What I learned in 2010 about making a living: Everything Is Generative


I cross-posted this on Freelancer Hacks, but I don’t think anyone’s reading that anymore, and I want to get this down, even if it’s only for myself. The most important lesson I learned about successful, productive freelancing in 2010 was this: everything is generative.

In plain English, that means this: Doing trumps planning. There’s no such thing as wasted work or projects. And whatever you do almost always snowballs into more of the same…whether you like it or not.

Case study: In 2010, I soft-relaunched my online-video production studio, Small Mammal, after letting it hibernate for a year following a painful (but amicable) split with my co-founder. I say “soft-relaunched” because the idea of doing a formal “Hello World” thing all over again with a new website and business plan and client-hunting strategy and all the rest literally gave me ulcers to even contemplate. I just wanted to do the work, when I had it, and continue my freelance writing when I didn’t… and not worry about the formal, outward-facing aspects of my in-name-only “company.”

So that’s what I did. A small one-off project for NPR in 2009 that I didn’t even pitch (they randomly found me from a long-defunct science series I created) snowballed into half a dozen more projects throughout ’10. Same thing with Nature.com. Same thing with Ars Technica. The less I “strategized” and the more I just did, the more work rolled in — almost of its own accord. I didn’t make a ton of money, but it was the best year I’d ever had, financially, as a freelancer. And most of it was video work “through” Small Mammal, even though my website sucked and I never established an LLC. (I’m happy to say I did redo the site, finally, but it was only at the end of the year!)

And the stuff I didn’t like doing, or even hated — it wasn’t wasted time. I gained reporting experience, producing experience, contacts… even business intelligence, even if it was just “never pitch that magazine section again.” That stuff often snowballs in unpredictable, useful, remunerative ways as well.

Everything is generative. Work begets work. Plans have their place, but we all know what Lennon said about them.

So that’s the good news. The bad news — well not really “bad,” although it could be bad if you let it — is that it works in reverse as well. That’s what I’m learning already in 2011. What you do — literally do, not say you do or wish you do — tends to create more of itself whether you want it to or not.

Case study: I’ve made a few well-regarded iPad app promos for some cool clients. Now, other people are seeing them and I end up making more. In fact, I’m doing one now with another hot on its heels. This is a good thing. But there are only so many hours in my workday — or workweek, or workyear. How do I want to spend them?

I recently had to turn down two science writing assignments that I’d have loved to do, because I simply don’t have time given my previous app-promo-video commitments. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even a “bad” thing: I know from experience that trying to stuff 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag just ends in tears. And other opportunities will come. But it made me remember/consider: just because you’re busy as a freelancer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the work you ideally want to be doing (or in my case, having the balance I want to be having). Hell, that’s usually the norm. But it doesn’t have to be.

I can interpret this little blip in several different ways, regarding my business:

  • Maybe I need to expand/hire help. But that creates administrative headaches I don’t want, and probably can’t afford anyway.
  • Maybe I need to not say “yes” to (almost) every opportunity. Hm, perhaps, but I don’t think I’m in that much demand for such a policy to make sense, especially in this economy.
  • Maybe I just need to decide to do what I want to be doing, as often as I can. That seems to make the most sense. If I want a better balance between promotional work and my science writing, I should choose to do more science writing and less promotional work. The more I mentally orient towards that “want,” the more I’ll notice appropriate opportunities and the more I will do with them, which will create more such opportunities. (Or, even better, perhaps I will notice better synergies between promotional/video and science writing that I can exploit to converge upon that desired balance.)

I also noticed that I’ve been adding to my drawerful of “dream feature” ideas for oh, about five years, but have not yet had any of them published. Maybe that’s because I rarely pull one of those ideas out and say, “Today I am going to knock this into shape as an actual pitch.” No, usually I’m too busy working on something else more important (ie: something I feel more secure about making money from). But that’s not “the world” or “the economy” making that decision, it’s me. The same me that feels disappointed that those features are still unwritten. Well, whose fault is that?

On the flip side, last fall I decided I wanted to be blogging more often… for money. I didn’t make a big honking deal out of writing out all my possible targets and devising the perfect way to pitch myself. I just paid attention to that desire and acted on it right then when I noticed opportunities. A couple months later I had two regular, paid blogging gigs. Then I had the enviable task of choosing between them.

I’m not bragging here, and I’m not getting all “The Secret” on you. Willing something to happen won’t magically make it happen. But if you look at what you spent most of your time working on in the last week, month, year, and it doesn’t seem ideal for whatever reason, the first (only?) way to change that is to stop doing that and start doing something else. Not schedule it, fantasize about it, or analyze it. Just do it. Make your own luck. There is no try. Whatever damn slogan you prefer, the bottom line is: everything is generative. But you have to do the generating.

Happy new year!


7 Responses to “What I learned in 2010 about making a living: Everything Is Generative”

  1. * Anyone who has a five year backlog of dream features under his hat needs a side-gig as an assignment editor, but maybe that’s just me. Sometimes I feel like stories want to be told, and I’m just here to make sure it happens. There are probably forms of collaboration / delegation you would be happy with, but maybe you haven’t tried them yet.

    * The funny thing about saying no is that at first, it’s thrilling: ‘hey, I can dump this client I’m not so fond of!’ But then, eventually, you’re saying no to projects that, a few years ago, you would have crawled through the baking desert to get. And then it’s like “what the hell?” and it doesn’t feel good at all.

    Something about the anxiety of not having a steady paycheck, even when I know I’m hitting my income target, makes my freelancer self into a glutton. Also, even when I’m working on projects I love, it’s easier, during the inevitable moments of drudgery, to have that grass-is-greener feeling about other projects I could be doing. Nothing is more attractive than a sparkly, far-off ‘good idea,’ and I never seem to be able to remember how much work it is to reach it.

  2. “Five year backlog”… ha. More like junk drawer filled with five years worth of intellectual flotsam/jetsam and half-baked notions… many of which may not have turned into features because they really didn’t warrant it. But I have to take responsibility for the sheer “not-doing-it”ness of it, too.

  3. Been thinking about this a whole lot myself, in a similar context of having way more ideas than I have execution and that’s clearly not the way to get good work done.

    I’ve ended up joining up with a small group of people and we’re acting as each other’s bosses on the work we say we want to get done. So when we don’t, you know, DO it, someone points out that this is idiotic and then we scramble according to these somewhat external pressure.

    Or at least that’s the plan.

    • This is a fantastic idea! are you doing it “virtually,” or are you planning to all work ina shared space of some kind?

      Let me know how it goes — I might want to petition to join your cabal…

  4. Likewise — count me in as well!

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