business, general communication, social media

Ten Years Composed

Ten years as a freelancer is a milestone worth marking. Employed members of staff might earn some small recognition from their bosses and colleagues, but freelancers often just have to slap their own backs. So here is an honest, slightly indulgent account of the last decade.

Ten years ago this month I was made redundant from my last full time employed role as communications manager of a telecoms firm in West London. One Friday afternoon I was taken to a meeting room by a slightly over-casual HR manager and told a ‘structural review’ was happening. My job was under discussion and redundancy was possible.

Cycling home that day I stopped around the halfway point, a short distance from Chiswick Bridge. Here I pondered the river as sweat trickled down my spine and endorphins fizzed, dramatising my urgent self-pity, worry, rejection, failure, panic.

This seminal career moment came in April 2009. I was 28 and had no idea what the future would hold. The next ten years were impossible to foresee, both professionally and personally, as I suppose the next ten years always is. Nonetheless, if I were to go back and tell 28 year-old me what this next decade would hold, it would seem unbelievable.

Early freelance life

Boiled down, my 2009 options were: try to get another similar communications job with a similar telecoms firm in London or try to go freelance. For a time I tried to do both, job-seeking and interviewing for positions I wasn’t sure I wanted.

There was encouragement down the freelance line, which probably isn’t unusual when people first go freelance. You are dangled hope by a contact who promises work, like a parent holding the reins when a toddler takes their first uncertain steps. You may be over-dependent on a small number of clients for a while. As I was. Mine came from external contacts developed in my communications role at the telecoms firm.

But after a few years, as in full time employment, if there is no real sense of progress or development you can grow frustrated. Our modern enslavement to devices and reacting instantly to every single email, whatever the hour of the day, can leave you feeling anything but ‘free’. Home life can easily be confused and infected with work life if there is too little division.

Personal development

On the personal front, after a year more in London I would return to Cardiff in mid 2010 and eventually meet someone (2012) who would become my wife (2015) and the mother to our child (2018). By getting a mortgage I was finally able to accomplish a lifetime dream of getting a dog (2016).

Becoming a photographer

From around 2012 I would slowly self-train as a photographer, integrating those services alongside communications services. I would make plenty of mistakes and take thousands of weak photographs. But I would learn.

From 2014 I would regularly shoot professional football: Premier League and International football matches in Wales – something 12-year old me would be incredibly excited about, something 28 year-old me would be incredibly excited about, and something 33 year-old me actually was incredibly excited about.

In 2017 I would shoot the UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff between Real Madrid and Juventus, and one of the last Premier League matches to be played at my beloved White Hart Lane in Tottenham, London. I would shoot various sports including rugby, cricket, athletics, darts, speedway, extreme sailing, boxing and cycling.

But my heart would stay with football, despite its many rotten issues as a sport and industry. I would shoot for several photography agencies and for myself, and see images published in all the major UK newspapers.

Staying a comms person

From 2014 to 2016 there were periods of communications contract work for different Cardiff based recruiters, as well as consultancy with another PR agency. This involved generating content and blogs, briefing and training staff, organising events, monitoring social media noise around a political issue, all while generating funds for photography equipment.

Careers these days have pivots and deviations. The internet allows people to have side projects and rebrand, building new identities and diverse ‘portfolio careers’. It’s unwise to rule anything out, at any stage, particularly given the broader Britain-wide uncertainty of our times. That is, unless you are on the verge of retirement and / or extremely wealthy.

You never know when old contacts from your network will surface, as they have on a few occasions. This has led to substantial writing projects for a couple of big universities extended over several months. The unpredictably stop-start, piecemeal nature of photography work means such writing and communications work is always welcome. It also helps to engage and exercise a different part of the brain.

Photographing events and streets

A primary business area today is photographing events, conferences, essentially people talking. While it’s not obviously too dynamic as a photographic subject, there is something about it that appeals to my voyeuristic, outsidery and wordy nature.

Whatever the subject matter, you get a personal sense of individuals: their character, their way of talking, their vocabulary and language choices, their confidence and humour. Sometimes the subject flies way over my head, if it is deeply technical or specialist. Sometimes it can be insightful and educational. There is always life, energy and something interesting happening in a room full of people.

cardiffeventphoto

One of my personal favourites last year was a conference on children’s literacy. As an avid modern fiction reader, an English Literature graduate and as a then expectant father, photographing these imaginative and witty people was brilliant fun. Also, the people involved were remarkably warm and friendly. You can often feel like a blank automaton, standing in rooms taking picture after picture. On that occasion I didn’t.

Cardiff streets were where I slowly learned photography, and it’s a branch that would remain attractive to me. In 2018 a publisher would ask me to produce a book of street photography on two districts of the city. It sort of fell into my lap and I have no idea how it is selling further than my mum and a handful of contacts, but it sounds good.

