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Can I afford to do good?

17 Jul

eye on the prize

“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

–Steinbeck, East of Eden

I’ve spent the last five years trying to assemble my life into a defendable state of adulthood. At the heart of this nebula, my ultimate goal: the Real Job. My boyfriend, G, hates it when I use this term—says it’s a limited way of thinking about things. I see his logic clear as day, and yet I can’t stop yearning for the shiny, tied-neatly-with-a-bow, money-laden recognition of a Real Job.

Until I found it, it was my obsession. I would mentally work over the concept for hours, navigating a barrage of familiar questions with indefinite answers: How would I get it, was I worthy of it, did I actually want it, would it be sustainable, would it be worth it, would I ever have what my parents have?

Always this central goal tethered me. I might be a full-time volunteer with Americorps, an intern at a magazine publishing house, a public school tutor, or a solopreneur—but always in transit,  striving for the coveted status of hirable in the Real Job sense. Full time, benefits, desk, chair, computer, coworkers, office supplies I needn’t purchase myself: The tangible proof that I was good enough, that my skills were real, that I could cut it.

When a Real Job finally became mine (copywriting for an electronic retailer), I was overtaken by a permeating wave of relief. The true weight of an invisible, hulking anxiety I had been carrying for years was finally recognizable. I could look at it squarely now that I had defeated it.

I knew that rent would be paid. I had an item on my resume that didn’t need copious explaining. I was in the club and everything looked sunny.

But what now? Everything is shimmying into place, yet I sense there’s something missing. The weeks march forward, projects and dramas run on a loop. A nagging question starts to pepper my thoughts. Every once in a while it nervously rattles in my mind: Is working hard and paying bills enough?

In the wake of the Great Recession, I know how I should feel. I know what people expect me to say. That I’m so grateful, I’m so lucky, I should appreciate what I have and work my way to the top. I should drop down on my knees and thank god almighty I don’t have any more student loans. But there’s something more I need, and this need—no matter how convenient it would be—won’t simply dissipate if ignored. I need something more.

A sense of contribution.

keep climbing

But is real purpose in work something everyone can afford? What about getting by? What about bills? If everyone demanded work of substance, wouldn’t our Consumption Nation fall on its face?

I recently read an article in the New York Times that interviewed a variety of higher ups from the food industry as part of its exploration of junk food and obesity. I took away three things: Food in the U.S. is a dark, dark topic; a mechanical chewer costs a whopping $40,000; and people have found a lot of creative ways to make peace with the way they’ve made their money. The executives and scientists who spent their careers firing up an obesity and diabetes epidemic were forced to look back over their contribution and square it up with the pearly gate, so to speak.

From ‘I’ve got no regrets’ to ‘I’m rebuilding karma the best I can’, each man had his own view on the ethics of his career. A response from food optimizer and industry big shot Howard Moskowitz caught my eye:

“I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”

Is morality a luxury? Is it something that requires affluence to attain? Must it be earned, won, or inherited? Surely it is something that is always within reach, an indelible choice. But what is the true cost of that choice, and does that cost slide up and down the scale depending on who you are? Does placing morality above other needs, desires, and pressure ever come easily?

I know that if I leave my job my position will be easily filled behind me. When you focus on this fact, it can start to sour your view of things. The machine roars on, claiming endless hours of people’s lives (or the actual life itself, such as the collapsing factory in Indonesia) in the office, sweatshop, and store.

Right now, I can’t afford to focus on how things will continue if I leave. In the short term, the important question is not can I end this, but can I live with myself? At the end of my days, will I have done any good in this world?

Do you do good at your job? Do you feel like a job that does good comes at a price?

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7 Career Skills I Learned from Being Self-Employed

19 Apr
my former home office

my former home office

Since graduation, I’ve spent the majority of my career as a freelance writer and the founder of my own creative/marketing company. But over the last year I’ve undergone a major career change, shifting from ‘self-employed’ to ‘employee’ and relegating my contract work to nights and weekends. While settling into my position as part of a team, I’ve gotten a chance to appreciate the skills that I picked up as a freelancer that have helped me to stealthily navigate my career and life in other settings.

