How to Build and Sustain a Life as a Creative Freelancer
“When was the last time you felt free?” asks Esther Perel, a world-renowned relationship therapist in her recent monthly ‘Letters to Esther’ column. Freedom can have a multitude of definitions, attached to both material success as much as a felt sixth sense. The experience of freedom in our lives is what moves us towards lifestyles and values that reflect honesty, security, creativity and well-being. When it comes to being a freelancer, how does freedom intersect with navigating career success? In the oft-used words of Esther Perel herself, ‘Where do we begin?’.
Sustaining a creative lifestyle as a freelancer is a balancing act that encompasses an array of factors and decisions. Having proper systems in place to avoid burnout is crucial for building financial security, thriving socially and emotionally self-regulating the highs and lows that come with “being your own boss”. Freelancing creatives are constantly faced with challenges such as sustaining professional networks, creating a steady line of work, and expanding their career skill set while managing multiple projects at once. At best, these challenges feel career-defining and at worst, they are burnout-inducing. On the other hand, like with most things in life, a milieu exists. Here are 3 ways to handle your creative life.
1. Accept the Work, Let go of Perfectionism
“Over the course of my career, I’ve had times when work was at a great pace and balance, and times when everything was due within a close time frame. For the latter, I have to be very careful not to burn out,” says Tracy Llewellyn, an industrial designer and artist based in New York City. Organizing your days to complete deliverables while also maintaining a personal life is a stressful struggle. Understanding what fundamentals can and cannot be outsourced to complete your workload is crucial to setting up a functional work environment. For Tracy, her awareness has grown alongside recognizing the need for rest. “Over time I’ve learned how and when to take breaks and to pace myself so the jobs get done. If a project/job comes my way and I’m fully booked, I always pass the info on to fellow designer friends and colleagues if they are available,” she says.
As a freelance writer, I’ve fallen into the trap of overloading myself to the point of exhaustion, feeding anxious tendencies and procrastination that make my life harder and allow work to pile up. I've learned to fail forward because failure is a natural part of the process. Despite my writing taking up the primary real estate of my life and time, my employment status and self-worth cannot be mutually associated. Creativity – a human impulse to craft a world in our image – strikes best when we let go of perfectionism that prevents us from prioritizing self-preservation via self-care and mental health.
Being able to embrace and manage the unglamorous sides of freelancing is integral to building a life we don’t feel the need to run away from. As an artist working in the consumer design space, Tracy has strategically organized her time to best reflect the career she wishes to build. “As a freelancer, I always have a “main” job where I typically work the company hours from 9am-6pm, since I am working in tandem with the full-time staff and other freelancers,” she says. When we value our time and understand how to shift it towards the best outcomes for ourselves, the work ahead isn't as daunting.
2. Develop a Mentorship Network
In the age of the Internet, there are countless ways to find freelance jobs. Online job directories, group support circles, Facebook Groups, freelancing databases and even Instagram – the list goes on. Unlike traditional fields where boundaries between work and personal life are more clearly defined, as a freelancer you’re always on the clock in one way or another. Keeping a spreadsheet of people, names and their roles can be a beneficial start to building a reference folder that can easily be updated as your career progresses. “I took a very traditional approach to my career, but deviated when I changed my discipline from copywriting to strategy after graduating college,” says multi-hyphenate creative Nailah Fisher. Currently working as a strategist, photographer and writer, Fisher made sure to intentionally surround herself with people who would positively impact her career. “I got where I am today largely due to my mentors. I had them through every career change, growth and bump in the road,” she says, emphasizing the importance of having a team of people that helped move her forward in life. Receiving feedback and connecting with others in your industry can make transitions and obstacles easier to confront because you realize that you’re not alone. When we develop an intentional community, we’re able to connect with people who have also experienced the same struggles. Tracy echoes this same sentiment when reflecting on her freelancing path. “Throughout my entire career journey, I’ve been super lucky to have connected with so many amazing people, and I’ve gotten great advice from former professors and seasoned professionals.”
It's a constant act of re-adjusting and re-assessing what matters most to us that leads to knowing which job opportunities are a great fit versus the ones we can leave behind. For Nailah, alongside having mentors, moving away from things that did not serve her became instrumental to creative success. “Once I consciously started quitting (literally and figuratively) tasks that no longer made me feel good or inspired, that’s when I put myself and my creativity first. Quitting is not a failure; it’s just a change in direction towards where you want to be.” Each lesson we learn in our creative careers is cumulative, propelling us forward to becoming our best selves.
3. Keep an Off-Duty Life
“If you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness,” reads a popular quote circulated across social media. The harsh truth in those words resonates deeply for many of us who have been taught that work comes before everything else. It’s easy to neglect self-care when achieving work goals is rewarded in our capitalistic society. However, burnout, isolation and serious mental and physical health issues can be the resulting trade-offs. For me, I ensure that I’m always feeding my brain beyond my work because hobbies and activities enhance my emotional well-being and keep me grounded. They remind me to pause and take stock of my progress encouraging gratitude and appreciation. Activities like visiting museums, reading, listening to podcasts, fitness and even volunteering are included in the mirage of things I do to stay in tune with myself and avoid the allure of self-sacrifice for constant profit and work targets.
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