For the the majority of my career, I’ve been an independent worker. It’s easy to take the lifestyle for granted after so much time being my own boss, but every now and then it’s good to take a step back and realize that—despite all the challenges that come with it—working as a free agent is a cherished privilege.
If you’re thinking about making the leap, or you’ve already gone independent but second-guessing if this is really the lifestyle for you, here are five reasons why I think being a free agent—whether as a freelancer or a content creator—is undeniably fabulous.
I crave variety in my work. If I have to accomplish the same flavor of tasks every single day, I grow thoroughly bored. As a free agent, I’m able to seek out projects, technologies, and industries that interest me and help me stay motivated. I’ve designed websites for book publishers and written biographies of wedding DJs. I’ve engineered marketplaces for wine suppliers and customized enterprise XML editors. I’ve gotten paid as a graphics designer, a UX specialist, a software developer, a writer, a video editor, and (crossing my fingers) I hope to get paid to write a soundtrack some day!
When you’re part of a company with a corporate structure outside of your control, you work with the people you work with. That’s it. If you enjoy hanging out with them and admire their output, good for you! But if you don’t…well, your options are limited. When you’re an independent worker, you have the opportunity to assemble a team around different projects or initiatives and find people you love to work with. (Assuming they’re also free agents and are available!)
As a free agent, you have full control over where (and when) you work. Sure, there may be certain expectations that you’ll be available at specific times for certain tasks, depending on the needs of your clients. But generally you’ll have a degree of freedom that’s difficult to find in the world of salaried positions. You’ll have a lot more leeway to travel, to work from home or a café or a cowork space or a library, or maybe even work onsite for different clients which can be a lot of fun too.
The relationship between employers and side projects can be a tricky one. Depending on the type of company you work for and the nature of your side project, you may discover that your employer is bothered by your focused attention away from their needs, or worse, they’ll want to claim your intellectual property as their own. No such hassle when you’re your own boss. You make up the rules! If you want to spend a few days now and then working on your own projects, or cram some effort into early mornings or nights or weekends, or alternate between weeks of client work and weeks of personal work (I know of a freelancer who did this and eventually switched to full-time work on their own software development)—it’s totally up to you.
Which brings us to the top reason why you should become a free agent: time. Time is the most valuable asset you possess. It’s so valuable precisely because it’s so limited. You have a finite lifespan, and there’s no way you can add more time or buy extra time (short of debatable methods of buying your way into a healthier lifestyle which might increase your lifespan). Because time is so precious, your top priority as a worker and as a human is to be mindful of how you’re spending it. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself in a position where your control over your schedule is compromised.
That’s why being a free agent is so incredible. You have full control over your work schedule. You decide what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. (Well, it is possible to arrange things with demanding clients such that you are a slave to their every whim. But I strongly recommend you avoid such projects like the plague!)
If you want to get up at 6am and work until 3pm, go for it. If you want to roll out of bed at 10am and sit down at your desk at noon, who’s going to argue? If you want to take a long break in the middle of the day to enjoy some sunshine outdoors and make up for it at night, that’s totally your prerogative. If you want to charge more for your services so you can afford a 4-day workweek instead of 5, that’s well within your wheelhouse.
At this point in my career, the freedom I have over when, where, and how I do my work is more important to me than anything else in business. I’m probably “unemployable” now, simply because I can’t imagine having as much flexibility working for a single company. I know of a lot of other free agents who feel exactly the same way. That’s why they’re free agents!
So there you have it: 5 reasons why you should become a free agent. Can you think of a 6th? I’d love to hear about it!
For years, we’ve had the notion drummed into our heads by internet nerds and pundits “in the know” that pay walls will fail and the very idea of charging for online content is absurd because nobody spends money on content—especially those pesky millennials who expect to get everything for free.
Well it’s time to call it like it is: those pundits were wrong, very wrong. Pay walls and other types of paid content products work. Consumers have gotten trained to pay for online subscriptions to a wide array of products and services across a whole range of industries. Platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter have successfully allowed content creators to monetize their work. And now an increasing number of media businesses have reached the point—not a moment too soon in my opinion—where they are shifting their focus away from squeezing every last drop of ad revenue out of mass traffic and instead toward asking their audiences to pay directly for quality content.
