Asking Not Asking #8: Balancing Act
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I’ve been on my own as a freelance graphic designer for about five months. In my first month, I was hired on as a contractor for a tech company, which requires a good chunk of my time. The work is not incredibly creative or interesting, but it has allowed me to make a decent living and take on smaller projects to gain experience in areas I hope to pursue in the future. However, I often find myself putting off growing and marketing my business to work on the tech company's projects. This work feel safe, because it takes place in the traditional 9-5 environment, and it pays the bills.
My fear is that I’m spending too much time in this comfortable space and not enough time pursuing work or opportunities that truly excite me. I don’t want to feel uninspired or bored with the work that I’m doing, but the money makes it hard to turn down. How can I find a better balance between steady work and new business ventures?
Dear Balancing Act,
Years ago I was referred to physical therapy. As a result of sitting at a desk all day, I had developed problems with my hip flexors. The physical therapist prescribed an array of exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles around my hips. One of the exercises was to stand, one legged, on a blue, half-domed balance trainer. It looked like this. I was tasked with balancing on one leg for one whole minute before I switched to the other; I did three reps on each leg. At first, my legs were wobbly. I lost balance and fell off after only a few seconds. Over time, I held my balance longer. Eventually, I was strong enough to stand on one leg for the entire minute.
Balancing is awkward at first. You are shaky and unsure if you can do it. But with practice, it becomes easier. You develop the muscles to work in a new way and realize that you are capable of more than you thought. You are currently in a comfortable position: you’re making money and gaining experience. That is wonderful. However, you’ve indicated that you want to try new opportunities, which may require you to awkwardly stand, wobbly-legged, until you practice enough times to master a new approach.
The first order of business is to look at your schedule. How do you structure your days? Are you at the beck and call of the tech company client? Or are you choosing to work on that project, even when you could carve out time for new explorations? If it’s the latter, acknowledge that it may feel safer to stay within the boundaries of what you know. If it’s the former, think about how you can set boundaries with your client that allow you to work for them in concentrated, focused blocks of time. If the job truly is 9-to-5, then consider only working those hours and setting a hard cut-off.
It is absolutely exciting that your business is merely 5 months old and you are supporting yourself financially. Be proud of that. But what I’m hearing is that you want more than financial rewards. You want to feel inspired and excited by what you are doing. Before we go any further, I want to note that it’s okay to do certain work for the money and other work for the excitement of it. Sometimes those two things—money and excitement—converge in a client or project and that’s great. But it’s also realistic to not be entirely fulfilled by your work 100% of the time, even if it’s your dream client or project.
Last year I had the privilege of interviewing Pentagram partner Natasha Jen, who said something that has stuck with me: “Creative satisfaction matures and changes with you at different stages of life and you may find yourself suddenly losing interest in something you were previously passionate about, and I think that is totally okay. Just embark on whatever new thing comes your way and let that mature with you.” You can listen to the entire podcast interview with Natasha here.
Every stage of building our careers is a balancing act. We are excited to start our first full-time job after college. Then we are bored and want to go freelance so we have more time and freedom. So we start a business and we’re excited to just pay the bills. But then we want to do more interesting work. We do more interesting work and then maybe we’re tired of freelancing and decide we want the stability and consistent paychecks that come with working at a company again. It’s cyclical. Our work is transitory, as is all of life.
That’s where you are now. Another new beginning. This will happen over and over again. But if you are serious about pursuing new work and opportunities, I’m happy to help you make a plan. Let’s start with the work you are doing now. It is a gift. I hope you see it that way. What it allows you to do is create space to pursue new things without putting financial pressure on them. You can experiment without financial constraints.
Narrow down this new work you would like to explore. Do you know what would be exciting for you? What clients do you want to work with? What kinds of projects do you want to do? Be as specific as possible. If you’re unsure, you could start with the subjects you’re most curious about and the tasks you enjoy the most. And don’t only think about work—what in your personal life interests you, what are your hobbies, and how do you spend your leisure time? Could you integrate those interests into new work pursuits?
When you ask how you can strike a better balance between steady work and new business ventures, it seems you are referring to the time you spend on each. The answer to striking a better balance is simple: reset your priorities. Look at your calendar. Reflect on how you have been spending your weeks. What do your days look like? Commit to prioritizing new business ventures and mark time on the calendar for when you will do that. I’d recommend starting with a 2-hour, uninterrupted window several times a week. Experiment with the length and frequency of time and adjust as needed.
Your business is 5 months old—it’s still in its infancy. You will grow with it and it will grow with you. Sometimes you will feel on course and satisfied. Other times you will question your direction and need to adjust. You will be confident and then you’ll change your mind. You’ll be creatively satisfied and then you won’t. Accept the messiness of this process as you continue to build.
Back to falling. I’m currently obsessed with the Secrets of Wealthy Women podcast. In this episode, Bonnie St. John, the first African-American to win medals in the Winter Paralympic competition as a ski racer, talks about losing an Olympic race when she was ranked the fastest skier in the world. St. John has a prosthetic leg, which she doesn’t wear when she skis. Instead, she balances on one leg. In the race, there was a particularly icy spot that everyone crashed on, including St. John, who ended up with a bronze medal. The woman who won gold also fell, but she prevailed because she got up quicker. St. John goes on to say, “People fall down. Winners get up. The gold medal winner is just the person who gets up the fastest.”
Building your business isn’t a race, or the Olympics, but this analogy of balancing, hitting an icy patch, falling, and getting back up applies anyway. There’s no “right” way to take the next step. If you wait until you have a perfect plan, you’ll never act. I’d urge you to make an imperfect plan to integrate new work pursuits into your schedule, commit to pursuing them, and follow through.
You may hit a rough patch, lose your balance, and fall along the way. Get back up. Each time you get back up, you will increase your resiliency. You will begin to notice the nuanced movements that help you hold your balance and you will build muscle memory as you execute. And before you know it, you will look back and see the distance you have traversed and say thank you with gratitude as you look forward to building what’s next.
To falling and getting back up,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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