Whether you’re dealing with a client, coworker, boss, or friend, the same skills will help you to earn what you deserve and stay cool, productive, balanced, and challenged.

1. Don’t fear the unknown task.
When I worked for myself, I would have been out of the job if I declined a project because it seemed a little (or sometimes a lot) out of my league. I wouldn’t have been growing my skill set either. Whether at work, volunteering, at home, or socializing, sometimes it’s smart to push yourself to take on the scary project. Ignore the I’m not smart/strong/brave enough voice in your head and go for it.

2. Say ‘no’ when things don’t feel right.
When you’re an artist/creative and a woman, there are people throughout your life who put the squeeze on you for time, work, emotional energy, and more. Women are often wired to want to keep things feeling comfortable, and we do this by saying ‘yes’ too often. Recognize when you’d rather not and stick to your guns. Your work will be better because you actually want to do it, you’ll suffer less stress, and your relationship with your client/boss/spouse/friend will be better off.

3. Save yourself time and stress by creating boundaries, managing up, and setting expectations.
People are different. They communicate differently. They work differently.  They manage projects differently. They require different things in order to thrive and feel comfortable. Recognize what you expect out of others and yourself, and then figure out what you actually need. Recognize what your client/coworker/spouse/friend expects, what they actually need, and try to meet them in a place that feels fair and comfortable for both of you.

4. Ask for more than what you think you’re worth.
I’ll admit that this one is an uphill battle for me. But I realize that as a freelancer, I already have a leg up on many other young professionals. I’ve had ample opportunity to practice deciding upon my own wage, asking clients for it, and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. Holy cow, have I under-quoted on jobs before! There are certainly writers who charge more than me, and there are many who charge less too.

But what I learned through all the clients and negotiations is that you should always try to ask for more than you think you’re worth. Because chances are, you probably undervalue yourself. Especially when negotiating with an employer, never accept the first offer. Always ask for more. You’ll probably get it.

5. Know when to cut yourself off.
I’ve also made the mistake (as I’m sure many freelancers & entrepreneurs have) of totally over-booking myself and leaving little to no me time on the calendar for months on end. When you freelance, work can be feast or famine, and it feels scary to say ‘no’ to jobs, or to say that you’re not available for three or four months. But you have to give yourself time to relax. Time off is precious, and it doesn’t take more than working through a weekend or two before important things begin to unravel (your sanity, your relationships, the quality of your work).

6. Be wary of the internship/unpaid gig/pro-bono project
If you’re an artist or working in the creative industry, then you’ve probably already faced a handful of unpaid job “opportunities” that claim to pay you with “exposure,” “portfolio building,” or by helping you to “get your foot in the door.” As a writer, I implore you: Do not take unpaid work! PLEASE! With every unpaid or might-as-well-be-unpaid wage you accept, you are undermining your own worth and the value of your fellow creatives. What we do is worth a wage. Hold out for respectable compensation and don’t be afraid to tell people that their pay (or lack thereof) is shamefully low.

7. Pick your projects and positions wisely.
In our hired today, fired tomorrow world, there’s no telling which of your technical/creative skills will sustain you over the long haul. This means that it’s important to think critically about the type of work that you take on. Diversify your skill set to give yourself more options. But don’t just say yes to a project because it’s something you haven’t done before. It’s equally important to decline projects that don’t fit with the skills you intend to develop.

At the heart of all my experience is the knowledge that nothing is more important than the pursuit of experiences that help to move you closer toward what fulfills you and makes you happy. If an opportunity feels totally out of sync with your values or goals, then it’s not worth it, no matter how fabulous the pay or prestigious the title.

How about you:

What career lessons have you learned over the years?

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