By Kelly K. James, Next Avenue
When I was 30, I quit my job as a lawyer to become a freelance writer, following a dream I’d had since I was a kid. At the time, I had sold two articles to magazines (Cosmopolitan and Bride’s) and built a career out of those two clips. I learned how to study markets, pitch ideas, conduct interviews, write to a deadline, and revise when needed.
I thrived on the challenge and the dopamine, the brain chemical released in response to the anticipation of something pleasurable. I segued into ghostwriting, enjoying the challenge of creating books that hadn’t existed before. I was a happy participant in the “gig economy” before the term had been created.
Gen Xers like me were sold on the idea of finding your passion and pursuing it, of following your bliss, of “when you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The gig economy includes nearly 70 million Americans, and offers freedom, flexibility, and the satisfaction of being your own boss. But freelancers burn out, too. You are constantly hustling for work, having to prove yourself to new clients, dealing with erratic pay.
My divorce at 50 and the rising cost of health insurance forced me back to the corporate world. Three years ago, I accepted a job as a content writer for a digital marketing agency. Taking the job meant I would make slightly less money than I had as a freelancer and give up some freedom. But while I’d be making less, I could count on a regular paycheck, without having to market myself to new clients. And I would have relatively good health insurance, for just $132/month. To a freelancer, that’s close to Nirvana.
I liked the job enough, at least at first. I enjoyed the short commute to work, my first cup of coffee at my desk, getting to know my co-workers. The work was challenging, but I had never been afraid to ask questions, and learned quickly.
Discovering the Downside
Once the newness wore off, though, I started to chafe. I successfully negotiated working from home two, then three days a week, pre-Covid, when we all worked transitioning to remote offices. But the real issue wasn’t logistics. It was having to account for what I was doing with my time.
Decades of being self-employed means I’m efficient. I’ve learned to work with my body’s rhythms. I know that my mind is the sharpest first thing in the morning, and that is when I perform my most challenging work. I know that taking breaks lets me recharge, so I take lots of them. And I know that at some point in the afternoon, my brain is toast, and I typically knock off for the day.
But I was working for a micromanager who liked to assign work to me at the last minute, creating unnecessary stress. He expected me to respond to emails within minutes and was quick to point out every mistake I made, even while I took on an ever-increasing workload. The longer I worked there, the more miserable I became.
I fantasized about quitting, but like Borg in “Star Trek,” I had become assimilated. I liked the security of my regular paycheck, of not having to scramble for freelance work. And I wasn’t sure I could hack the freelancing roller coaster anymore.
A New Trend
Instead, I started looking for a different job, one where I could manage my time and workload; where I wasn’t expected to punch a metaphorical clock. “I don’t care about how the work gets done, or where the work gets done,” said one potential boss. “I only care that good work gets done.”
“Sold,” I thought, and took the job.
My boss is part of the trend. Agile companies have already embraced the new workplace, where Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings take the place of face-to-face interaction and where employees are trusted to be productive without having to provide “face time” in a brick-and-mortar building. Are we working 40 hours a week? Nope, but we’re weren’t doing that before, either, with the average employee wasting more than three hours every day. As long as we’re getting our work done, the time it takes to do so shouldn’t matter.
I still miss freelancing. I miss being my own boss, being free to take on work I love, being proud of building a business that’s mine alone. And I hate to admit that I left a career I loved — for a job.
But most days, this job feels a lot like freelancing. I work from home 98% of the time. I set my own calendar. I take advantage of my efficiency, meet my deadlines and produce quality work, occasionally scrambling when a last-minute edit is needed. And when I’m done for the day, I forget about work until the next morning.
I never expected to love corporate America. But this new kind of freedom — along with a team of coworkers I like and respect — has certainly made me appreciate it.