“A few years ago, I was offered a job with a desk and an office, and I’m really glad I didn’t take it,” Chuck* confided as he chomped his egg croissant and I stirred my oatmeal. We had met at a combination coffee shop and dog park – why there aren't more of these, I'm not sure – for breakfast so we could catch up and talk about working together. I’ve known Chuck since high school, and he’s always been one of the most talented, funniest, hardest-working people I know. Helping him and his buddies make stuff would be not only fun (I swear he once made me laugh so hard that my abs felt sore for days -- days!), but also educational. He freelances in the film industry and devotes a lot of his free time to writing and producing short films and live shows.
“The pay was good and on paper it looked good for my career, but I’d probably have gotten stuck there,” he said between bites. “I mean, I’d probably have a wife and a kid or something by now. I sure wouldn’t have the freedom to make my own things like I do today.”
I tried to imagine Chuck living in the same small town where he went to college, sitting at a brown desk in a beige building, producing commercials for a local car dealership. He’d probably wear wrinkled khakis and icky ties and grow fat and die early. Ew, I thought, wrinkling my nose.
“I see a lot of people in my industry fall into that trap,” he continued. “They spend all their time working as production assistants on big name shows or movies. Sure, they get to put The Walking Dead or Anchorman on their resume, but what did they really do? Get somebody coffee and run errands? Or maybe they’re full-time at Adult Swim and they get to high-five the voice actors from Archer every day. That’s cool, and good for them if they like it, but they’re not going to have any time outside of work to pursue other creative projects.”
“It’s a trade-off,” I replied, feeling like I repeated the phrase for the umpteenth time that week. “When you work for someone else, you’re fulfilling someone else’s creative vision, but at least you have job security or prestige.”
“And when you work for yourself, you don’t only have creative control, but you are in charge of what you’re learning and who you work with,” Chuck said, setting his coffee down and holding out his hands.
“Here’s what some people do, and it’s a good balance. You have your full-time gigs here,” he shook his left hand, “and your creative projects here,” and he shook his right.
“You work on your creative projects and build up your skills and your portfolio,” he said, slowly moving his right arm forward across the table to show the progression.
“Then, because you proved yourself, you dip back over here,” his right hand abruptly turned and pointed his left, “and get hired for a full-time job that looks good on your resume. Then at some point, you go back to your own thing again, and repeat the cycle,” he said, separating his hands and resting them palm up as if the two options were resting in his fingers.
“What I do,” he said after a pause, “is spend several weeks on freelance work that pays the bills, and then I take off work for a few weeks to write and produce something fun that I care about.”
“And that might eventually pay the bills too,” I interjected. I have a lot confidence in Chuck's talent, and I think the work he puts into his projects will pay off monetarily as well as intrinsically one day.
“Yeah, that’d be great,” he laughed, “but even if it doesn’t make money, it’s stuff I enjoy, so I want to keep doing it. Maybe I could make more money by spending more time on paying gigs or by getting a full-time job, but I would rather make less and have time to make cool shit. And besides, switching between freelancing and working on my own stuff keeps me on my toes, keeps me from being bored. It lights a fire under my ass. I have to keep learning, keep working, keep getting better and better to do this.”
I understand Chuck’s need for continuous movement, the drive for ongoing improvement. It’s in our blood to make new things and overcome new challenges. That’s one reason I often freelanced on the side even when I was working full-time. If the requirements of your nine-to-five job don’t change very often, it’s easy to become complacent with your goals, to grow stagnant in your skill development. Having freelance projects or personal projects doesn’t just provide a creative outlet; it keeps you alive. If you don’t have time for that – if your job doesn’t allow you time for that – maybe that means that it is time for you to make a change.
*Names have been changed. ;)