Faces of Work

In my experience, what we might call the architecture of work is not the same for freelancers as it is for full-time employees of organizations. The idea—and the doing—of work hang differently on a sole proprietor’s frame than they do on a company’s. For one thing, when you’re on your own, it’s your job to build the frame itself—as well as to make whatever you’re going to fill in with!

Powersuit Making Workshop at the Wassaic Art Festival 2012

Maybe you’ll make a powersuit!

When you start out to work for yourself, there is no path or plan ahead of you. There is no preexisting ladder to climb or maze to figure out: you have to make your own goals and your own route to reach them. There are no preordained titles to aspire to: you have to decide what you want to be called. There are no rules to chafe against: if the company culture sucks at You LLC, it’s YOU who has to change!

Woman standing in a green garden with a rake

Sarah, YOU should never change! You’re great.

These and many other aspects of work have been on my mind lately. Simultaneously, I’ve recently found myself captivated by others’ musings on work. Rather than try to deduce whether the chicken or the egg came first, I’ll just share two perspectives that have most recently tugged at my brain-strings.

Blonde woman with sewing machine

Another Sarah tugs at another type of strings.

  • “The Spirit of Work” by Marie Corelli. The variously regarded English novelist and mystic touches on lots of potent themes in this fin de siècle essay, such as the attitude of the worker determining the quality of the work; the weirdness of humans trying to elevate and separate themselves from the brilliant workings of nature; the notion that the having of love makes anything easy and the lack of it makes anything hard; the recommendation that everyone should learn a trade as part of their education; the misuse of the word “common” as an insult; and the fact that “‘gentlemen’ are not made by position, but by conduct.”
     
    Man holding cup on roof

    Neil T is a gentleman whether he’s working or working it

    Among many other gems (and some hyperbole I am actually not down with, such as basically suggesting that people never take a day off), Corelli also invokes Goethe, whose “inspiring lines should animate the mind and brace the energies of every worker :—.

    ‘Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute,
    Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it;
    Boldness has genius, power, magic in it;
    Only engage,—and then the mind grows heated;
    Begin!—and then the work will be completed.’ ”

    If that doesn’t get you jazzed to do something, perhaps you would feel more at home in the company of the “toadies, time-servers, and hypocrites of the community” whom Corelli depicts as crawling “before a trumpery ‘title’ as abjectly as a beaten cur trails its body along in the dust under the whip of its master.” Dang, girl! Sing it. Nice use of “trumpery,” too.

    Woman opening bottle of wine while camping

    Cynthia has never committed trumpery in her life.

  • Jerry Seinfeld interviewed by David Remnick. A century or so after Corelli, top-tier funny guy Seinfeld dropped such interesting insights about work during this exchange that I listened to it all the way through twice. When Remnick asked him what made him think he could be a comedian, he said:
    .
     ………“The truth is, I really didn’t think that I could. And I didn’t really care whether I could or I couldn’t. I just got to this point where I was so in love with it that I just decided, ‘What’s the difference?’ It seemed much more important to me to do the thing you want to do than success or failure.
    .
    ……….“This is 1975, you know, and we were still [in] a little bit of the vapors of the ’60s, where you did what you believed in. It wasn’t a ‘success’ culture, it was more of a ‘soul’ culture, I think.”
    .
    Soul culture!! Who among my fellow Gen X’ers—we who are coming to terms with our vocational destinies while wading through a waist-deep culture-sea frothy with vocoded singing, native advertising, and a bank storefront in every formerly vacant lot—does not envy this description of someone’s adolescent zeitgeist?!

    Man with headphones and laptop in easy chair

    Drew’s productions might occasionally involve a vocoder, but they remain excellent.

    A bit later, Remnick asked Seinfeld how long it takes him to prepare an hour-long stand-up show. He replied:

     ………“That’s like asking God how much time goes into an oak tree. He says, ‘I don’t know. I do it every day, I do it all day. I don’t know, I plant the tree, it grows, eventually it’s an oak tree, who the hell cares? It’s all I can do. I don’t know.'”

I think all of us—freelancers or employees, plumbers or pundits—do well to meditate on work and our relationship with it from time to time. Whether it’s been hunting our food to eat, breaking rocks in the hot sun to appease the man, or selling insurance to yacht owners, people have always spent lots of our time working. Let’s do what we can to make it time well spent.

Woman standing in office Lichtenstein

Yours truly working hard—or hardly working?!—in arts administration circa 2006.

Making peace with the sponsored post

Given my historic predilection for writing about (allegedly) unsexy topics such as congestion pricing, volunteering in retirement, and participatory urban development, it’s no wonder that when Katarina “Don’t Wait for Permission to be Awesome” Hybenova, founder of Bushwick Daily, needs someone to write a sponsored post about a local credit union or end-of-life planning, she rings my bell.

