Relatively recently I had a minor existential crisis. I’d gone to Loughborough to study illustration – good idea if you want to be an artist, supposedly – where University ate me up and spat me out into what was arguably one of the worst times to get a job, any job.
I was getting precisely nowhere applying for all the jobs I could find. Full-time illustration jobs are not commonplace; the more realistic option was self-employment.
“This is better anyway,” I thought, optimistically “I can be my own boss! How hard can it be?”
Very fucking hard, it turns out.
I actually didn’t do too badly. Living with my accommodating parents on the outskirts of London took a lot of the pressure off. Under these relaxed living conditions, I was able to live off the sporadic payment of freelancing, but not knowing where the next money was coming from was difficult.
People would scoff at the assumption that I worked in my pyjamas, didn’t get up ‘til 11am and dossed about until lunch. The truth was I never stopped working. Working from home is a blessing and a curse; the comfort is completely outweighed by the guilt, because any waking moment at home is potentially time to work. People would also assume this was a sweet deal because ‘drawing is fun’. Drawing is fun, but actually being a practising artist for a living isn’t all drawing, and it didn’t make me good at networking or self-promotion or marketing or finances or taxes.
Where the fuck do you even start?
Every day, getting the Game Face on, and cold-calling businesses and selling my skills to convince them they needed my ‘product’. Mailing freebies and promos to companies, attending events and trying to maintain rapport with people. Drawing up contracts and agreements with the businesses that had been impressed, and learning the etiquette of talking payment, negotiating money and deadlines.
This was all assuming that projects ran smoothly. Keeping my blood pressure down when dealing with people who wanted my work but thought it outrageous that I should be paid for it was a job in itself, but that’s another rant story.
My job became my life. Not just because I couldn’t plan ahead for activities because I never knew how money would be looking, but also because I didn’t have set work hours I ended up just working round the clock. Working round the clock and still not being able to move out or do normal things became exhausting, obsessive and depressing.
I read about these inspirational people, who work their standard day job all day and work on their craft all night, and I was struggling to keep on top of it all even without a day job to distract me. Hats off to these people, because I certainly don’t have the level-headedness or dedication to manipulate my work:life ratio that way. I admire the people who can chase the dream and make it work within a balanced lifestyle. I really do.
I feel like I worked balls to the wall to succeed in what I wanted to do and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Working for myself made me feel trapped instead of free. In the end, happiness won out, and working all day and all night didn’t make me happy. It made me feel immeasurably insecure.
I freelanced for a long time and I knew I wasn’t coping long before I did anything about it, and there are lots of reasons for that. It was embarrassing, for one, to tell people that I was wrong and I actually can’t do this. When you harp on and on about being something and then mumble about how you’re not actually, it does bad things for your self-esteem.
I believe we’re brought up in a culture where we are all told we can be whatever we want to be, and I don’t think that’s true. It’s exceptional people who have the full package of skills and the willingness to work their bollocks off, and by its very nature we can’t all be exceptional. I was told over and over again that I could have it all as long as I wanted it enough. But wanting it isn’t enough.
It was an uncomfortable decision to let it go and it took over six months to even consciously consider it as an option. It also posed more problems than it solved; I’d been an aspiring artist my entire life, I couldn’t even imagine writing my CV for anything else, let alone actually doing anything else!
I now have a new job in a completely unrelated field and on a day-to-day basis I am happier now I have a routine job that I don’t have to worry about. The prospect of money coming in, being able to move out soon, not doing my own taxes all comes as an enormous relief.
I’ve had mixed responses to all this from people in my life. People who are actually closest to me range from quiet relief to loud and proud, because they knew how miserable I was under the pressure. Some people have barely even bothered to hide their disappointment. I guess I should take it as a compliment; it must come from their (misplaced) belief in me, but I can’t say that scathing text messages telling me my decisions are “bullshit” are particularly helpful.
Having said that, I do welcome debate! What do you think? Anyone struggling with self-inflicted or external pressure that’s making the original path a difficult one to walk?