What do you do when you are misunderstood? When your work or life style is not congruent with others’ expectations? How do you handle going against the grain when all the tenets of “success” in your society are rooted in very specific notions? How do you stay true – to your purpose, your passion, your very self – when the expectations swing the other way? Is it even worth trying – are you just fighting a losing battle? These are some of the many existential questions that will unleash themselves upon you when you decide to go the freelancer route.
What exactly is freelancing?
Two years ago I started planning my exit from the corporate world. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what I would do once I left – whether I would simply take a break and find another organization to join; start my own business; or do something in-between. Eventually, it became clear that “something in-between” was the best fit and thus, I became a solopreneur (solo entrepreneur) and freelancer.
What’s freelancing? From my understanding and experience, it’s offering your services to a variety of clients, usually on a short term basis, and earning an income by the hour, by day, or by contract terms. No monthly salary guaranteed regardless of whether you work or not. In other words, a freelancer is someone who is self-employed and works independently without earning a regular salary or being attached to one specific employer.
So far, it’s been a fulfilling journey and I’ve found a good balance in working in both digital media and international development. I also love the flexibility freelancing affords me to choose jobs I’m actually interested in or passionate about; the fact that I don’t have to sacrifice creativity in pursuit of an income. Then there are the learning opportunities that come with the diversity of projects I work on – from dabbling in multiple industries, gaining insight into and traveling to different countries, interacting and working alongside top-notch professionals and bright minds; and constantly being challenged to (re)think. That’s just to mention a few of my freelancing highlights. The mother of it all? Having more leeway in managing how I spend my time and being able to (re)design my life.
That said, it hasn’t been without it’s glitches – burnout for one and finding the right balance when it comes to work styles and self-supervision. There’s also dealing with clients who refuse to pay after work is complete – thankfully it’s happened to me only once, although I have heard a number of horror stories. But all that pales in comparison to being misunderstood. To the fact that many actually don’t consider freelancing – what I do – as “work”.
My experience as a freelancer
Say what? Yes, you read right. All the hours spent researching, crafting content, taking, editing and publishing photos, drafting policy briefs, organizing and participating in events, handling public relations, invoicing, training small and medium businesses on digital marketing tools, delivering presentations, managing a team, collaborating, brand building, meeting clients – the list goes on – apparently does not constitute work. At least not (yet) by Ghanaian standards. At best, it could be considered a hobby or if you must, a temporary job – something you do while you’re on the lookout for your next ‘real job’. Am I speaking from personal experience? Countless.
“So, when are you going to get a real job?”
“Oh, but this one too, abi you can just do it for free.”
“Chilling madam! Always gallivanting somewhere around the world.”
It’s been almost two years into my freelancing career, and I haven’t wanted for work. But that doesn’t stop people, including some family and friends, from passing on full-time job advertisements. My “I already have a job”, “I’m actually quite tied up right now,” or “Thanks, I’m actually interested in short-term consultancies,” seems to go right over people’s heads. Don’t get me wrong, it’s heartwarming knowing you have folks who look out for your well-being and are thoughtful enough to think of you when they see a job opportunity that seems to be a match. It’s also flattering to know so many companies want to work with you. However, imagine having to constantly explain why those jobs do not match your criteria or what you seek at this point in your career. It can be quite exhausting. Worse still, it ends up sending a subtle, but clear message that what you’re doing isn’t enough, valuable, or real.
It’s one thing when your social media followers see your photos and posts and assume you’re in vacation mode, it’s an entirely other thing when friends describe your business travels as gallivanting – note, the definition of ‘gallivant’ per the Merriam Webster online dictionary is “to travel, roam, or move about for pleasure” – even after you’ve told them exactly why you’re going to such and such country. The kicker for me was when someone suggested that not having a full-time salaried job was me being “non-commital” or “unsettled” – and that it would impede my marriage prospects.
