Just about 3 years ago, I lost 90% of my freelance clients in the blink of an eye. I went in to $35k worth of consumer debt in 3 months, fronting travel costs for jobs and trying to pay expenses awaiting 6 month delinquent invoices. The moment of realization when I looked at the hard numbers broke me in such a way that it’s hard to explain to someone who has never lost all their money and then some. The embarrassment, humiliation, and shame I felt were more intense than the greatest moments of joy I had ever experienced at that time. Beyond the numbers, I had to deal with the depression that I no longer held the title of professional photographer. I put a lot of work and sacrificed a lot to support my entire income on freelance photography. Full time freelancers like myself wear it as a badge of honor, and now it was compromised until I could find one paying client, let alone replace the $40k worth I had lost.
Fast-forwarding to today, I’ve lost many 2020 gigs, and can now account for over $24,000 of income lost to Covid 19’s impact, with the number growing each and every day we don’t progress.
As a photographer who often markets large events, seeing contracts postponed or canceled is not a great indicator for optimism. With no guarantee of unemployment compensation or federal grants, there’s a strong possibility of an 80% drop overall income this year. Forecasting a realistic recovery timeline, I’m anticipating a 2 year economic drought.
And yet, here I am not ripping my hair out or cursing the world. I’m not curling up into a ball, and I’m not existentially questioning why I went into the creative fields in the first place. I feel good, I feel excited about my career going forward. Job loss is inevitable as a freelancer. It’s like being a bull fighter and getting gored occasionally. It’s kind of what you signed up for. The only trouble is, nobody prepares you for the toll. It’s like getting dumped for the first time, or seeing your first long term relationship end unexpectedly. How are your friends or parents supposed to prepare you for that? They don’t. They come to aid after the fact.
Transitioning from employee to self-employed requires a modicum of fortitude. I would best describe it as a practiced anxiety for consistent job loss, undercutting and complete market contraction.
The longer one experiences unemployment in the United States, the more likely they are to report symptoms of psychological unease, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. -Healthline –
There are countless times I’ve been contracted for a job and had the job canceled days or weeks before. And yes, while you can put into place some form of protection plan in your contracts, the point is there’s a lot you may not have control over. You don’t know when a client is going a different direction, or when it’s shutting its doors entirely. It’s prone to happen, and these days it happens a lot more often to a lot more people, but I don’t like seeing such strong readjustments to people’s career paths because of these disruptions. If your creative career is what brings you the most fulfillment and joy, let’s see how we can stay the course and work on ourselves first before we pivot 180 degrees. If you’re overwhelmed by first-time job loss, I’m going to share some of the most transformative lessons I’ve practiced over the years to help me rebound and feel better about my direction.
1: TALK TO SOMEONE OUTSIDE YOUR FAMILY ABOUT IT.
This seems like common sense, but sometimes common sense isn’t common practice. If you have too much pride to reach out to someone outside your home about this, get over yourself. Don’t compromise your health because you think others will see it as weakness. First off, that’s not true, and secondly, is that really your problem if they do?
This act of reaching out is particularly difficult for people who have a blue collar work ethic, that grab their lunch pale and go to work with no excuses. If you have this trait, chances are you’re too proud to talk about it and you feel tremendous shame to admit to it. I’m going to tell you something you already know; “shutting up and dealing with it” is not a remedy for a healthy mindset.
According to research reported in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, unemployed people are twice as likely as employed people to suffer from psychological problems (34 percent to 16 percent). Blue-collar workers are more distressed by unemployment than those who’ve lost a white-collar job. Healthline
Reach out to a colleague, a parent, a friend, someone who is not reliant on your income. They won’t receive your news with self-preservation concern, and therefore should not increase your level of anxiety or shame. This act is particularly important if your dependents are overwhelming you with pressure to “fix the situation”. If it only it were that easy, right? Hopefully, your life partner and/or children are supportive and helpful in not increasing your anxiety, but often times this happens regardless. Who doesn’t want to eliminate stress and turmoil for their family? The point is, talking to someone outside your family can calm your nerves, and give you a clearer more objective sense of action.
2: DON’T LET ANYONE SHAME YOU, ESPECIALLY NOT YOU.
If your friend or colleague lost their job, would you tell them “you should’ve been better prepared”, or “you’re not good enough”, or “the market is too competitive for you”? Or would you cut them some slack and show sympathy? These are rhetorical questions, of course, but I’m hoping you wouldn’t outwardly shame someone for losing their job. These answers aren’t productive. They are simply meant to be mean. And yet, have you ever told yourself these same narratives? If you’re a normal human being, the answer is probably yes.
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. – Brené Brown –
After I lost all my clients a few years back, my main camera got stolen just to remind me that things can always get a little bit worse. For days, I constantly told myself it was a sign to quit photography. You don’t lose 4 major clients in the same month, completely unrelated, and then have your camera stolen for it to be chalked up to coincidence. And then I realized that if someone else told me those same words; “hey dude, sounds like you shouldn’t be doing photography anymore”, I’d want to punch that person square in the face. Your words hold more weight than you think. Maybe one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is “don’t be an asshole to yourself”.
