In one episode of Freelance Freedom, a comic strip by N.C. Winters, a freelancer tells a friend that his week of self-employment wasn’t too bad. “I know I complain about clients every now and then, but there really is no better feeling than being your own boss, setting goals and having a successful career that you earned yourself,” he says to his friend. “Yikes,” his friend replies. “When did you drink the Kool-Aid?”
That happy episode appears in Freelance Confidential a survey of freelance work by Amanda Hackworth, editor of Freelance Switch. The same ebook also includes another episode of the same strip in which the freelancer’s wife, left alone again with the baby while her frazzled husband battles deadlines, suggests that her child chooses a career in accountancy rather than freelancing.
Those are two strips that show both sides of the freelance coin. On some days, freelancing can feel like the best job in the world, a way of working that delivers secure income, flexible hours and challenging work. On other days, often in the same week, it can be a horrible experience made worse by needy clients, tight deadlines and money that never finishes the month.
Money Can Buy Unhappiness
It’s the money that causes the biggest downward drag on freelancer happiness. According to Freelance Switch’s survey, the average gross income for a full-time freelancer in 2010 was just $34,339.50. More than 39 percent of the freelancers surveyed said that they were either “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” with their income level, making pay the most common cause for complaint.
But income varied widely according to both experience level and industry. The median income for a “beginner” illustrator was just $5,000. Half of all “expert” project managers were earning at least $159,850. In general, the more experience a freelancer gained, the higher their income rose.
Other reasons for dissatisfaction fell far behind financial worries. Just over 18 percent were unhappy with their hours and about the same number were worried about their career opportunities. Only around 13 percent said they were unhappy about the challenge of the work.
A little over half also said that they did not feel secure as a freelancer, a figure that hadn’t changed since the previous survey three years earlier. At the same time, feelings of insecurity among employed staff had roughly doubled from a low of 14 percent. Being closer to changes in the economy seems to give freelancers a greater sense of how those changes affect them — and perhaps a more realistic view of their future prospects.
But while about half of the freelancers surveyed said that they were earning less than they made as an employee, an impressive 93 percent said that they were happier than they had been when they were working for a boss.
So what was the source of that happiness?
Career Goals Count
A number of different things appear to make freelancers happy.
The greatest sense of satisfaction comes from career opportunities. While freelancing is precarious, with little to stop even a large, long-term client from suddenly pulling the rug, freelancers are in control. They can both set their own goals and have the freedom to at least try to achieve them. The work itself is interesting too. More than half the freelancers said that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the challenge of their projects.
And despite the traditional complaints about tight deadlines, long hours and the difficulties of building a business from scratch, around half the freelancers reported that they had more time for personal projects and worked fewer hours than they did as employees.
The greatest contentment though seemed to come from both freelancers who had spent at least two years in full-time employment (who possess some professional knowledge and understand how good they have it working for themselves) and young freelancers (who are more willing to work long hours for low pay.)
So what does that mean for freelancers caught between the frustrations of bringing in projects and dealing with multiple clients while running their own business, and the pleasures of being their own boss? How can freelancers increase their happiness quota and enjoy their work more?
There are a number of things they can do:
1. Set Career Goals
When one of the biggest advantages of freelancing is the control over your own future, it helps to know what you want that future to look like. And more opportunities are opening up. In 2007, freelancers were divided almost equally between an ambition to stay freelance and a desire to open a small business with employees. Three years later, a quarter said they planned to stay solo, 37.5 percent said that they wanted to open their own business but 30 percent intended to “generate income from other solo work” such as stock licensing and product sales.
Those young freelancers are willing to put up with long hours and low pay because they believe it will take them where they want to go. Ambition can be helpful for all freelancers.
2. Find Challenging Work
Freelancers don’t always have control over the work that comes in, and referrals were usually a more reliable way of finding new projects than marketing. But building your portfolio carefully can help to bring in similar work to the projects you’ve enjoyed in the past. Asking can’t hurt either!
3. Work with Other Freelancers
Interestingly, isolation wasn’t one of the points of dissatisfaction reported by freelancers, perhaps because Freelance Switch didn’t ask about it. But freelancing is a lonely profession, which may be why so many freelancers are looking to hire employees.
One alternative is to use a co-working space, a shared office in which freelancers work together. It’s also a pretty good way to network and problem solve.
4. Drink the Kool Aid
Contentment is often as much about attitude as the actual conditions that work brings you. Freelancing is always going to have good days and bad. Perhaps the best approach is to expect the bad days, aim for interesting projects with high pay, and look on the bright side of freelancing.