At the time of writing this I’m sitting on a plane, two empty seats next to me, a magnificent blanket of white outside my window. I’m sipping on a tasteless complimentary instant Nescafe, but I can hardly complain about that. I’m on my way to the Sunshine Coast to spend Australia Day weekend lazing on the beach with some old school mates. Work has been put on hold until I return on Wednesday. Or has it?
Running an eco-graphic design business as a soloist certainly has its perks. It is easy to manage your affairs from afar, as you need little equipment to get your work done. Client meetings can be held over Skype if needed, and the rest of your time can be spent working away at your computer at one task or another. This weekend I’ll take Friday, Saturday and Sunday off before spending some time on Monday and Tuesday doing some admin and design work in between dinners, lunches and long overdue catchups. I have the ability to decide when and how I want to do things.
While I am physically based in Melbourne most of the time, I can virtually be anywhere.
But it’s not all fun and games. There is a fine line between allocating yourself some freedom and allowing your business to fail. Last year as I sat by a riverbank in Kampot Cambodia – designing an education brochure while watching travellers jump into the water off rope swings – I felt more alive than ever. Here I was, making my living at the same time as I was learning so much about a new and fascinating place in the world. Seeing new places and seeking the endless discovery that I require to stay energised and inspired.
But it was so easy to become quickly distracted from the task at hand. It wasn’t long before my work was temporarily abandoned and I was paddling through the beautiful water toward the possibility of new social connections, something so desperately desirable to me at the time.
I was technically on a break and wasn’t overwhelmed with work at the time, but I wonder how I would have responded to this distraction had I taken on a lot more. Would I have become anxious and irritated that I was feeling limited in such a beautiful place? As a soloist or small business owner, it’s common to never truly be free of your work no matter how hard you try. It becomes part of you, much to the disapproval of many people close to you. Many soloists I know feel guilt when they’re not doing their work, because they don’t always have strict hours that they must do their work in. This gives you a sense that you’ve never done enough, and makes it difficult for you to accept when it is family time. My partner gives me a hard time about needing to check my email at 11pm on a Friday night, and I’ll admit to often wanting to be free of being endlessly ‘switched on’ in order to empty my mind and truly relax. But in truth, I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I watch every morning as my partner frantically tries to be out the door on time, and realise how fantastic it feels to be able to organise my day, and my life, around what suits me. An even greater benefit of soloville is having he choice (to a degree) to remove your work from the systems that our society runs on. For example, if for personal reasons in the future I don’t want to expand my business and capitalise on other people’s work – a common growth model in a capitalist society – I don’t have to. Instead, in addition to satisfying my basic financial needs, I can continue to do this for reasons of purpose, social responsibility, creative fulfilment and continual learning. These things can often be missed in regular full-time employment as your own purpose becomes confused with that of your employer.
I hope that in the future if I do decide to expand my business and employ the help of others beyond the occasional subcontractor, that I’ll be able to keep these things in place and set my own model for sustainable growth.
Everybody’s different, and many people prefer the safety and regularity of working for somebody else. Even if you are a soloist in a profession such as graphic design, you still have clients that you must always answer to. I don’t think mine would be overly happy if I decided I’d prefer to go to the cinema than finish an urgent brochure design.
It takes time and practice to understand and maintain a work-life balance that is suited to you, while finding enough joy and passion in your work that will keep you from distraction, and help you to grow. But I believe once you’re there, anything is possible.