017 / Six Months Out
August 23, 2021


It’s been just over six months since I returned to working as a freelancer, and I thought it would be an opportune time to collect some thoughts and realizations.

REMEMBERING WHY I WENT BACK TO FREELANCE WORK

Just before the pandemic started, an old friend and collaborator of mine visited me in Amsterdam. We had worked together on numerous design projects in Philadelphia together as freelancers. He was still a freelancer at the moment, working regularly for a large corporate client. For him, in some ways it had started to feel like a job (it would soon turn into one, although I hear he is quitting again). I was employed full time at TBWA and adjusting to having to go into the office on a regular basis, and to dealing with the associated office politics and institutional malaise.

My friend reminded me about the people that have had 9 to 5 of jobs their entire lives. Many of them were not particularly competent nor talented, they were just good at showing up. After a long enough period of just sticking around, they had been promoted up the ladder into positions of power. They wore golden handcuffs. I was worried I was in the process of building my own. An escape plan was needed. I quickly faced facts: getting out of my comfort zone was not an easy task when I was getting a regular paycheck - even if I was tricking myself into thinking I was actually freelance. I needed to do work that has real value, that has impact, that is deep. Not something that anyone else could do.

I had to be careful to not make the mistake of finally moving out of the USA just to end up having a normal 9 to 5 job here in the Netherlands. I wanted to go back to being a freelancer, and to struggling with the question of “What am I supposed to do?” instead of letting that question be answered, or more accurately, letting myself be distracted from the trouble of having to answer it, by having a full-time job.

STARTING A BUSINESS CAN GIVE YOU CLARITY

It forces you to consider what you want to do, and how much responsibility and choice you want to have over what you put your time and energy towards. When I started my design studio in the United States, in the official sense I mean, with a Tax ID number and the payment of the associated taxes, I was 25. For me, starting the business was a way to imagine myself out of my neighborhood, and to forge contacts with a social and economic reality that my parents did not know. It was a role, even if only vaguely outlined, that I could inhabit.

When I first started working in Amsterdam as a freelancer in 2018, I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to work because of my Visa status. As an American, my instinct was to avoid all contact with the tax authorities, if for no other reason than not wanting to spend two hours on hold before finally reaching someone at the IRS who would not be able to answer my question anyway.

Here, once I found out that I was indeed able to work as a freelancer with full access to the labor market, I immediately made an appointment at the KVK (Kamer Van Koophandel, this is equivalent to the Chamber of Commerce). The Amsterdam office was booked for two weeks. This wasn’t good. I had an offer to work at a great day rate, effective immediately, so everyday that passed without this paperwork was a day that I wasn’t getting paid. Luckily I was able to find an appointment in the nearby city of Amersfoort for the next day. I took the 40 minute train ride, sat with the clerk for 30 minutes, did all of the necessary paperwork, paid a 65 euro fee, and I had a business in the Netherlands. The form of the business was an eenmanzaak, similar in many ways to an LLC.

Naturally, not everyone can work for themselves as a freelancer or entrepreneur. And this is no value judgement. I know plenty of people who derive an immense amount of satisfaction and pride from their employment. I’m not saying that people with a job are suckers and that the only way to freedom is to be independent. There are trade-offs in whichever route one might choose, and I can only speak to what works for me. In my current situation, it’s very important that I have the time to pursue my physical and mental training through things like Muay Thai, mediation, reading and studying, as well as putting time into my relationship, and it’s hard to do this when I am on someone else’s schedule. For this reason, as well as a temperamental disposition, I find it easiest and most productive to work as a freelancer and in small teams.

I found this quote by Anne Dillard accurate:

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.”

Small choices we make each day add up and compound. I realized that everyday I was working for someone else, I wasn’t dealing with the question of what I should be doing. I may never have the answer, but I want to be sure that I am trying to find it.

BUT REMEMBER, THE WORK DOES NOT DEFINE WHO YOU ARE

A good linguistic trick I learned from my therapist is to say “I’m Anthony Smyrski, I work AS a designer or art director,” or “I am trained in or have X years experience working as a design strategist.” By refraining from saying “I AM a graphic designer” or whatever job you have, you can mentally separate the work from your deeper self, which cannot be so simply defined. I think this is incredibly important to keep clear in one’s psyche.

A REMINDER ABOUT PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY

When my great grandfather immigrated to Philadelphia from Poland to escape the uncertain political situation and the famine endemic to the region, one of his first jobs was making stained glass windows for Catholic churches. He also held two U.S. Government patents (one for shock-absorbing tires and the other for an anti-torpedo defense system for merchant and military ships). The tire patent was bought by Ford motors, and he used the proceeds to open up the bar in South Philadelphia. Not bad for a farmer from eastern Poland that had been in the United States for less than 10 years.

Late in his life, my Great Grandfather would take up oil painting. My Grandfather, my Uncle John and my Father were also hobbyist oil-painters. For them, making art was a past-time, they didn’t have the option of making it into a living.

It’s a reminder that not that many people have the options that I have, specifically to make money making art. Throughout the generations of work that my relatives endured, they did not have this option, even if they may have been so inclined. Of course, today’s world is different - economically, socially and culturally. I am free, for better or worse, from many of the constraints of family, tradition and religion that determine which path in life even someone from a generation as recent as my Fathers would take. Would he, my great grandfather Karol, or my grandfather Anthony pursued a life as an artist or person working in a creative industry if they had the chance? It’s hard to say. What is clear is that I owe it to them to utilize my talent and to cash the check they wrote a long time ago. I have the responsibility to show up, listen to the story I need to tell, and then create what I feel needs to be made.



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