(It is mindblowingly amazing and you should buy a copy immediately).

book-flyer

I would continue to shoot conferences and events, editorial portraits, corporate headshots, a light sprinkling of weddings, student city guides in Cardiff and Swansea and other special commissions, as well as sport and local news.

Coping with quiet

Freelance life can be bumpy and I take nothing for granted. A particularly low point came in late 2013 after almost draining a savings account. I forced myself into a few weeks of Christmas-time work at a research call centre where I previously worked as an undergraduate. Soon after I secured communications consultancy work with a tech recruiter and was able to financially breathe again.

As a freelancer you must carefully manage finances, squirrelling away funds when business is going well, in anticipation of quiet periods and of necessary investment in equipment.

You are sort of obliged to say you are busy at all times for fear of looking unbusy, which is never a good look and often seems the most shameful thing in the world. But of course it is not good, being unbusy. Being unbusy and underemployed shares much with being unemployed. Esteem is forever fragile. Everyone has a mental health landscape.

You must try to hold your nerve, trust in your network, experiment, try out proactive business ideas, pitch for work, accept rejection, accept periods of bad luck, be open to new opportunities. Do not become gloomy and bitter about your peers online who appear to be doing so much better. Be careful with the amount of time you spend on social media, thinking it sacred, or ‘The Solution’. Do not invest too much meaning in the giddying metrics of likes and followers. Do not beat yourself up too badly.

But knowing the best things to do and actually doing them are extremely different things. Freelance life can be charted in fluctuating levels of self-belief and optimism. There is a key requirement for mental toughness, reserves of resilience and perseverance.

Swings and roundabouts

Never knowing what lies ahead, or even just around the corner, is always a worry.

This can be a good thing and a bad thing. You can always feed yourself blind hope that something brilliant might suddenly happen along. But the truth is that work rarely feels secure and you have to live with it. As a freelancer you may have reduced capacity to financially forecast, budget and plan. That is, compared with someone who knows the precise sum of money that will land in their account each month: people I still look at with envy from time to time.

Having done it for ten years, having battled through, survived and grown: that offers me some blurry sort of blind faith and self-belief.

When begrudgingly speaking about my work, feeling self-conscious about not being more grown up, having a ‘proper job’ or grander ambition, I find myself rambling about ‘swings and roundabouts’. I have absolute independence, I am my own boss and my own harshest critic. My life offers fantastic freedom but comes with serious insecurities.

Such insecurities feel weightier as a new father. You have a sudden enormous incentive to provide as much as possible for this strange small being you love more than life itself.

What you receive from freelance life in one way, you sacrifice in another. I have a constant necessary obligation towards my inboxes, towards reading twitter, towards knowing what is happening on my doorstep. The concept of weekends, annual leave or time off is hazy and difficult and laden with guilt. Work-life balance is about compromise and what you choose to value, consciously or not. This can evolve or adapt throughout the course of a career but ultimately, we all do the best we can. Swings and roundabouts.

Here’s to the next ten.

MH
201904

Please get in touch if you think we can work together, or if you just want to catch-up.

consumer experience, mobile applications, social media

Social media slowdown – your smartphone is not God

black car on hi way with fog

I’m making a deliberate effort to reduce the amount of time I spend on social media. Sometimes it feels like it’s working. Other times it doesn’t.

I imagine it’s a bit like trying to give up cigarettes, that sort of ephemeral, temporarily distracting fix. That numb and mindless addiction. Social media seems a necessary evil that’s hard to entirely avoid if it’s linked to your work, and if it’s a deeply embedded behaviour you’ve had for a decade.

Smartphones aren’t for phoning

Today’s broadly covered OFCOM report shows the dominance of the smartphone on our lives has never been greater. The headline for many is that the number of mobile calls we make has fallen for the first time. Our primary use for smartphones is no longer to make telephone calls. Perhaps it hasn’t been for some time. (You might also suggest this is also a symptom of clogged up mobile networks, poor signals and a dwindling faith in telecoms providers).

As explored in a previous post about a digital detoxing, my relationship with my phone is a regular wrestle.

Certainly it can become too much, too controlling, too instictive and ingrained. You have a spare nanosecond so you take out your phone and open an app. And how do you feel afterwards? Invariably worse. This is the case for me at least.

Twitter makes me sad

After a scrolling binge on Twitter, and to a slightly lesser extent Instagram, I usually either feel a bit sad and inadequate: how I am so woefully unsuccessful compared to that other person who I admire or envy, how they are doing much sexier, more interesting, more important work.

three person holding smartphones

Or I would feel more generally glum about the world and all its super dumb people, in that toxic aggressive sense, the mass popularisation of unfathomable stupidity – Donald Trump. And / or glum about its pallid anaemic weakness, its volume of empty bland forgettable messages commanding unfathomably large audiences. (How is this guy such an important ‘influencer’ when he spouts such utter drivel?)