It’s been quite disheartening to realize that my body of work, the very thing I take seriously, could be regarded as “unserious” even by some I hoped would understand. I started second-guessing myself and asking if I had made all the wrong decisions. I even found myself checking out some job boards once or twice. But then each time, something would stop me, a very simple question: are you fulfilled? Do you feel like you’re adding value, learning, being creative? And the answer to all that? A simple yes. Take another look at the tasks I listed above. Now, pray tell how different they are from what I would likely do within an organization. Probably not much difference, right? So what then is the most visible distinction between those who are embedded in or affiliated with one single organization and those who are not? The answer: an office space.
After returning to Ghana, I explored getting an office or securing a desk at a co-working space in Accra. The former proved to be too expensive for me with, lets be real, inconsistent income, and after factoring in transport and meals, the latter wasn’t too appealing either. In the end, I decided to work from home and coffee shops, thereby splitting the cost of rent, internet access, and lunch between my personal and business budgets.
A work space, a car, an employee badge, a boss. From my discussions with other Ghanaian and African entrepreneurs and freelancers these seem to be the key indicators of career and business success. And here I was, working from home, without a drivers’ license (much more a car), with no work badge or “boss” to speak of. I was aghast. How could these elements be more important than skills, expertise, networks, a proven track record of not just delivering but excelling? How could sitting in an office for eight hours a day be more important for generating real leads and signing on new clients? Mind-boggling, I know.
And yet, it doesn’t seem to be far from the truth as evidenced by the May 2017 episode between John Dumelo and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Graduate Godfred Obeng Boateng. Dumelo posted a photo on Instagram of the university graduate selling bread on Accra’s streets with the caption “Just saw a KNUST grad hawking in traffic…What went wrong?”. His post sparked an intense debate on work and 9-to-5 versus entrepreneurship, with many critics saying Dumelo had no right to post a photo of the business man in the first place and others taking offense to the tone of this caption.
“People don’t understand you. Until you get it done it’s just a dream, it’s just crazy. But I know what I’m doing.” – Godfred Obeng Boateng
As I stated in my Facebook post on the matter, I’m less concerned about the intentions behind Dumelo’s post – only he knows what they truly are, misconstrued or otherwise – than I am about the question he asks: what went wrong? It’s a relevant question and an opportunity to address a very important, yet little discussed issue: the culture of work and perceptions of success in Ghana and other African nations.
The value of work
Who is more important to society: the farmer or the doctor? Discuss.
Thousands, if not millions, of students in Ghana and Africa will be asked to answer some variation of this question in the course of their study. And so it begins, the pitting of white collar against blue collar, structure against rhythm, the moulding of perceptions that some work, jobs and titles are more valuable than others. As humans, we always seem to gravitate towards certainty, to simplifying the complex into a whole that we can digest easily with little mind to the granular elements that make up that whole.
Recent events in Ghana continuously hammer a point we overlook: there’s too much of a focus on the surface level, on appearances and the acquisition of material things. We exchange the hard conversations for a semblance of prosperity which conveniently covers up the hollowness with which we pursue our collective development. We’re more concerned with throwing labels on things – most peaceful nation, for instance – than actually addressing the skin-deep issues which might actually tell a different story.
Labels. We claim them, give them, run from and praise them. All of us use, know, and sometimes avoid them. But have we really stopped to consider how dangerous labels can be? That such an innocuous word could very well be a person’s undoing? People work for different reasons – to earn an income, to feel useful, to pass time, to gain experience and skills, to nurture themselves, because it’s what is expected, the list goes on. In the same vein, we value work differently. Yet regardless of how sophisticated or otherwise someone’s job might be, the fact is that each comes together to form the whole.
The farmer who grows vegetables and maize equally moves the engine of the nation as the doctor who tends the sick worker back to health. The university professor or researcher nurtures the intellectual nerves and wires of the engine, while the engineer figures out how to build a better body to keep that engine protected. The lawyer who draws up a system of rules contributes as much to the be-ing of that engine as does the musician who harps out notes that retune and refresh the passengers. The bread seller on Accra’s streets delivers the very food that thousands of children will eat before going to school to learn and figure out their part in the whole. Similarly, those who work with no other motivation than making an income or because it was “the only choice” end up doing more harm than good to the development of our country. And so, it’s clear that what we should be focused on is not the position or title (surface-level), but rather the value of the work being done and why (the essence).