Think unsexy thoughts Simpsons Barney

“Think unsexy thoughts… Think unsexy thoughts…”

I will admit that the idea of writing sponsored articles sat a little uneasily with me at first, because I’m generally angered and saddened by advertising’s incessant and ever-deepening march into every aspect our lives. That said!, if boss little publications like Bushwick Daily are to keep the lights on (and I sure hope they do), someone’s got to foot the bill. If that boils down to a choice between giving readers free access to the site in exchange for throwing some sidebar ads and commissioned stories into the mix, or making readers pay individually to fund BD‘s work, I’ll go with the former.

You know what, though? In this case, it’s not even as doom-and-gloom as that. The kinds of organizations that support BD are pretty much the best kinds of organizations: they’re grassroots neighborhood staples, self-made small businesses, international nonprofits—even startups on a mission to make clean power cheaper! So really, how could I complain?

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need advertising—but heck, we wouldn’t need money, either! So until Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping become our president and congress, respectively, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about these boss organizations on one of the best little blogs in Brooklyn, and that you’ll support your own local micro-journalism outlets in whatever way best floats your boat.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!

I co-authored a white paper!

You can probably tell by the excited tone of that title that I’ve never worked for the government (except as a census-taker! those were good times) or for any other organization that produces white papers. Therefore, my first experience with writing one was exciting and heady. And it made me Google “what is a white paper?”

I think I get it now, and that’s a good thing, because my name is on it—right there on page 12 of “Unoffice the Office: Emerging Opportunities to Advance the Human-centered Workplace,” which I helped my client PLASTARC to author for their client west elm WORKSPACE (so many caps!).

West Elm Workspace Unoffice the Office White Paper

Here ’tis!

While you might not imagine that reading a good 10 straight pages of social science research about how best to design workplace interiors would be a good use of your time, I just might beg to differ! Take, for example, this golden nugget about the roots of “collaboration” and “community,” two big buzzwords in the workplace world today:

Great inspiration for this research can come from one particularly multipurpose and unifying item of furniture: the ubiquitous kitchen table. In our homes, this one object is the literal and figurative epicenter of activity for both individual and collaborative work. We don’t have different tables for each task we do; we just clear the surface off and start something else! Why does this method work, and work so easily?

Building on the basic hierarchy of human needs described by Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, modern psychologists have posited that spiritual and cultural values must be integrated into design to give individuals a sense of a space’s meaning and of “collective well-being”—a combination of social cohesion, a sense of community and rootedness, and the presence of enduring links to place. Collective well-being is a broad and essential goal of workplace design, but it’s not a complicated one to meet.

Within families, individuals feel a sense of shared values and a sense of rootedness; at our kitchen tables, we feel the presence of an enduring place, one we can rely on to support whatever work we’re doing, be it individual or group-based. We can translate this community-centric spatial model—this central activity hub for meeting, talking, learning, creating (and, of course, eating)—from the home to the workplace by providing employees with functional, multipurpose, group-sized amenities. Simple furnishings that are easy to transform radiate a sense of residential familiarity that can do wonders for engendering professional cooperation.

See? Not boring!

Perhaps just as importantly, I think we steered clear of That White Paper Guy’s top ten “worst practices.” (Whether you’re going by the photo at the top left of him with short hair, or the one at the bottom of him with longer hair, I do not want to get on this pink-shirted fellow’s bad side!)

Hey Brooklyn: Divest from filth, get help with your taxes, & eat free pizza*

Brooklyn is home to so many great institutions: BAM, the Wonder WheelChamps Diner.

I recently added a new favorite to my list: the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union!

At the behest of Bushwick Daily, I attended a free workshop at Brooklyn Cooperative last month called Tax Tips for Freelancers. Not only did I soak up some sound tax advice, I also…

  • Met a bunch of cool fellow freelancers—among them a party planner, a bike messenger, and a soap maker (so fun)
  • Spoke at length with two of the credit union’s knowledgeable and righteous employees—one of whom also teaches self-defense and leads tours in Cuba!
  • Was offered some great-looking free pizza, which I only turned down because I had just eaten (but I’ll come prepared next time; oh yes I will)
Pizza and money gif

While I cannot argue with this sentiment, our event went a lot better than this

Just as importantly, I was also turned on to some crucial information about credit unions that I had sort of failed to internalize before, such as the fact that they’re nonprofit organizations. Credit unions are owned by members (not shareholders), so they don’t have a business’s usual mandate to make money—just a mission to offer fair and affordable financial services to their community. They also don’t invest members’ money in the stock market, earning their income instead by making fair rate loans and charging small fees for some types of accounts.

Sounds fresh, right?

A Brooklyn Cooperative employee (the self-defense person, actually) offered this nice call to action: “If you’re interested in divesting from banks that fund pipelines and contribute to the housing crisis, switching your checking and savings accounts to a credit union is a great choice.”

I’m on it, Brooklyn Cooperative! Thanks for the timely inspiration.

