communication for the real world

A leak leads to a job change

blue sky with clouds

Most of the time, my fellow technical writers want to hear about the shift from the chains of permanent full-time work to the freedom of contracting. I agree that contracting is freer. You are free to do all the marketing required to keep yourself (and your subcontractors) in billable hours. You are free to travel to different clients constantly, racking up kilometers on your car (or bus and train tickets) which you are then free to administer in your bookkeeping and accounting which you are also free to calculate and remit in time to make your quarterly tax payments. You are free to manage your own pension scheme, health insurance, and business insurance.

You are free. But it is something of a heroic struggle. For several years I have done it, even launching a group for women professionals and women entrepreneurs to create a like-minded collective. Particularly since moving to The Netherlands, I have found myself constantly busy, but always in small projects: a few weeks here, a month there, a few weeks at another place.

Two and a half years ago, I bought a beautiful, century-old Dutch house. Then this summer, during some fairly major maintenance and building work, one of the contractors made a serious error which caused roof damage. When the rain came this fall (and, boy, does it come in The Netherlands: dark days of streaming water and howling wind), I discovered a steady stream of water coming through the roof.

Fixing the problem has not been straightforward. In fact, it is still not fixed, the rain is still pouring in, and the costs are mounting. When I was offered a full-time job for a year, I seized the opportunity.

My commute has changed from short and variable to one hour each weekday. My corporate culture has changed from ambient music and office cats to headphones and a much more sterile space shared with a colleague who must (as I must) have project meetings in the same room, one of us awkwardly trying to concentrate.

It is fun to dress well every day. I enjoy beautiful clothes, shoes, and make-up. But it is time consuming. In fact, the only thing that bothers me about my appearance is, as Maureen Dowd once said, the maintenance. It feels like a vacuum cleaner sucking up my precious time.

And that is the deepest difficulty: My time is no longer my own. I worked incredibly hard as a contractor and entrepreneur. I was literally never idle. Even my holidays were spent working on something.

But my time was my own to manage and my people worked for me. Now, I do what this client wants, no matter what it is, for at least 40 hours per week. When I am not at the client site, I maintain my appearance for them, make my lunch for the next day at their office, think about ways to cope with their schedule, iron the clothes I have to wear, and rush to keep up with the timing of everything. It is no exaggeration to say that adjusting to this temporal change has been very difficult.

But there are also some really positive things about working full time. The money is steady and reliable. I don’t have to market much other than when approaching my full-time client’s project managers to let them know about my services. I have that incredible thing that full-time workers take for granted: A paid holiday. I can cover my bills and save for the future, even possibly for an expansion of my documentation business.

Rather than relying on weekly coffee dates snatched with my network of co-entrepreneurs to keep me in touch with humanity, I see a variety of people every day. It is less lonely.

Even though the tools are, from time to time, not what I would choose for a particular result, making them work for the job in hand causes me to apply new paradigms. So I still get to learn new things, and to adapt to new situations. I work on diverse projects and manage my schedule to meet multiple deadlines. These important professional challenges have remained steady and appealing which is a pleasant surprise.

Happily, I enjoy the bicycle ride to and from work. It is time to let my mind wander, let myself work physically outside in the elements, and enjoy the beautiful Dutch canals and architecture that surround me. For some, this would be a negative part of the job. For me, it is a precious bonus.

Thinking back, I took on small jobs for my documentation business hoping they would lead to longer jobs. They led, in fact, to more small jobs. But constant worry about meeting my operating costs, generating billable hours, and paying for basic things like mortgage and food, made me continue to take on small projects because they were there. In the end, I became exhausted.

My initial transition period towards full-time work was glorious. The client gave me a month until my start date and suddenly I did not need to develop new projects. At first I was frustrated; I was used to working overtime all the time. For the first time, preparing my quarterly tax filing felt easy because I had more time to devote to it.

I wound things down gradually then, finally, took a few days off. Hiking in Ireland was, for once, not sandwiched between two stress-filled projects. I slept in for the first time in years. I spent a whole day reading a novel then a magazine then drifting in and out of sleep. After such a long time embroiled in my heroic struggle, I took time off that was really off.

As much as I love being an entrepreneur, making my mark in my industry, and creating something that is my own, I have found that there are some positive things to be said about a longer span of full-time work. My co-entrepreneurs are not all so happy about the change. When I described what I had taken on for the next 12 months, one said, “One client. For 12 months. Is that it?” I tried harder to explain. “The roof. The leak. One steady client for steady income.” But she was unable to see this as a positive opportunity. For her I had been defeated.

A few months ago, I had a similar point of view. Entrepreneurship was electric. It was a challenge. It could be a lot of fun. Something in me believes that I learned more in those hectic periods than I will ever learn again. Going against the entrepreneurial stream feels strange and a little scary. But this full-time work is something I am enjoying for now. It is not perfect but I feel positive about it for as long as it lasts.