Freelancer essentials: Self-definition & responsibility
Having done the 9-to-5 thing already, I know the perks that come with it: a guaranteed income, (sense of) security, credibility, community and the chance to leverage on an organization’s reputation. When eight or more hours of your day are spent with the same group of people for months on end, it also irrevocably influences one’s identity. These come in handy whether you’re answering the question “what do you do?” or need supporting documents for applying for a visa or loan, and quite honestly, make life a tad easier. When it comes to freelancing or entrepreneurship though, you need a different set of tools, two of which are self-definition and self-responsibility.It's your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you. - Rumi Click To Tweet
After spending weeks mulling over feeling misunderstood as a freelancer, I had a eureka moment, courtesy my good ol’ friend Rumi: you are responsible for your path. Earth-shattering right? It’s something I’ve turned to many times in the past, always in periods of being misunderstood or meeting challenges. The point is, anyone doing anything that is significantly outside the status quo will be misunderstood. I’m willing to bet Kwame Nkrumah and the Big Six were considered outcasts and rebellious, before they were revered. Before girls education became the expected thing – long before the “Send your girl child to school” song on GTV – it was considered abominable. Google tells me 55% of you reading are likely doing so from a mobile device, probably a smartphone. Yet when Apple first introduced it’s touchscreen iPhone, it was – your guess is as good as mine – misunderstood.
“So, what exactly do you do?”
This is a question I have always grappled with. At some points of my life it has been easy to answer – “I’m a student at…”, “I work at…”, “I’m the [insert title]…” – but as I’ve edged onto the solopreneur and freelancer path, I find that no single response is sufficient enough to capture the multitude of my interests, roles, passions, identities. One of my favorite awards was being recognized as the most “all-round student” in Wesley Girls High School’s class of 2004, by my own peers. I’ve been blessed not just with multiple talents, but with opportunities to explore those talents and delve into different versions of myself. The very definition of being a freelancer means you will pick up a wide range of skills along the way, and as time goes on, you’ll find that no one “role” or “title” will sufficiently encompass all that you do. And it shouldn’t. Because you are all those things.
We all are. The same woman who is a wife and a mother is a daughter, a sister, a student, a citizen. We are all these things and we are none of these things – for we know yet not all the other elements yet to be seen. The petals are still unfurling themselves. But then again, we can’t exactly delve into the complexities of self each time someone asks what we do, now can we? No. And so we pick threads of our story, the most appropriate face of our identity, an element of our self, and we present it to the outside world; easily digestible on a platter that may or may not invite further conversation. We define ourselves out of kindness to others, to make it easier for them to begin to understand us. But the important thing is that we do the defining ourselves. That we don’t forget how complex and simple we are all at once.We define ourselves as a kindness to others, the essential thing is to define ourselves. Click To Tweet
All this goes to say that whether you are a freelancer, creative or entrepreneur, being misunderstood comes with the territory. That does not mean it won’t sting when someone you think gets you says or does something to prove otherwise. No, that comes with being human. What it does mean however is that being aware of yourself, your responsibility to yourself, and of society’s expectations will help you navigate this freelancer and entrepreneur thing better. Just as a car needs stable parts, it needs its individual elements – the parts that slide and grind and connect and disconnect to keep the engine working.
We cannot all work in offices, nor can we all tend the farm. While some of us may be focused on the every day issues, others have to take a glimpse into the future and start laying the cobblestones to create pathways there. Yet more examine the past in order to glean from our history what we need to move forward. We may not always understand what each other does, but that doesn’t mean we should discount or devalue it. Each walks a path to a purpose designed specifically for them – and many arrive in different ways, office or not. Is it useful, is it adding value, is it fulfilling? If so, carry on.
Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.
– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Have you ever felt misunderstood? Do you freelance and have experiences to share? Leave a comment below, let’s have a conversation. Looking to connect with other African freelancers? Consider joining this Facebook group.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.