Read the whole fun-filled, fact-filled article on Bushwick Daily.

*While Brooklyn usually feels like the center of -slash only place in the universe to me, I understand there are credit unions all over the country. Woo hoo! Can’t say they all offer free pizza at their free workshops, though. If you find out, let me know.

In freelancing, as in hair metal, what goes around comes around (sometimes)

In the thrill-a-minute world of freelance writing (I am only half joking there), clients can come and go as unexpectedly as the Red Bull van that pulls up beside the park and starts handing out free energy drinks. (Or am I the only one who’s witnessed that?)

Red Bull energy drink giveaway

Have you seen me?

This unpredictable ebb and flow can of course be a source of consternation for freelancers, but on balance over the past two-plus years, I’ve found it to be mostly energizing—as well as a good way to practice living in the moment: it’s unwise to become attached to even one’s most cherished clients, as you never know when they might, I don’t know, move to Canada and change their whole business model, or decide that you’ve been so helpful that they now want to hire a full-time person to do what you’ve been doing for them freelance. (Both of those things did indeed happen to me this year.)

While I’ve learned to feel less disappointment when great clients depart, I still feel untempered enthusiasm when they arrive—or, in the cases below, when they re-arrive! (Shoutout to my James Joyce people: both of these clients rearrive[d] from North Armorica. If that means what I think it does, which is debatable.)

Here’s a hearty “hello again!” to:

Sarah Lawrence College

College student in a community garden

SLC student Tenn Joe Lim: “These gardens have taught me about the agency we all have within communal spaces.”

I’ve been working in different capacities with the terrific people at this singular institution since fall 2014 (and boy is my brain getting a workout). Last month, they brought me on as Assistant Editor of their terrific magazine, Sarah Lawrence. I’m super-psyched to keep writing stories for them (like this profile of a student who’s teaching kids in a local community garden), as well as learn more about the inner workings of such a venerable publication.

PLASTARC

Architects

Some of our best and brightest at the Center for Architecture in NYC

It’s plastic (in this case, denoting malleability)! It’s architecture! It’s BOTH!

I met this workplace design consultancy’s ingenious founder Melissa Marsh at the Wood at Work conference last year, and helped her with some one-off writing projects this year. Recently, she’s decided to step up her company’s editorial game and has been showing me the PLASTARC ropes: their monthly newsletter, thoughtful event summaries, and the many guest contributions they make to industry publications. One of my fun gigs this fall was reporting on a public program called, “I Love This Place! Social Research-Driven Design.”

I’m very happy to be embarking on a new year with these two terrific new-ish clients. While I might find the lyrics to some Ratt songs as obscure as lines from Ulysses, I think I know what they mean when they sing:

Round and round
With love we’ll find a way just give it time
Round and round
What comes around goes around
I’ll tell you why
Dig

Yeah?

Freelancers’ lunch

We shoulda been in pictures!

But we weren’t, because we were too busy talking and making awesome connections. (So I’m pasting some non-in situ photos and links here.)

 Kaiti

 

 

 

 

 

Today, my friends Alison (an honest and passionate real estate agent) and Kaiti (an incisive and graceful designer and developer) convened our first Freelancers’ Lunch, an opportunity for a half-dozen (okay, seven) fun entrepreneurial types to talk about what we do, ask each other questions and seek advice, and see if any biz connections came readily to mind. (Yes, this was also the outgrowth of our semi-hashed summer experiment: Trying to Form a BNI Group in North Brooklyn. Only Alison succeeded with her burgeoning Influentials group. Go Alison!!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I knew I’d have fun with these guys; I know them all (and many of them already knew each other) and was looking forward to having lunch with them no matter what. But I was truly surprised by how much we had to offer each other—especially considering how many of us were already friends!

  • A former intern of Claire’s might be able to do some work for Kaiti.
  • Alison knows someone working on a film that Mike could possibly do sound for.
  • Kaiti wants to introduce recording engineer Lily to a badass female bass player she knows.

The connections probably numbered in the dozens, and everyone took care to make actual notes to follow up (that’s right—I don’t do business with flakes).

Claire Taylor Hansen Lily

 

 

 

 

 

 

And even beyond potential work introductions, people were batting a thousand:

“I’d like to meet a good mortgage broker…”

“Do you know of a good, free CRM?”

“What’s a nice restaurant downtown for client lunches?”

DONE.

We’re planning to convene again after the holidays, and will try to get a few more heads in the mix. Even though I’m a classic hippy-dippy, bleeding-heart people person, I admit I doubted the power of the personal network at the beginning of my freelance life. But I’ve gotten 90% of my rent-making business in the past year through personal connections, and 90% of my clients have been absolute joys to work with (the other 10% weren’t rotten, either).

So I can now personally attest to the professional as well as personal efficacy of keeping your relationships up. Talk to people you like: tell them what you need and listen to what they need. Then write it down and follow up.

Repeat. Enjoy.