The isolation/freedom dichotomy of self-employment

XO, the financial therapist

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

I quit my office job last June in what I thought would be a liberating, career-boosting move. I expected to bask in the freedom of self-employed work, but instead it left me feeling isolated.

Quitting was not an easy decision. My office job was a few minutes’ walk from my apartment, and I had many friends there, but while it was within the industry I loved, the position wasn’t.

I ended up applying for and receiving federal funding for a project that would need to be completed in four months’ time. Seeing that I had so much to do before the deadline, I took the leap and quit.

However, I didn’t have anything planned for after the four months of self-employment work ended. So after my project was submitted, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. I took the opportunity to apply for funding for more of my own projects, like many artists do.

But sitting in my home office day in and day out, working on projects that might never see the light of day and that no one knew I was working on, I felt like I was living in a bubble of my own making, where no one could see or hear me.

I didn’t have coworkers to measure myself against, bonuses to hit, favours to curry. I found it hard to contextualise myself within my industry, because I didn’t live in the context of a workplace anymore. I just had myself, and I hadn’t anticipated needing to not only create my own work, but my own workplace, too.

I discovered that while I love being able to bring my ideas to life and be my own boss, I felt like I missed (and maybe needed) the external validation of an employer or client. What I needed was for someone to reach out and say “I have this project that I would love for you to work on. Are you in?”

I realized I wanted to be needed. I wanted someone to say “Good job!” now and then. It wasn’t enough for me to make art and hope that it was decent enough.

So I cold-called old and new clients. Updated them on what I was doing and what I wanted to do, on what I could do for them. Amazingly, I received a few offers that I was elated to take on. I felt needed, my skills validated and my self-employed existence justified. I joyfully embarked on new projects that weren’t my own.

I now know that, for me, the right balance as a self-employed artist is a healthy mix of personal projects and external contracts. I also know that I need to put in the time to make myself relevant within my own industry and constantly work to remind others that I exist. Work won’t come to me. I need to chase it.

Self-employment is hard, and it isn’t for everyone, but now that I’ve created my own bubble, I never want to leave.

Elena Sturk-Lussier is a filmmaker with an MSc in creative writing and a penchant for romance novels.

Published in Volume 78, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 28, 2024)

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