2016 – a fine whine

When the urge to write here strikes I open a Word document (which is why the formatting is sometimes skewed) on my Windoze machine and hammer at the keyboard. Afterwards I have a brief skim of the last post here and find it’s almost IDENTICAL to what I just wrote, making everything seem all the more pointless. But fuck it, eh?  Robots may appear to like it in order to get me to visit their blog, but nobody really reads this shit except me, several months or years later.

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It continues to be a professionally difficult time. Since the summer I have limped along with dribs and drabs of work, feeling by turns largely underemployed or totally unemployed. But I haven’t claimed any benefits of any kind. Some vague middle class pride stops me contemplating that. Things aren’t that bad yet. I can still fudge and fumble through.  So I still doggedly persist with work that doesn’t pay much, if anything. I still keep doing the speculative work I enjoy but which makes little business sense.

The impact of this has been considerable. You feel worthless. You have skills, fairly decent but not unusual skills. They are common skills and services available at a cheaper rate than the rates you are trying to sell them for. Because there are plenty of people in the same boat. There are plenty of younger people offering the same services, grateful for any sort of payment.

Clients, customers, buyers: they often care little about experience or quality of work. They just want it done. They just want the service. They don’t want to forensically analyse it. This leads to a bun fight between similar service providers.

Network Power Failure

Contacts and connections, strong networks of people: they all help. People who have been effectively incubated within a larger organisation – a media company or an agency – have a great advantage. Even if they don’t know it at the time, if they are a dejected office junior who makes lots of cups of tea and coffee for what feels like forever, it can ultimately be a great springboard and pay off in the long run.

If people first like you as a person, there’s a strong chance they will rate your work out of a basic involuntary human compassion. If they know you and like you, there’s a strong chance they will push work your way.  So if you leave an organisation on good terms and go freelance, you’re in a positive position to make freelance life sustainable.

Equally if you have a community you regularly see, that is hugely beneficial. So called ‘Mumpreneurs’ will often have parents at the school gates, as well as other clubs. Indeed any parents are likely to have a community of other parents they regularly see. If you’re in any kind of group you see frequently, the chances are you’ll have warm contacts who can help connect dots or give a hand up.

Not having anything like this puts me at a big disadvantage. (Another ‘poor me’ post, yes). I often look sideways at similar competitors and creatives, knowing their background and where they’ve come from, knowing that they spent a large part of their early career within x or y organisation, which is clearly still feeding them a good amount of work.  I see parents who are building themselves up via other parents. It eats me up a little, and is arguably my fault for never fostering that loyalty with one organisation or group of people, never staying put somewhere long enough.

Or it could just be back luck. That solid reliable saviour excuse. (Poor poor me).

Awkward Competition

Over the course of the year another person has emerged on my professional landscape. It feels awkward and confusing because I like the guy and half want to be mates, partly because I have very few mates and almost no social life. He’s modest and affable. I’ve come close to asking if he fancies a pint but bottled out. We’ve mentioned lift sharing a couple of times but it felt like he swerved it.

Another part of me hates the bastard through nothing but envy. He’s a competitor who hasn’t been doing the work that long but appears to be doing much better than me more through a quirk of commercial circumstance rather than ability. While his other music industry career looks really fun and cool and must pay reasonably.

Isolation Battle

Isolation continues to be a constant struggle.  The feeling of being so devolved from the world, from real people.  Even though real people often annoy me quite quickly, it feels like I should have more of those relationships: professional and social. It feels like I have never been as cut off from people as I am now. We moved out of the city so I don’t hang out in coffee shops pretending to work as much. I don’t go for random pints with a Kindle. I am not even around other humans but not conversing with them.

Not having regular ‘real life’ contacts seems artificial, cowardly self-defeating somehow.  Like you’re creating this strange bubble which will only generate further mutual alienation: you from other humans and other humans from you. You should stop being a dickhead. Just pop it, dive in, join groups, attend events, make an effort, try to engage with the world again. The effort it takes though. The indulging of all the loud look-at-me idiots along the way. Ugh.

Underemployment Shame

It feels shaming to be so underemployed and unbusy when you feel so potent. At 36 I should be out there achieving and accomplishing and doing. I should be earning and investing and making and providing. I feel sharp enough and fit enough and able enough. I should have built something by now. At least a network of contacts who rate me enough to give me work.

None of this is happening.  It feels like mass rejection. I am not great at aggressively promoting myself but it seems nobody is even faintly interested. The tide of failure drags you further out, sweeps you into this morass of nothing. There’s a gradual self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The longer it goes on the more you believe you’re not worth it; in the same way Donald Trump believes he is worth it.

Instead I am doing housework and walking the dog. When I find myself enjoying it, smiling back at the infectious energy of the young labrador, I sometimes feel instantly guilty, like I do not deserve this life, house, wife, car, freedom, dog.  I have not earned it and do not earn it day-to-day.  I am not doing enough to make more money, I am being lazy. Yet somehow I have all this stuff I always wanted.

You see bad stuff on the news, poverty and war, and you feel a crippling shame and guilt that you don’t even do a boring miserable job for an “honest day’s” pay. That would be ok. That would be something. It almost makes you feel like carrying out some wanton act of self-sabotage. It needles towards an unhealthy self-loathing. You might at least be able to rationalise that the good stuff is a reward for psychological pain, angst and torment. You can feel no further emotionally advanced than a despondent teenager.

Work and Worry

In between walking the dog and doing housework I spend a considerable time sitting at my desk. I try to do things that feel constructive, like making my business more discoverable online, slowly honing certain skills. Although much of it feels like hopeful guesswork.

