
I feel the need to point out that wisdom was not just shared from the panel to the students, but between members of the panel and also from students to the panel of freelancers. For example, students these days would rather Tweet a question than raise their hand. I know, right?! Part of me was jealous of that?! But also, maybe technology is taking away natural conversation that can start a dialogue. Dialogue often brings about more in-depth information, perhaps that is tailored to that individual’s career path, but hey, if it meant their question was heard – I’m all for it. I think that’s pretty cool.
The answers that were shared were very honest and perhaps too focused on the negatives. I noticed that many other members of the panel took a “warn them of the hardship” attitude to the advice shared. I tried to bring it round to the positives as much as possible. There are, of course, many issues with being freelance that make it undesirable, lack of job security, building your own brand and reputation from the ground up, networking to keep the money coming in, having to deal with clients who refuse to pay, working longer hours of the day when the clients need it, having to buy your own equipment, tax returns… the list goes on. I think that humans are more inclined to remember and focus on the potential pit-falls, that’s human nature – to protect yourself. But, I’m glad I was on the panel to remind students that it’s also awesome to be your own boss, to work to your own schedule, to represent yourself, take all the glory when it’s earned, meet new people, work from home, in your pyjamas, surrounded by dogs.
At this moment in time, I’m not sure there’s any employment offer I would take to leave the comfort, flexibility and control that comes with my freelance life. And, if I won the Lotto this weekend, I would still write for the clients I love as well as working on my own projects.
The most important/unanimous bit of advice:
The panel was pretty unanimous when it came to one solid bit of advice for students starting out: “Be patient”. Not a single one of us landed our dream job right out of university, never mind a freelance job. In fact, half of the panel worked other jobs in order to fund their freelance job. Freelancing is something that’s much easier to move into once you have some experience, a portfolio you’re proud of, a safety net of funding and useful connections.
A Freelance Photographer said: “Don’t be disheartened if you’re working night shifts at a petrol station to fund buying camera gear.” And I could relate to that feeling. I worked many jobs which didn’t feed my creativity or worse: dulled that creativity. But the good thing about that experience is that it tends to motivate you. I would get home after a long day at work and feel so desperate to channel my creativity into a personal project, that’s how I wrote both my books, when feeling frustrated by my day job.
My advice: Use every ounce of energy you have left over to build your brand in your own time. Bit by bit, turn your dream into more of a reality. Unless you’re very lucky, that will be a slow process, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Be patient.
What I gained, from a personal point:
- I surprised myself with how quickly I became comfortable in the spotlight.
- I made some friends for life with a couple of panel-peers (and some students on the front row).
- I know I can still survive public speaking (as seen in Braver Than Britain).
- Sometimes you do absolutely fine without any preparation.
- I am proud of my journey and where my career is at.
It’s so easy to compare yourself to former course mates or people you follow on social media. I’m very guilty of letting myself feel inferior, less talented or less accomplished. But your individual life experience is unique, your knowledge is useful and your advice can always help someone else. Always.
Thank you to Helen, Alex and Rick for the unwavering support that day and always. Huge love.