An entry from my journal:
Tuesday September 29th, 2009
Yesterday I started my new job - as a freelancer. I am now self-employed, in other words, not working and it’s terrifying. I know that’s normal and I have done a good job of not letting my emotions control me. The side-effect of this though is the numbing of my emotions entirely. I feel like I’m on anaesthetic and all I have is a dull sense of sickness in my stomach. As soon as I begin to contemplate the enormity of the task ahead of me, it’s like my brain interrupts and purposefully directs me to something else. The other consequence of this is while I am unable to get terrified, I am also unable to get excited about things either. I haven’t come up with any ideas, I’m unable to contemplate the potential and opportunity spread out before me. I am almost worried I might become paralysed.
I remember it clearly. On the weekend I had packed up my possessions and driven down from Hull, a city in the north of England where I had been working as a reporter, to Kingston, on the southern outskirts of London.
I moved into the spare room of a lovely retired couple and started trying to figure out what freelancing meant for me.
It didn’t start well.
Mentally, I struggled with the fact that as a freelancer you frequently have days where you don’t achieve anything. At least in the low-paid job I had just quit, I would come home having earned a little bit of money.
My early days as a freelancer felt horribly driftless.
Tuesday October 20th, 2009
So here I am in week 4 of my freelance life. Am I any closer to my goals? Nope. Why? Because I don’t have any! I lack direction, enthusiasm, sometimes motivation. What am I doing? Blogging a bit, tweeting a lot, reading blogs, sending the odd email, nothing which is tangibly about to bring me any money.
And so it went on.
I get asked for advice about how to be a freelancer but I have to admit that looking back on the last decade, I have never been good at it.
There are people out there who crush the game - they create spreadsheets of contacts, develop ambitious goals, cold-call and pitch stories, build formidable social media presences and generally hustle their way forward.
I wasn’t smart or motivated enough to do any of that. I survived and - eventuuuaaally - thrived.
So let’s be real about something: luck and privilege played a huge role in getting me this far. I’m a white dude from a middle-class family and, although I am proud to say that I never had to rely on family help in the end, knowing that they could and would bail me out made a huge difference, psychologically.
I could entertain riskier ideas and simply stay in the game longer just knowing there would be something to cushion my fall; an account of the last decade wouldn’t be accurate without that point acknowledged.
As I’ve written before, it’s so important more people from disadvantaged backgrounds get chances to express themselves in the arts and this psychological element needs addressing.
Anyway, I had one successful strategy, which I’ve stuck to for ten years and hasn’t failed me: make my own work and make it as amazing as I possibly can.
Back in 2009 I wrote a blog about the future of journalism. It never once made me a penny in advertising or affiliate links, but I treated it as if it were a proper publication, with an editorial calendar, custom made banners and more. Just when I was about to move to London I got a phone call from Beth Brewster, the Head of Journalism at Kingston University in London. She’d seen the blog and wanted me to run a course in video journalism!
I taught two days a week for nearly four years; I loved it and it kept the wolf from the door.
The blog also brought in invitations to speak on panels at journalism conferences and to run workshops everywhere from Perugia in Italy to Abakan in Russia, from Moldova to Doha (yes, I pretty much said yes to any gig going).
In 2010 I started making videos and posting them on the blog. I spent days and days editing, teaching myself motion graphics to make them as professional looking as possible. Again, not a penny in return, but one day I received an email asking if I was available to shoot a video for a company website. One gig led to another and by 2011 I was in Chengdu in China filming a competition documentary.
In 2012 I created and sold a quarterly magazine about storytelling. I acted as if it was a bonafide publication, conducting interviews, commissioning (and paying) writers, even paying for copy editing. It made a little bit of money, but more importantly, it led to a successful online course I ran with my friend Marc in 2013 and 2014.
And then, in January 2014, I started a YouTube channel and began uploading my video essays. As you know, I worked my arse off to make these videos the best I was capable of, spending weeks on story design and scripting. I didn’t want to put ads on them so they never made me a penny, but in June of that year (!) I was flown out to Rome to meet the big boss at Fusion - he’d seen the videos and offered me a contract to make them for him.
I did that through 2015 before launching my Patreon account. I made more videos until 2017 when the New York Times wrote and asked if I’d be interested in directing a film about fake news…
…and here I am, on Tuesday last week - almost ten years to the day from when I took the leap - at the Emmy Awards in New York!
From left: Executive Producer Adam Ellick, Op-docs Senior Producers Lindsay Crouse & Andrew Blackwell and myself. My phone camera sucks.
Sadly Operation Infektion didn’t win in either of its categories but it was still incredible to be nominated. 2009 Adam, feeling sick and sitting in his pyjamas in Kingston would never have believed his journey might take him here.
So that’s the only thing I can offer in terms of advice if you’re thinking about freelancing: make your own stuff and make it as amazing as you possibly can.
Until next Sunday,
P.S. have you seen my new three-part series with Jaron Lanier yet? Don’t forget if you have any questions about how it was made, reply to his email and I’ll answer them next week!