Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The loneliness of the long-distance worker

(With apologies to Richardson, Redgrave et al)

Tomorrow, Learning Anorak Ltd begins its third year of existence, so I thought I'd share some reflections on the journey to date.

I have found the flexibility of being able to work my own hours enormously liberating. At one stage, I had a project that had overrun (not my fault, honest!) and two more that had just begun. One of them was a small piece of work, while the other two were pretty hefty. By dint of putting in stupid hours, I was able to meet the (revised) deadlines on all of them. Because of the way invoicing works, there is mileage in doing this. However, when you work for 'the man', you get paid what you get paid, regardless of the hours you put in. Also, once you start putting in hours like that, the expectation will be that you continue to do so, which is not good for your health or your family life. I knew that my contracts would come to an end and that there might be a quiet period to follow.

I have been able to attend a morning Pilates class once a week, and ferry my sons to and from the station for school. When my Mom came over for my graduation, I was able to take time out to spend with her, and we travelled hither and yon, taking in the sights.

My own learning journey has been more flexible, since I don't have to apply for time out or budget every time I want to sign up for something. On the flip side, however, without a behemoth L&D department with learning resources (and yes, even courses) on offer, I have had to track down my own, and this isn't always easy or quick.

I have found the isolation difficult to deal with. Those who know me personally will know that I am a gregarious soul, not designed to spend huge chunks of time alone. When I am rushed off my feet, this isn't too much of a problem, but when I have down time, it can be quite dire.

I am also frustrated by my own limitations. If something falls outside of my skill set, it falls outside of Learning Anorak's skill set. Of course there are ways around this situation:

I could join forces with someone who already has those skills or I could sub-contract that work to someone/an organisation who specialises in that area. There is a subtle difference between those two things, and I belong to a massive international, informal network (of which you are part, by the way) with all manner of possibilities. But sometimes, there isn't the time to find someone or to negotiate a contract with an organisation before an answer is needed.

I suck monumentally at the accounts side of the business. So I engaged a firm of accountants. We got off to a very shaky start and have only just hit our stride after a very frank meeting yesterday afternoon. It has taken a while, but I now have confidence that I am in the hands of someone who understands and will cater to my level of ineptitude.

One of the most significant experiences was earlier this year, when I was right royally played by a wilier organisation who used me to gain a foothold in Europe. That was the beginning of a very lean period, during which my accountant even tentatively used the L-word. I have been advised by many people who know about these things, that I had a case to take legal action. However, I knew (as did the other party, no doubt) that being 'just me' meant that spending time on building my case would mean taking time away from the pursuit of much needed work to take up the slack that now faced me. We also both knew that I didn't have the readies to appoint a lawyer, whereas they probably have several on retainer. The fact that we are based on two different continents added another obstacle. I decided to let it go.

I also find that being 'just me' means that, when I hit a personal rough patch, my business hits a rough patch. I am able to zone things out if I am working on a specific project, but if I'm just fiddling about with admin-type things, it's easy to lose motivation.

On a personal level, being home-based also means there is a danger of not leaving the office. It takes real discipline, when I'm 'in the zone' (for want of a less cliched term), to down tools and go and prepare dinner for my family. I'm a pretty good cook and I enjoy preparing food, but, when I'm caught up in something, it's a real wrench to set it aside. I consciously remind myself that my family is the reason that I work, not an intrusion upon it.

At this moment, I have just begun a new project which will keep the meter running for a few months. But the process of drumming up new business is also something I find daunting. Once contact has been made, I'm fine. It's the identification of leads I struggle with. In this, I have truly come to value my network. Most leads are referrals from people I know.

So there you have it, two years and counting. A no holds barred account. If you're also a solo act, much of this will be known to you (please share). If you're thinking of going it alone, you may have thought about these things already (please share), but if you haven't, I hope that I have given you some food for thought.


Harold Jarche said...

Yes, that pretty well describes my life for the past 7 years, including non-payment by clients. However, if you can make it work, it's a grand life.

V Yonkers said...

I liked your comment about working so you can spend time with your family and not the other way around. One reason I'm no longer self employed has to do with what you are struggling with...not wanting to look for the next contract. I also had problems following through with the invoicing and getting paid. Even when I needed the money, I just couldn't seem to find the time to send out the invoices or, as Harold mentions, dunning clients who have not paid up.

Meri Walker said...

It's lovely to hear your authentic story told in such an authentic voice. This is just the way it is... and either we find a way to enjoy it or we don't. The trouble is, there are fewer and fewer possibilities to do meaningful work in any other way - at least that's my experience.

Rave on, sister! And if you're too lonely, give me a holler on Skype: msmarchhare. I've been out here on my own since 1991, for the latest stint, so I guess I'm a bit "seasoned" now. The times when I'm hanging on my the fingernails are less frightening now. No less frequent. No less daunting. Just less frightening...

The upsycho said...

@Virginia Thanks. Yes - one needs to keep things in perspective. I once read something along the lines of 'no-one's famous last words have ever been "I wish I'd spent more time in the office."' Corny, but it stuck with me.

@Meri I think this is your first comment on my blog, so thanks for taking the time to do so. You certainly are a seasoned campaigner!

May we both have the opportunity to do something 'meaningful' for a client sometime soon, eh?