3: REACH OUT TO CURRENT AND PROSPECTIVE CLIENTS
If you’re a person that worries about coming on too strong to prospective clients, throw that out the window. Clients understand, more than ever, that the level of urgency freelancers and small business owners are facing is at an all time apex. Assume they’re expecting your call and that they’ll be upset if you don’t reach out to them. Just by making the effort to contact people will help mitigate that feeling of worthlessness and can go a long way in mentally rebounding.
Next, stay in touch with your current clients. Offer them to lock in 2021 contracts, or even ask them to write you a letter of recommendation on LinkedIn. So far, I’ve done both successfully. The contracts lost in 2020 have now been solidified and agreed to for 2021, and every single client I’ve reached out to has been happy to write me a letter of recommendation or is currently working on it. Below is a sample email I sent to a magazine client as an example of my approach.
I hope all is well. I hope you and your loved ones are healthy, safe, and not hit too hard by this shutdown the last couple months.
I’m reaching out to my clients right now because I’m looking to prepare as best I can for a potentially tumultuous second-half of the year. As a self-employed creative, it’s important to me that I proactively seek out referrals with my clients and collaborators, and this is about as good a time as any.
I value your opinion and I would love to ask if you’d be willing to write me a letter of recommendation on my LinkedIn page. I hope that’s not overstepping too much and I will certainly not take it personally if the answer is no, and no explanation would be needed if that is the case. I appreciate any consideration you may give this, and I thank you for your time.
Stay safe, healthy, and hopefully we can collaborate on some more projects sooner rather than later!
4: WORK ON A PERSONAL PROJECT
As someone who has manufactured plenty of free time over the last couple years, I know the struggle of sometimes feeling worthless when there’s no work. Nothing combats that better than a project that gets your juices going. It can be a small daily project, or a major one that you’re going to need 3 months to craft, but start producing something, whether it’s valuable or not. Just knowing that you are living up to the label of a “creative” can catapult you back into the swing of feeling better.
5: BUILD AND CONTRIBUTE TO YOUR EMERGENCY FUND, ALL THE TIME.
Ok, so this doesn’t fall into the self-help narrative you might have anticipated, but it’s super important. There is no deep meditation and therapy involved in building an emergency fund, but it has been the most effective tool for anxiety relief as a freelancer. Financial tolls always create emotional tolls. If you can automate your contributions to your emergency fund, you will finance yourself through lean months, prevent overspending, and train a great business habit for life.
Step 1: OPEN A NEW BANK ACCOUNT.
First you need to open a new account to act as your emergency fund. I opt for a high interest, online savings account, but you can also use something like a money market account for more liquidity. See options here and choose ones with no fees and minimum costs. Big banks have interest rates that are almost non existent, and highjack you with $500 minimums and $30 fees. Full disclosure, the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates in the past year on numerous cuts, so you’re not making any real money that’s worth while, but the benefit of having an extra savings accounts is not solely in its potential growth. It’s mostly in the flexibility of separating your income into specific buckets. Label the savings account Emergency Fund.
Step 2: CONTRIBUTE $1000
Kickstart your fund by putting any cash in there that you can do without. Debt guru, Dave Ramsey, suggests a $1000 starting off point, and I’m in agreement with that being a good first step. If you don’t have $1000 laying around and can’t create any new income, get aggressive by selling equipment you don’t need or eliminating extraneous subscriptions and throwing the money you normally spend on that and put it in your fund. Once it’s in, congrats! You’ve created a little breathing room.
Step 3: PICK A PERCENTAGE OF YOUR INCOME THAT YOU CAN LIVE WITHOUT
Maybe it’s 5%, maybe it’s 10%, maybe it’s 15%. The more money you make, the more generous you can be. The lower your income is, the less you’ll contribute. Let’s say you choose 10% to make the math easy. If you receive a $500 paycheck for a small job, you immediately transfer $50 into the Emergency Fund, and you do so every time you receive income.
If you get into the habit of doing this every time you make money, you will automatically build the habit of living off less, something that is easy in theory, but really hard in practice. After a while, you’ll look up and realize you have a few months worth of expenses covered in your emergency fund.
This system has worked wonders for me and my mindset. When I started noticing that my typical year peaked in certain months and dropped in others, I was able to plan my financial strategy by putting money aside for those dry months. Panic and fear dropped exponentially, and I was able to use that down time proactively by working on all the things I couldn’t do during the busy months.
I hope these areas help you out. They’ve been really important for me as a freelancer. Our overheads are less than small businesses with payroll and inventory and store fronts, so in my opinion, we’re in good position to rebound quickly. The trouble is getting over mental hurdles that plague us all in different ways. Whether you apply these principles or not, I hope you find a way to come out of this stronger, more motivated, and more prepared for job loss in the future.