This is a far better state of affairs. I’m tired of being the product (the user) getting sold to the real customer (the advertiser). The biggest lie in the history of the internet is that content (and software in general) is free. It’s not. If you use a free service or read content for free, you are simply the product being sold to the real customers for real money—in other words, advertisers. And this ad-driven internet economy has had devistating effects on users’ security, privacy, and website performance—not to mention the rise of fake news and other “viral” phenomenons attempting to game the system.
2017 was the year where this became a tipping point. Ad blocking technology went mainstream. Major computer companies (Apple primarily) centered their marketing around protecting the security and privacy of users. The scourge of fake news brought a reckoning to social media platforms. And sci-fi shows in the popular culture such as Black Mirror introduced us to the stark reality of how out-of-control social sharing and personal data tracking are paving the way to a dreadful dystopian future.
Trevor Kaufman, CEO of paywall tech and customer intelligence firm Piano, has witnessed first hand this dramatic newsroom shift away from chasing social media and search traffic toward developing real transactional relationships with readers directly:
“Every year, there are new costs that get added to the adtech economy that media companies rely on. First came viewability, then came ad blocking, then it was ad fraud. Clearly, the concentration of the duopoly has also been a factor. And just in the last year, we had very significant moves like what Apple did with Safari and third-party cookies. The Facebook feed changes are very significant. And so is General Data Protection Regulation in Europe.
So what we see is a return to first-party data being vital and a return to thinking about readers as customers. They’re no longer cattle who are being monetized en masse, but rather people who we’re trying to appeal to and influence their behavior. That, again, has always been the business of media and marketing. I think it’s great to have a return to that.”
Even more surprising (to some, not to me) is the fact that those darn millennials are not only showing a willingness to buy into this new reader-focused media landscape, they’re more willing to pay than their generational predecessors:
“There’s also this crazy myth that millennials won’t pay for things, but the reality is that it’s boomers who won’t pay. Millennials are used to an à la carte world and are much more willing to pay for stuff. Overall, there’s a great rebalancing that’s happening right now.”
In other words, the future of quality journalism and related media is transactional—audiences paying for access to content. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re at the point now where everything is rosy. My personal belief is that the web needs a pervasive micropayments layer where people can easily share a percentage of a monthly money pool with content creators as they browse around normally. But in lieu of that, subscriptions to individual media sources or packaged media bundles seems to be the trend.
However content gets monetized, I’m thrilled that this is the direction the media industry is heading. It’s high time we tipped the balance of power away from the Googles and Facebooks of the world and back into the hands of individual readers.
Video has always been a deeply fascinating medium of communication for me, but my attempts to master it over the years have been haphazard at best.
Last year I tried vlogging a bit on another YouTube channel centered around my electronic music making, but the concept never really solidified—and then I ended up doing the digital nomad thing and eventually moved to a different state, and that threw all my plans out the window.
But I’m vlogging once again with renewed enthusiasm; this time under the auspices of Pygmy Nuthatch. Like so many vloggers, the pioneering work of Casey Neistat has had a big influence on me, but I’m also approaching this style from the standpoint of a musician, so a big part of the process is playing around with timing and emotional mood.
I also love seeing travel videos from other parts of the world, and as I’m now living in Portland, Oregon, I want to capture the heart and soul of this beautiful area and share that with others.
I’ve put out two episodes so far. For more to come, subscribe to my YouTube channel. Enjoy!
As free agents, we have so many challenges to contend with on a regular basis: growing a client base or viewership, technological hurdles, cash flow, legal battles, industry disruption, rapidly changing trends, globalization, the rise of AI (no joke!)…the list goes on.
However, the biggest challenge I believe is not something that’s outside of ourselves but is intrinsic to our very nature, and that is maintaining proper emotional health. The capacity to embrace an authentically positive attitude, along with the ability to resist reacting negatively to the bad stuff that comes up in life, is not only something that’s possible to cultivate but feels like a superpower when it kicks into high gear.
The primary way I’ve developed this ability is through mindfulness exercises and spiritual development. But before you jump into how to solve a problem like ill emotional health, you need to know how to spot the warning signs. Here are a few I’ve come across:
Some people are naturally optimistic. Other people are naturally pessimistic. I suspect most people generally shift back and forth depending on circumstance. I’m not here to tell you what your personality should be like—however, what should concern you is if you know you are normally an optimistic person but you find yourself in an increasingly pessimistic state of mind.
