Lisa: Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?
Homer: Yes! Crisitunity!
– The Simpsons
They don’t come along very often, but every great now and again, you have days that are watershed moments in your life. There’s “what was,” and there’s “what will be” but, for that moment, you are in the present that falls between the two.
I find myself at a rare watershed moment for my career.
As of this writing, I’ve been working in the field of writing for nearly three decades now (and because that seemed, well, high, I did the math; yep, next year will be 30 years). For the past nine years, I’ve done it under the auspices of my own company — Panorama Creative Group, and later for tax purposes reformed and renamed Pilrig Street Productions; I’m incorporated and everything. I liked the feeling of being my own boss, the master of my fate and all that.
The reality of it, however, was that I had two major clients. I started full-time at one of those companies in 2006 and when I went out on my own in 2009, they became an anchor client for Panorama. That sounded good at the time, but what it morphed into was just working 25 hours a week for that company as an independent contractor. When that company was bought by a bigger company, almost a year to the day after that merger I was told that my writing and editing skills were no longer required, as they were moving things “in-house.”
I understood that reasoning; it was just business. I wasn’t being let go because I wasn’t doing the job; the people who I worked with told me several times that I would be missed to the extreme (and not just because they were going to have to do my job). An independent contractor simply didn’t look right on their org chart. I was the thing that wasn’t like the others.
I understood it, but I was also scared witless because that job was the lion’s share of my income.
Part of being an undefended contractor was having a contract, and that contract gave me two months more work with the company before the final adios.
It was a strange two months.
On the one hand, everything proceeded as normal, except that I was asked to train my replacement(s) here and there. On one hand, it was nice, because I was able to have time to plan a graceful exit; on the other, it was a lingering goodbye — something I’ve never been able to handle well. Also, the clock was ticking. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Couple this with the fact that another project I’ve been working on — co-writing The Theory of 5 with Chris Saraceno — is coming to a close (it’s available on June 6 on Amazon, by the way, and I’m very proud of it), and it seemed like a chapter of my life was ending.
For almost all of April and most of May, I had daily anxiety attacks, mostly in the morning because, as I’ve said here in the past, my brain is a jerk. My wife has been great, telling me she believes in me and that everything is going to be fine, and most likely will be even better than before. Her opinion — and respect — means everything to me, and I hear and believe her. Still, that small voice in my mind wouldn’t shut up, no matter how much positivity was thrown at it.
I seem to be at my most vulnerable in that period right before I get up, so the jerky nihilistic/sadistic part of my mind would wake me with thoughts like:
- “You’re never going to get another client.”
- “Your skill set is only good for this one job; it won’t apply to any other.”
- “Anyone can do what you do.”
- “You’re going to fail.”
(Told you my brain’s a jerk – anyone else whispering that in my ear first thing in the morning would get such a punching.)
The thing about stupid fears like this — as opposed to fears such as “Stay away from the grizzly bear”; that’s good fear — is that they seem true when they whisper things from the shadows. They tend to lose power, however, when you drag them screaming into the daylight. It doesn’t matter who’s doing the screaming — you or the fear; “daylight” is the operative word here.
So, let’s drag:
You’re Never Going to Get Another Client.
Well, not with what I’ve been doing the past nine years to find new clients, which amounts to exactly squat.
The problem with having two good anchor clients who take up the majority of your workday (and then some during certain periods) is that not only do you not have time to prospect for new clients, but you also forget that you actually need to prospect for new clients.
To put it another way, the dreaded comfort zone had me.
I always knew in the back of my mind that with what essentially is a freelance writing/editing business, prospecting is necessary. I knew I needed to market myself just in case one of these clients fell through. “But these clients are different,” the comfort zone told me. “That happens to other people. These gigs are rock solid.”
(Any time the word “gig” and the phrase “rock solid” appear in the same sentence without the word “ain’t” between them, it’s time to reassess the ol’ business plan.)
Besides, I hate marketing myself. I can market other people all the live-long day, but selling myself is difficult. Part of it is my upbringing and part of it is my natural introverted nature. The idea of approaching people to do work for money seemed… overwhelming.
Much easier to stay in the comfort zone.
Well, when the comfort zone evaporates, it’s time to get to work.
I first had to expand my horizons. I made a potential client list of people I’d worked with or had contact with in the course of my editing job that was leaving. Turned out that there were about 60 to 70 potential prospects. Once the initial sting of being told my services were no longer required had faded a bit, I started contacting some of these leads. Turns out quite a few were interested, which leads me to the next fear….
- Your skill set is only good for this one job; it won’t apply to any other.
I’m a writer and editor, for pity’s sake. People need things to read. Companies need to say things, and they often use words to do it.
Sure, I’ve been more or less in one job for the past 12 years, and it would have been better to be more diversified during that time, but I’m not limited to the one job. In today’s content-hungry marketplace, there’s a lot of opportunities for someone who’s career is old enough to not even be carded at the bar anymore. One of the first “new” jobs I’ve gotten in this new phase of my work was to edit a book. It was a short book, but it’s up on the scoreboard.
I recently met with another freelance writer, Kevin Gibson, who I’ve known for almost all of those 30 years. Kevin and I have a strange relationship when it comes to work. We’ve followed each other through either the same jobs or jobs very similar, to the point we’ve joked that one of us is the other’s doppelgänger (we haven’t decided which one of us is the evil one yet, but it’ll come). Turns out Kevin had a very similar job situation — the loss of a major client, followed by thoughts of “Oh, God, What’ll I do?” — happen to him a couple of years ago. Because of course it had.
Slightly longer story short, he got up and found new clients. It took a bit, but he’s doing fine, and he’s calling his own shots. Given our similar backgrounds, I knew that if he could do it, there was no reason I couldn’t do it, as well. There are plenty of fish in this particular ocean; it’s just a matter of putting lines in. It might not be the most comfortable part of my day, but I can fake it until I either get good at it, or get enough clients where my comfort isn’t really an issue.
“But wait,” the jerk part of my brain whispers. “Let’s consider the fact that…”
Anyone can do what you do.
Yeah, let’s consider that.
Technically, by definition, anyone who is literate can write. Two things to consider, however:
- Do they want to?
- Can they do it better than I can?
Just because someone can write doesn’t mean that they enjoy it or feel confident in their abilities to do it. Sometimes you just want to hire a professional to get the job done — especially if writing isn’t your job. And, after the aforementioned 30 years, I should have lost my amateur status long ago.
Can they do it better? I have a good track record of people being satisfied with what I produce. I can say what needs to be said with economy and personality. As loathe as I am to say I’m good at something — again, introvert — I think I can hold my own here.
Is there any magic to what I do? Not really. Spend 30 years doing an activity, however, and you’ll gain some facility with it. This is my chosen field, and I work to be the best I can be at it.
That brings us to the last, most blunt, of Jerk Brain’s arguments:
You’re going to fail.
Maybe. But it won’t be for a lack of trying. Also, if I learn from the mistakes I’m bound to make along the way, that’s not failure; those are simply data points on the path actually being good at this.
So, it’s taken me a while to get to this point, but I’ve chosen to look at this particular moment in my life where I actually took control of my business — and my life — and do things on purpose. The job I had for 12 years was a temporary project that has come to its end. The Theory of 5 will hit shelves and eBook readers on June 6 and will be out in the world, just as it should be.
Now, I’m going to stop writing this and look for some new projects to take on. They’re out there, waiting for someone like me to take on.