There was an interesting career meme that made its way around Facebook a couple years ago: “What my mom thinks I do,” vs. “What my friends think I do,” vs .“What I really do.” In a freelance creative’s world, that meme keeps on playing out every day and week, forever. The gap between people’s perception of your work and the reality of it can be maddening. It’s a lifetime of having to explain anew to your relatives what you do for a living — every single time you see them, even though nothing has changed in the past 10 years. It’s decade upon decade of having people think you weren’t serious enough or good enough at your job to get tapped for a full-time career.
In this column, I’ve rounded up some of the most aggravating and inaccurate things people say to independent creatives — and what the reality is. The things we think but can’t say. See how many of them ring a bell with you.
What not to say to full-time freelancers and independent creatives
“If you want to babysit my kid this afternoon, I can pay you $15 an hour. Good money! And it’s not like you have anywhere else to be.”
Hmm, have you considered that at 3PM on a Tuesday, at the desk in front of the computer is the place basically all business professionals have to be? And just because my desk happens to be at home, it does not excuse me from being there.
There are many creatives — actors, dancers, makeup artists — who usually don’t need to be anywhere when they’re between jobs, and who might actually be glad for $15 an hour. But that state of being probably isn’t pleasant for them. Don’t make it worse by assuming that they’ll be glad to look after your kid all day for $50.
“So, you don’t make any money. Does your spouse have the real job, then?”
As a recent ClearVoice survey showed, 25% of intermediate freelance writers charge more than $60 per hour — while 19% charge more than $100 per hour. And at the expert level, nearly 70% charge more than $80 per hour. From wedding photographers to hairstylists to makeup artists, you’ll find that experienced freelancers charge similarly high hourly rates. So. If someone has spent a decade in a creative career, and seems happy and comfortable in it, chances are, they’re earning money.
The only time it’s acceptable to assume out loud that the spouse earns the money is if a freelancer herself actually says, “My husband has the 9-5 job because he likes to be the steady earner in the family.” (I’ve heard this quite a few times.) But even then, there are folks who parlayed their freelance fashion blogging jobs into million-dollar careers, so it’s still not safe to assume.
“What books of yours would I have read?/ What movies or shows would I have seen?”
I always think this is a barely cloaked attempt to embarrass a person for daring to claim creative professional status. Surely Mr. Drunk at the Party or Stranger at the Airport Restaurant doesn’t believe that every writer has published a book, or every freelance producer has worked on a hit show. And the next step in the logic is — even if the object of questioning has worked on a book or a movie, what are the odds that a stranger would be familiar with the work? In actuality, I work with lots of brands and personalities that a stranger might have heard of, and some they haven’t, and I wrote three published books that didn’t sell any copies. Which makes my career track record probably better than most colleagues, and not as impressive as a few.
But even colleagues who have worked on hit shows or iconic magazines don’t love to be asked this, because usually their exact role was… ”I copyedited the three-page section in the middle of the mag that you probably never read. “ Or, ”I stood in the mud in rural Louisiana for three months trying to get soundbites from your favorite funny reality star who actually only says anything funny once every five days or so.”
One day, the person who regularly asks this rude question will bump into a pompous author who actually has published a book and loves nothing more than to talk about it for hours, boringly and self-obsessively — and that is the circle of conversational karma coming back to bite you in the rude question.
“You do social media! My 16 year old loves Instagram. He could totally do your job.”
I just read a fun blog post featuring ClearVoice writer Kristin Luna and several other professional SMMs (social media managers), talking about the specific misconceptions that they have to battle every day. This one ranks very high on their list. Especially because business owners who aren’t great at social media actually think and hope it’s true. They need to learn otherwise, and hopefully I will not be a part of that journey. Because being part of the journey means filling in on content creation, strategy and campaign management when it is not in my scope of work, because the 18-year-old actually doesn’t know how.
“I have this story that should be [a book/a movie/a play]. Only I’ve never had the time to write it down. You should do it, and we’ll split the profits.”
“Oh, you’re a [photographer / painter / casting specialist]? My nephew / niece /granddaughter is beautiful; you should make them a model. They would make you a TON of money.”
There are so many interesting stories in the world. And so many beautiful young people. The huge differentiator that raises a particular story or a beautiful face out of the sea of anonymity and into “TON of money” status is the person capturing it, turning it into a shareable digital file — a picture or a document — and then selling the heck out of it. People who want to be models spend hours on hours building their portfolio. People with stories to write spend sometimes years crafting those works. Then, they typically go through dozens or hundreds of rejections before they get a career break. At that point, they may make some money — but not a ton. And they’ve earned it.
Bottom line: If anyone wants an independent creative to ghostwrite their book, turn their kid into a supermodel, or launch their startup, the second sentence out of their mouth better be, “And I can pay you [somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-$150 per hour] for your work.”
“Oh, you’re a professional [graphic designer / photographer / writer / designer]? Are you sure?”
Depends on the day? Sometimes, maybe I’m experiencing crushing self-doubt and dreaming I worked in a coffee shop. But I talk to my therapist or husband about it. Other days, I’m totally certain this is my job because I just invoiced $12,000 and “Creative Partner” was what I typed into the professional services description. On those days, oh my goodness do I ever want to whip out the invoice and say, “Are you convinced?” But that would be trying too hard. There is no way to win a conversation with a person who’s determined to invalidate you.
“Oh, you’re freelance, sorry you haven’t found anything permanent yet. Don’t worry! Someday you’ll get your foot on the merry-go-round.”
I have a clear memory of a staffer at an advertising agency saying this to me. And he meant it kindly. He came out of a dying industry, and had to pay his dues in another industry and take one freelance gig after another till he found a home. He assumed this was my position as well.
It wasn’t, but certainly it describes what many people go through. And with the switch to the gig economy, it is not a beginner’s career stage any longer. At worst, it’s semi-permanent, and rides on the merry-go-round of full-time employment are getting shorter and less pleasant every time.
But on the other side? I’ve been self-employed for 16 years, and that merry-go-round of office politics — never getting an extra $5,000 one month from an easy quick-turnaround gig, never being able to go to the doctor without explaining it to my boss, never getting a decent promotion let alone owning the company — well, it looks actually terrible to me. I have officially given up my spot in the line. But please do let me know if you would like to hire me. I have one day a week to give, I work from home, and I charge a monthly retainer.
Related articles for freelance creatives:
- How to Prepare for Your First Writers’ Conference
- 8 Things I’ve Learned the First 8 Years of Freelancing
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