Does the phone ring and you instinctively seize up wondering if it’s bad news? Are you avoiding certain difficult tasks or conversations because you just can’t imagine it going well? Do you wake up in the morning and wonder what’s going to go wrong today? These are all signals that your typical personality is being hijacked by abnormal mental patterns.
Anger is a valid emotion that we rarely feel equipped to deal with in a healthy, productive way. Anger is how we react when we feel liked we’re under attack or wronged in some way. The question to ask yourself is, do you feel angry only when you are legitimately being violated in some major sense, or are you repeatedly getting angry over trivial matters?
This issue was what finally convinced me I was struggling with depression in 2014. I was growing concerned and a bit baffled why things that seemed objectively like not a huge deal would set me off. The last straw was when I got unjustifiably mad at my wife and drove off to my office in a terrible huff, and then I quickly realized I was on a path to ruining our relationship. It was a clear sign I needed to reevaluate my emotional health.
You’re going along, doing your thing, minding your own business, and suddenly you feel it coming on: the dreaded panic attack. Your heart starts racing, you feel a knot in your stomach, the walls start closing in…and the crazy thing is you can’t come up with a logical reason why you’re feeling this way.
The long-term effects of chronic stress are finally starting to come to light via the medical community, and it’s not pretty. If you’re used to working in conditions that are typically stressful, it’s only a matter of time before your emotional as well as physical health is severely impacted. Mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, and symptoms similar to impairment from alcohol or drugs will start to invade your every day. If it gets really bad, you may even experience abnormal symptoms in the organs and systems of your body.
I’m thankful my stress reactions never got too severe, but I was definitely struggling in this area (which certainly didn’t help matters as I tried to get out from under my cloud of depression).
If you are dealing with any or all of these issues, I strongly recommend taking a course of action. If you do nothing and expect things to change, that is a dangerous road. Here are some of your options:
Emotional health is just as important as physical health, and making your health a top priority is key to achieving outrageous success in life and especially as a free agent. When your performance on the job is directly tied to your income or appeal as a creator, as it is with so many of us, the most important thing you can invest in is yourself.
Us highly creative people, we thrive on the start. Creating something brand new is a heady elixir. Whether it’s a new book or a new business, a new site or a new song—life simply bursts forth in endless possibilities. The only limitation is what’s in our skulls.
The passage of time is where the rubber meats the road. Work slows. Ideas grow thin. The intense sensations of excitement and perhaps a little fear give way to tedium. Difficulties, deadlines, and delays zap away all the fun.
That’s when The Thought occurs. Maybe this isn’t working out. Maybe I suck at this. Maybe nobody cares what I’m doing.
Maybe it’s time to start something new.
That’s always the answer, isn’t it? That thing you were once so excited about…well, the love is gone, man. Gone. If you could just…you know…start over again and try something new, all those amazing feelings of euphoria would return in an instant!
Us highly creative people, we all go through this cycle. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. If you’re going through this existential crisis right now, hear me out:
This is normal.
The first step to climbing up out of this funk is to let go of your guilt. Guilt over letting yourself down and letting other people down. Great art doesn’t materialize out of guilt. Great art is born of passion. If you decide to bail on a project gone awry, that is your choice. Don’t be afraid to let go and move on. (Bear in mind I’m not talking about work for hire here. If you’re under contract to provide a creative service, then the show must go on!)
The second step is to rediscover your passion. Take a step back from the daily grind of your creative endeavor and search for fresh inspiration. If you’re stuck musically, try looking for some new artists in a different genre than you normally listen to. If you’re trying to write an app and are in a bind, play a game or read a riveting biography. Do something to shake up your routine.
The third step is to come up with a list of reasons why you found this particular project so interesting in the first ploace. What initially drew you to blogging, or vlogging, or designing logos, or data-driven market research, or…? What was it that got your heart pumping? Write some thoughts down and shift your mindset.
If none of these techniques work and your enthusiasm remains elusive, then that’s a tell you should probably call it a day and move on. But if you find yourself feeling reinvigorated and rife with fresh insight, then you know you’re back on track.
Artistry doesn’t flourish under a microscope or on an assembly line. Give yourself permission to ride the ebb and flow of the creative process. There will be times when you’re leaping to crank out awesomeness, and there will be times when you’re dry. It’s OK. Understanding your strengths and limitations is a key milestone along the path to true mastery.