I NEVER HAD A JOB
Before moving to Amsterdam, I worked as an independent designer and consultant for over 15 years. At times I had a number of people working for me out of my studio, and at other times it was just me working on a laptop out of my bedroom or local coffee shop. I really valued the freedom and flexibility that this lifestyle provided.
I somehow managed to do all of this right out of college, and I never had a 9 to 5 job. I still think my Dad isn’t quite sure what I do, and I frequently suffered from the issue of not quite being able to explain what my job was to friends from the neighborhood.
I really loved working as a freelance designer - it is a way to interact with so many people from different backgrounds and fields - each job is a chance to learn something new, and to add your voice into the conversation.
Concepts like the working week and a vacation schedule were completely foreign to me. So were HR departments, resumes, status meetings, job interviews, time sheets, and office gossip and politics. I thought of myself as a freeman.
Being free from all this noise did have obvious advantages. But despite this, I often wondered if there was something I was missing out on because I never worked a full time job. Was there a price I was paying for immersing myself so deeply in my own work? It felt like something was missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was.
During my first year in graduate school at the Sandberg Instituut, I intentionally slowed down the amount of freelance work I was doing, as I wanted to focus attention on my studies. But by the beginning of year two, I was getting antsy - I missed concrete outcomes. I wanted to have the feeling of completing a project, and of being involved in the business side of things which is part of any freelance practice. The answer to my restlessness feeling came in the form of a phone call.
I was sitting on a tram in Amsterdam one afternoon heading to meet a friend for a drink. My phone rang. I usually don’t answer unknown calls, but I picked it up anyway. The voice on the other end was distinctly American. I even thought I could identify it as from the Bay area on the West Coast.
The man on the phone told me his name was Andre and that he was a friend of Barney, one of my fellow graduate students. He said he was a creative director at TBWA, an international advertising agency, and he asked me if I was free tomorrow to come in to do some design work on a project for adidas. Even though tomorrow was a Saturday, I had nothing important going on so I agreed.
Advertising was not the type of work I had much experience with. I never imagined working in a large agency, let alone for in advertising. I also thought that this was going to be a short gig, just a project that would last a week or two, a month at the most.
Soon a year of freelancing almost exclusively for TBWA went by. Although technically a freelancer, I was at the TBWA office all the time because there was so much work to do. It was a humbling experience that caused me to reevaluate many arrogant assumptions that I had about so-called “normal jobs”. It’s one thing to turn your nose up at people with jobs. But it is not fair to do this until you experience what having a job is truly like.
I soon realized that it is not so easy to leave at 3pm, even when you are a freelancer and your work is done. You feel like a jerk waltzing out to the elevator while everyone else is counting down the hours. You also see how bad decisions get made, how group think takes over, and how people become afraid to question the way things are, even if it would make their lives easier and the work better.
Then, in August of 2019, I officially accepted a full time job at TBWA, officially leaving my life as a freelancer behind. The job imposed structure, and narrowed my options. It was a welcome change to the way I approached my practice as a designer. As a freelancer I was the one solely responsible for payroll, and often decisions had to be made about whether or not to take a job for financial reasons, and not always whether or not the project reflected the type of work I wanted to do. Boundaries between my personal and professional life weren’t clear. The working day and working week seemed to never end. Now, as an employed person with a job title, my responsibilities were narrowed.
But this concentration of focus counterintuitively gave me more freedom. It’s a process of elimination. I was able to organize the rest of my life around this new framework. I began to devote time to other aspects of my personal, emotional, mental and physical self that I had not paid enough attention to when I was running my own studio.
It’s funny, but I got so much push back, especially from other freelance artists or designers, about this idea that adding constraints makes you more creative, more free… people can’t seem to accept it.
They believe they need to have total freedom to do whatever they want, but we only need to look at some of the best art and design to know that constraints help us produce some of the most long lasting work that resonates with the most people.
THE BEHIND THE SCENES PROJECT
I always strongly identified with my role as designer/artist/small business owner. Being a designer was how I got in touch with the cool people in bands, I designed their album covers and flyers. Same thing for people who were artists and architects.
Through design, I was able to be a part of an interesting group of people that was doing interesting things. The trouble, I realize now, is that I was always designing for them. Self doubt always lingered. What was I doing myself, for myself, that was cool? How was I contributing something of my own instead of just making others look cool.
The problem was that I didn’t fully understand who I was, so how could I make anything genuine of my own? It was easier to make things for others. The mask of designer allowed me to procrastinate. I didn’t have to answer the question.
Not being able to answer questions like this was one of the biggest prices I paid for choosing the freelance lifestyle. Despite the benefits I enjoyed until I became an employee at TBWA - independence of viewpoint and self-sufficiency high on the list - I never found the time to develop ability to properly separate my work life and my personal life.
Because of this, the majority of my attention went toward developing my professional side, and in cultivating relationships with clients, funders and others in the professional community and art world. All the while, I was neglecting developing a deeper understanding of my inner-self and personality. For a creative person, this is very dangerous. This type of self-knowledge is what serves as a long-term source of creative inspiration and motivation, and one is to ill-advised to leave it by the way side.
I saw a full time job as a way to generate a steady source of income and as a life structuring device that afforded time and space to find out for real who I was and what I wanted to do. Who says that 39 is too late?
I now had the opportunity to shine a flash light on many aspects of my psyche and past. By doing so, I was able to rediscover many things about myself. Naturally, some of these realizations were painful to face. But they were also rejuvenating, and I began to remember what had drawn me to the world of art and creativity in the first place. I began to connect with this fascination again on an individual level, and without all the complications that the art or design world laid on top of it.
The constraints and stability of my full-time job have allowed me to come to terms with realizations like this. By letting go of the role of designer/artist/business owner, and becoming just an employee, I opened the door to finally inspecting what was going on elsewhere in my life.
For these past two years, I have been able to focus on a bigger behind the scenes project … myself. It’s a project that I always procrastinated with in the past, even purposefully neglected, the one I had been putting off for many years, covering up with work, travel, events, often just busyness for busyness sake.
That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a lot of valuable lessons about design, leadership and project management while there. I’m going to go into detail about that stuff in future writings. But first it was more important to become the best me possible, or at least set myself on that course. I wanted to more deeply inhabit my creative potential and have a more honest relationship with my work and with myself. It was a matter of the right opportunity presenting itself at the right time, and even though I had always been resistant to being an employee, it was the right decision. I don’t believe I’d be in the mental and physical condition I am in today if I hadn’t taken it.
That said, I recently quit and am returning to freelance. I’ll write more about why I’m excited to build my independent design practice again here in the Netherlands in an upcoming edition of the Random Embassy Papers!