So I have started using it less, which is actually easier than I imagined. I feel more free of noise and don’t miss it at all. Sure, I dip in and out now and then but less instinctively and not when just faintly bored, to fill a moment or two.

Facebook bores me

It’s been several months since I deleted the Facebook app from my phone, which felt liberating, somehow eliminated an obligation. I still look in on the desktop, usually to manage a page or take a look at a group, and still look at my personal feed.But there are no regrets about not having it on my phone. Those urgent needy red flag notifications grew bizarre and infuriatingly irrelevant: Friends I May Know (who I certainly don’t know), a casual acquaintance has posted yet another photograph of their child. That’s great Facebook, thanks, bye.

Facebook is like a boringly repetitive loudmouth in the pub who keeps a terrifying photo shrine of you and all your family in his basement. I have no interest in going to that pub anymore. Its user numbers stock market value indicates I am not alone.
apps blur button close up

Social media increasingly leaves me feeling flat. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to depress yourself like that – unless you are a social media manager for British Telecom or something.

Care Less. Leave Your Phone Alone (Sometimes Off).

If it’s not your job though, why would you? Just put your phone down. Or you have a second thought about picking it up in the first place. You control yourself, reach for a book. Maybe give yourself a certain strict period of time (there are lots of apps for this), perhaps read only one fairly neutral platform for news, if possible.

You can reprogram and rewire, at the very least taper and develop an awareness of your usage. Decide not to care how many likes you get because it is all fairly meaningless. Dare to post without a hashtag.

Otherwise, you risk investing a disproportionate amount of meaning amongst the frighteningly lost hours lost staring into that screen. The link between rising mental health issues and excessive use of smartphones and social media is blindingly obvious.

These devices and their applications are engineered to tap into our insecurities and neuroses, to hammer us with notifications and never leave us alone. We are forgetting how to communicate, or never learning how in the first place.

It is not easy but we can choose to resist. We can look back to go forward. I find continued comfort in books, glossy paper, print. The old school hard versions and the Kindle versions. They don’t usually distract you with links and send you scurrying away down another rabbit hole of information. Also ebooks or podcasts. Take a walk and a listen and look at the world around you, instead of that screen.

Remember you can and probably should turn off that thing altogether from time to time. There’s lots of other stuff out there. It is not your God, it’s a phone.

business, general communication, social media, technologies

Vero – a new social media truth?

Vero keeps popping up in my social media feeds at the moment, specifically Instagram. It seems a large volume of users have started using the new social media app and are encouraging others to give it a try.

Seductively slick and stylish in design, it appears that Vero has a key feature of allowing you to arrange your contacts by your genuine figurative proximity to users. That is, whether they are a close friend or family, or a loose acquaintance. Then you can broadcast or narrowcast updates accordingly.

Continue reading “Vero – a new social media truth?”

consumer experience, general communication, social media, technologies

Power Off – how a digital detox restores factory settings

“Let’s not turn our phones on tomorrow” I suggested to my wife at the weekend. She agreed and we spent Sunday without them.

As we travel further into this scary journey they call life, it feels like there’s a developing need for us to understand, control and tame our own brains. We might think we’re in control of it, that we power its processes and rhythms, and we decide how to communicate. But increasingly we’re not and we don’t. This is largely thanks to smartphones and all-pervasive technology.

Mental health is broadly gaining more recognition and understanding. From paranoid schizophrenia to regularly feeling sad about everything, it’s a vast spectrum and a deeply complex area. We all have a mental landscape of some sort, which influences how we communicate with the world personally and professionally. We all have personal moods and struggles. There are all sorts of ways we might address these: different types of therapy, hypnosis, reading self-help books. My view is that a key one concerns our relationship with technology and primarily our smartphone.

Continue reading “Power Off – how a digital detox restores factory settings”

general communication, social media, technologies

What That Follower Number Actually Means

We are defined and shaped by numbers. They are ascribed to us and created by us. Age, date of birth, height, weight, income, bank balance, spouses, children, date of death. Temporary or permanent, these digits are all ingredients of our identity. They affect how we are perceived by other people and how we perceive ourselves.

Today our obsession with numbers has taken on mind-bending dimensions thanks to the digital, data-driven age in which everything is measurable. If you have several digits next to the word Followers in a profile, you can be considered A Big Deal on the internet, a success.

For as long as social media has existed, an assumption has been made that bigger digits are ‘better’. The bigger your audience, the higher your recognition from friends and peers, the more popular you are, the greater your chances of success and being discovered, the better exposed your brand, the wider your network, the more likely you can monetise content through advertisers.

Continue reading “What That Follower Number Actually Means”