What do you want to do?

For those who are leaving university, college or schools this summer it’s a terrifying time. It was terrifying 15 years ago when I did it. I don’t think anything that has happened in the last decade and a half has gone anyway in making this a less daunting prospect.

Who do you want to be? I work independently as a freelancer and consultant. This is, especially in my old industry journalism, an option that wasn’t there before. Certainly no one talked about being freelance to me in my final year. There’s interest and curiosity and more people see it.

Instead of the advice I give being something just for those stuck in an air conditioned lecture theatre with me, I thought I’d write them down. To be honest, more of a prep for my next inspirational, TedX style “Hell, stick it to the man, go freelance” pontifications.

  1. The decision you make right now does not define the next fifty years. My dad told me that. He told me that doors close really quickly. They don’t. Life, as the great Ferris Bueller said, moves pretty fast. What you want to do today might not be the same as you want to do in a decade. The pressure of making the “right” decision clouds your judgement.
  2. Think about happiness. It’s important. No one is destined to sit being miserable forever. You have to think about what makes you happy, what pushes your brain and drives your forward. Then think about how you can weave that in.
  3. If it isn’t a job, think how it could be one. I have friends who are poets, jewellery designers, illustrators, writers, craft beer makers, programmers, artists, coders, architects, city planners. You might not know that the thing you love doing most could be a job. Research, find out. Learn how to Google creatively. It doesn’t have to be just one thing. You could do a few different things. Mix it up. No one’s writing this story other than you, kittens.
  4. When you find out if it is a job, talk to people. It will not amaze you to discover this, but people like talking about themselves. They like being positioned as a fountain of knowledge. Ask them how they got where they did. They’ll tell you. Everyone’s path doesn’t look the same, but there might be ingredients and things you need you hadn’t thought of.
  5. If you end up hating it, change doesn’t mean failure. I did the job I thought I wanted since I was five and realised I hated it. I changed. Took me about four years to get the experience I needed before I went out on my own. I do not feel like a failure. I feel like someone who was confident and honest enough to know her own heart and mind.
  6. You don’t have to be an overnight success. I don’t believe in ten year plans. You have no idea what’s coming and the future is only frightening. Instead, figure out what the goal is and what skills you need to get there. That’s the only plans I have. The goal might be to have an office of your own and be self sufficient. So plan what you need to get there. If change is the only thing you know is coming, too firm a plan might mean you miss opportunity.
  7. A business plan is vital. Especially if you’re on you’re own. It isn’t about planning far in advance. Instead, it’s about breaking down what your business and activity looks like. Mine was a circle with three chunks. One said PR, one said copywriting, the other said writing. The PR will always be the things that earns me the most money. The writing is often the thing most people know me for. The copywriting helps me meet people and learn about things, informing the other two. But be honest about the structure. The PR has evolved and morphed as I’ve done the same, so it involves a far more digital expertise and focus, social media and the like. But the setup is pretty much the same. It acts like a ballast, helping me figure out how much time and energy I spend on what and what my balance looks like.
  8. Remember the three what I call “noses” for projects; a) Does it teach me something I don’t know? b) Does it introduce me to someone I don’t know and have wanted to? c) Does it pay an obscene amount of money. Two out of those and if you’re wavering it might be worth it. Everyone will say never work for free. I have done it occasionally but never for the same person more than twice. If someone rips you off once they will do it again. Building up your skills is vital. Opening into new circles is too. But if it only ticks one box, work out if they can help you get to a place where it does the others. Money shouldn’t a motivating factor, but if the project will pay for you for three months then you can’t say no straight away (unless it’s killing someone.  Even then, depends who it is, really).
  9. Know what your survival budget is. What do you need to make every month to live on? Keep yourself afloat. Independence does not have to mean penury. A lot of creatives and freelancers wear several different hats. Freelance writing, for example, can be a damn hard full time gig if you have no contacts.But that’s back to your business plan, how do you get the contacts? Be realistic. You can’t do everything for free. Some months may be lean, others not. I haven’t had a month yet (she crosses fingers and toes) where I haven’t earned a penny. And I’ve been doing it for six years.
  10. Build a team around you. Family is everything. Family isn’t just the people you’re related to. I call it my 3am list. Who are the people I could call at 3am and they’d answer because they love me and know I’m not doing it for a laugh? Those people are my family (along with my family family). You need these people when you work independently. It can be hard. It can be scary. They can help you focus on the fact that what’s going on in your inbox isn’t the most important thing in the world. They can mediate you through the terror.