When I struck out on my own at the beginning of 2021, the “monster hiding under the bed” took the form of uncertainty. I’m a planner, not because I am blessed with a strong sense of organization, but because I have generalized anxiety (not to mention that I knuckled through the first 19 years of my career with undiagnosed ADHD). I thrive when I know what to expect, even if I use that knowledge to ruminate and work myself into a worried frenzy. When I don’t know what to expect, my mind fills in those blanks with one catastrophe after another. It’s not cute.
As you can imagine, my personality isn’t exactly compatible with a dramatic leap of faith. Like a 20-something idly browsing camper vans on Craigslist, I’d started imagining what a different life might look like. The longing started as a small itch and grew to be something I couldn’t ignore. What if I set my own schedule? What if I made time for my fiction projects? What if I spent more time producing work and less time managing others? It took a long time for my longing to outshine the safety and comfort of a steady paycheck.
Freedom vs. fulfillment, abundance vs. scarcity
I didn’t understand at the time that my under-developed inner compass was trying to make itself known. What I thought was a need for freedom was a need for something else entirely. I needed the work I was doing to mean something. I was searching for fulfillment.
So I quit my job.
Shifting to contract work scared the shit out of me at first. I went from an executive role at a company I’d been working with for over a decade to being the new kid on the block. Once I got over the initial butt-clenching terror of starting over (over and over), a pattern began to emerge. I’d start a project nervous and insecure, and within days, I’d remember that I know what the hell I’m doing. I have a strong personality, and people either vibe with me or they don’t. But my work speaks for itself.
Once I got through a couple of months, I had a clear understanding of what I needed to work on the most: saying no. Letting go of a scarcity mindset during a global pandemic takes Olympic-level mental gymnastics. But saying yes to everything, even projects that you’re fundamentally incompatible with, leads to burnout and being mad at your boss (who happens to be you). Every time I ignored my gut in those early days, I had a miserable time. Frustrating gigs not only eroded my work satisfaction, but my hard-earned confidence too. Every time I lost my footing, it became harder to regain that ground.
I learned to say no. But it’s hard every single time. It will always be hard as long as I’m a single parent raising two teens with college on the horizon. But every time I’ve said no, it cleared space in my schedule and in my mind for work that feeds my soul. Because I began to listen to my inner compass, opportunities arose that wouldn’t have if I’d been booked with work that only paid the bills. Now I’m working with teams that share my core values and I’m working on projects that will have a positive impact on people’s lives.
My whole self is an asset
I’ve always been a little woo-adjacent, but it’s never been my primary trait. Certainly not when it comes to career decisions. But this year has completely changed my perspective. Now I’m all about voicing my desires in case the universe happens to be listening. And more than anything, I recognize that productive change happens when you embrace discomfort. I had to look my fear of uncertainty right in the eye in order to see what was standing behind it — opportunity.
Now, almost a year into contracting as a content designer, I know what kind of work feels good, and I know what kind of work feels bad. I know that there are many organizations and teams out there who need someone like me. Embracing an abundance mindset helped me bring more of my whole self to the jobs I took on.
Imaginative. Opinionated. Sensitive. Queer. Funny. None of these were facets I led with until I understood that vulnerability opened me up to connecting more deeply to the folks I worked alongside. As a contractor, I’m a temporary part of something bigger than myself. I can maximize my impact during the time I’m most needed. I can be a pair of fresh eyes, I can bring a fresh perspective, and when things are really clicking — I can be a new friend.
Maybe it’s a radical approach to work, but I am here in part to make friends. I’m here to make friends with my teammates. I’m here to make friends with my fears. I’m here to make friends with the small voice inside of me that gives me good advice when I’m willing to listen.
Freelancing and contracting force you to evaluate the work you’re doing, not just from a financial perspective, but from the perspective of, “Am I enjoying this?” Enjoyable doesn’t translate to easy or free of challenges. It means feeling energized and fulfilled. It means understanding and aligning to the purpose of the work.
Every time you get a taste of work that feels good, especially when it’s hard, you’re strengthening the muscle you need to say no when it’s called for — so you can say yes when it counts.
Maria’s Socials: LinkedIn