Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

And yet, because I’ve been freelancing — whether part time or fulltime — for a while now I’ve become habitualized to the many small joys that this kind of life affords.

I am, however, also keenly aware of the negatives.

In many ways, freelancing, in the way I experience it, is a term that does not describe the expanses of time a freelance feels very well.

Let me put it simply: when you work as a freelancer you experience time differently to most people.

Time. 

If you commute to work. If you have to go to take the subway or the train or wait at a bus stop to climb onto the bus. Or drive. Or cycle or walk (both better ways to commute). Then you know what I am talking about. I know it too. I did it.

Commuting is perhaps one of the most common and least joyful experiences that humans have accidentally devised. It is stressful, inhumane, and something we put up with. But as soon as we are released from its harsh schedule — when we’re allowed to be free and playful and human we assume a lovely happiness.

Dread. 

That’s what we feel about going to work. It’s the going to that is dreadful.

But let’s not forget about the jobs that many people have where you might wake up with a spring in your step. Where you cannot wait to work on those ideas you have, to get to work, and to see your beloved colleagues and catch up.

That experience is great and well worth establishing. And there are definitely times when I envy that experience very, very, much.

A brief aside on priorities

I have spent a great deal of time and mental energy thinking about what it is exactly that I prioritize.

What is important to me. 

Do I want to do a job that I care about or a job that makes me money?

Do I want a career that is actually meaningful and contributing to something or a career that is only deceptively meaningful?

Do I spend my time working towards something (saving up for a future prospect) or should I not even think about spending time and just enjoy the moments that make life what it should be?

A lot of it comes down to how I think about time.

The office. The 9 to 5. All of that is a great way to yoke people to the idea that “work time” is time to be productive — to work! But much office time is not super productive.

We talk about using time, of how we spend our time.

Really we should stop using it and simply start enjoying it. It’s obvious isn’t it?

I have shied away from talking about these ideas on this blog. I try not to philosophize on here. But these ideas are the backdrop that governs what I do. A career, life goals, freelancing, are just smaller things that have a place within this bigger canvas.

It is important to me that I make my own choices. That I don’t feel like I have to do something.

The Luxury

I am aware that not everyone can do this. If you don’t have an affinity to be a writer, a freelance writer, then I am not sure what exactly I can counsel.

I do not have the answer for you.

I’ve done things my own way. I’ve taken risks. I moved to Beijing without knowing really what I was doing. Alone. No one told me how to go about it. I learned myself.

It takes boldness. Initiative. The ability to teach yourself. You have to be motivated. To be able to determine the things you need to do in order to achieve certain things. You have to have fortitude. To be prepared for loneliness, confusion, anxiety. You have to have imagination.

It takes time to find your footing and it takes time to get to a position where you have more freedom. And when you get there you’re still not sure whether it’s just all make-believe, a life spun from threads that could collapse at any time.

A Note on Practicalities 

I could not have built the career and life I have if I had not moved to Beijing. I’m pretty sure of this.

Beijing has afforded me opportunities and ways of living unavailable elsewhere.

Connections and people you know are incredibly valuable when you’re a freelancer. As an English speaker and writer in Beijing opportunities I’ve had would not have come about without recommendations and the contacts I have gained.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, this blog you’re reading right now, and the website that holds it, has been absolutely invaluable. I’ve had numerous opportunities that I would not have got without this online presence. These jobs literally drop into my email inbox, out of the blue. All I have to do is reply and say: “Yes, I will do it”.

(I still don’t have business cards. A freelancer really should have business cards made up).

The Poverties

  • Too much freedom
  • Loneliness
  • Not enough money — actual poverty at times
  • No feeling of direction
  • Too much freedom
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Not getting to meet people or to go to work events or do things you would never otherwise do
  • Not having a platform that can propel you onwards
  • Not getting to accrue professional connections
  • Not having daily creative interactions
  • Not being challenged by demands
  • Not learning workplace politics
  • Not forging professional links
  • Not learning things  you wouldn’t perhaps learn willingly but turn out to be quite useful
  • Having too much time
  • Not being hugely productive
  • Having to rely too much on yourself, as well as on circumstances beyond your control
  • Waiting to be paid
  • Not being sure when you’ll be paid
  • Chasing up payments
  • Anxiety about wasting time
  • Feeling like you should always be at work or that you should be doing more
  • Etc

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If you have any questions please post them in the comments or feel free to email.

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