If you dig around the business self-help book section long enough, you’re bound to find titles such as Soar With Your Strengths or StrengthsFinder 2.0. The message of books like these is to encourage you to pursue work/careers that cater to your personal and professional strengths rather than doing things you don’t enjoy or that you’re not particularly good at doing. That’s great, in theory; however, there are some times when “Do what you like” isn’t a realistic expectation.
Idealism Meets Reality
When I was first starting my “practice” as a freelance writer, I had specific types of work I wanted to do based on my experiences–positive and negative–in the corporate world. I knew that I didn’t want to do technical manuals or online help because they just didn’t rouse my enthusiasm. I also knew that I was a bad fit for information technology and medical companies. I had nothing against the industries, I’m merely an idealist who likes what he likes (space exploration, as some of my more regular readers will note).
I was struggling to find work–any work. I had set up my marketing flyer as a multi-skill, multi-industry “utility player” who could crank out any type of prose for any company. Because, after all, I had to eat. Eventually, my instructional designer friend and mentor Dede had work she could use my help on–at a hospital. Healthcare, as I’d already noted, was not a favorite of mine. Well, guess what: I took the job because I needed money to live on (I was house-sitting for someone and would have to get out eventually). I also ended up learning some useful things to improve my lifestyle because the work was writing a class for patients about to undergo bariatric surgery.
A year later, after the hospital job had ended and other jobs/money were scarce, a Disney buddy called me and asked me if I wanted to do instructional design work for the automotive industry. “I don’t know anything about the automotive industry,” I confessed. My friend assured me that I could learn on the job, and when he told me that my contract would pay my bills and then some for almost a year, I was in. Now, five years later, I know more about the automotive business, and I still manage to pay my bills. It’s not my number one interest, to be certain, but it is my number one client, so I learn to pay attention and do the job well.
Advice for Freelancers
You might have a particular set of skill at which you excel. You might have a favorite industry (or two) where you would like to ply your trade. However, if jobs requiring your skills in the industries of your choice are not always available. In that case, you have a few choices:
- Take a “straight job” (i.e., become a full-time employee) at a company of your choice.
- Take on a customer/contract in an industry that isn’t necessarily your favorite but pays your bills until you can find your “dream client.”
- Keep on struggling and hoping that you’ll find the work you want until you are unable to pay your bills.
This is really a matter of idealism vs. pragmatism. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a pragmatist. Fortunately, I’ve also been a reasonably successful one, as that partial-year gig turned into an ongoing contract that allows me to keep a roof over my head and the bills paid five years later. As a bonus, I like who I work for and I even (sort of) understand the automotive business now. There are worse ways to make a living.
I’m not saying take any job, though that sometimes happens. There are any number of unpleasant situations you can find yourself in that don’t warrant staying with a client, including actively hostile environments. However, if your only choices are doing work you don’t like and missing rent/mortgage payments, it’s time to put on the grown-up pants and make a decision that will let you lead your life, keep your resume up to date, and maybe learn something useful along the way.