Most of the time I just sit here and worry: about lack of work, an unsustainable business, plummeting bank balances, the future, remaining childless and if we’re ok with that, not being ‘A Man’, not contributing enough, not having enough followers or engagement. I wonder if spending so much time in my head, devoid of human interaction, is driving me slowly mad.

Then there’s the wider world, Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen, Russia. If you want to do some solid worrying right now and you have an internet connection, a television or radio, you are spoilt for choice.

In an angrily indignant mood at my own supposed misfortune, sometimes I’ll steep in pathetic self-pity. I’ll quietly rage against the social class system, against how it clearly pays to go to the right school or university, be born in the right family, brown nose people, to suck dick or be a raging sycophant. Everything is fixed. Sure, you can get lucky, but hard work doesn’t really pay off.

Or I’ll bitterly compare myself with others who appear to be doing so much better than me and think if only… If only I had that network, knew those people, had that confidence, was able to sell myself, didn’t shrink from selling myself.

There’s this well known thing of “fake it ’til you make it”. You pretend you’re bigger and better online than you actually are. It’s an accepted part of the digital world and social media life, the way we broadcast idyllic life highlights. But it sits uncomfortably with me and always has. Hence this blog, hence my lack of much professional success. Fake news is now a thing. Faking generally is now fine. Public artifice and plasticity is expected. Lies and untruths: it’s all cool. It’s all strongly advisable.

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social tsunami

A generation has been cruelly deceived by the emergence of social media. Ok, maybe not a whole generation, and maybe not by social media alone. Maybe just a demographic by the false confidence that their identity and ability to articulate was enough. And maybe just a certain type of person. But I feel sure more than just one (me). I have a weight of hunch that there are considerably more people than just me towards whom the following applies.

There we were, circa 2005/6/7, not long out of university and embedded in low level marketing roles towards which we felt largely indifferent, but they provided a necessary source of income.

Like many marketers or PRs, perhaps we harboured private dreams of writing more interesting things, had secret side projects, but we had no real outlet for this. We knew we had a voice and we could write about stuff. It just so happened that what we were paid to write about, for mid noughties websites, printed material and email newsletters, wasn’t all that interesting.

Then the tsunami of social appeared on the horizon. A thing called Twitter which seemed exclusively for nerds but, ok, damn, whatever, let’s give it a go. Blogs built traction as a thing and we began playing with them, interest piqued. Slowly this social thing on the horizon swelled.

At a certain point the nervous excitement at the potential gave way and we thought this was it, what we’d been looking for, THE platform for our voice. Social allowed us to believe in our own uniqueness, our own personality and identity. We needn’t be defined by our employer or where we work. This would give us an audience, allow us to showcase our talents, we WOULD be recognised and ultimately go on to better, more fulfilling, more interesting things.

We backed ourselves, trusted what we had, and after a time, by necessity or not, towards the end of the noughties we went freelance: those of us who’d gambled and moved around a little, had one or two jobs in a few different towns, were not institutionalised by a workplace, those who were independent-minded, not tied down, open to taking a risk or two.

The economy was shit but it was shit for everyone. You had to deal with it. We could do this. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but with careful nurturing people would see the value. We knew what we were talking about; we could deliver a service on our own merits.

Unless we had somehow managed to rapidly scale an audience and built a high enough platform – helped by a leg-up from a few big brands or not, we got flattened.

Ok, not flattened. Not quite. Washed up and floundering under the weight of noise, it was suddenly more of a struggle to get heard than ever. Despite those early day hopes, our own identity and voice didn’t count for much in the chaos.

Some made it, and not necessarily the best. Those people managed to get high before it hit, and they appeared to flourish as a result. But the approach of slow and steady, implicit trust in the well considered thought of audiences: that did not pay off.

Volume mattered. Quantity mattered. Big numbers. For that you had to tolerate complete idiots, read their nonsense, “interact”. You could not be picky, and those of us who foolishly were, we suffered for it.

We clung desperately onto a root of something, a business of that same early kind, while looking around for better, firmer, a stronger platform. We made a reach or two for other shiny stuff and missed, not trustable enough. Everything still rushed around us, swirling dizzyingly, maddeningly, the inane quotes about perseverance and working hard, the pictures of food and drink and sunsets; while the highly rated and presumably now nicely rich idiots stared down their noses.

We’re choking now. In our mid 30s but feeling beleaguered, jaded and overtaken by fresher, keener faces in their mid 20s, utterly familiar, comfortable and happy with the noise, the feeds of hundreds and thousands. Still we’re trying, still gamely hanging in there, still dimly hoping. But we desperately want surer footing now, a more solid base; we are pleading for a small grain of financial trust in our future. We are growing colder and colder.

on your side

It often seems that there’s a need to get the right people on your side in order to succeed in life. You can’t NOT be picked by anyone and just play your own game instead. You can’t stay stuck in a box, producing and shouting and hoping to be asked onto a team.

However constant and consistent your stream of stuff, you need bias, blind favouritism, a little bit of nepotism; you need to brown-nose, kiss arse, suck dick. It feels like that really *really* helps to get on. If you’re not great at doing that, things can get difficult.

In the same way you knew bludgeoning away trying to make a living would be easier if you had a girlfriend to whom you could moan and rant and use as an outlet, now you feel more keenly than ever before the need for similar professional and financial solace.

With the single client you were so comfortably dependent on for so long – because you brown-nosed an idiot, you had that. By letting them go, you suddenly didn’t. Now 6 months on, nothing has come along to replace them and you’re struggling. Small dribbles here and there, a couple of disappointments when you weren’t paid, nothing of substance.

Similarly, in trying to get proper jobs, or even interviews, you need an ‘in’, someone to hold the door ajar for you, tip you a nod. Especially today when there are so many decent calibre people seeking new jobs. Just getting a job is not easy. You have to know your value, know when to compromise and when not to compromise.  As time goes on you might have to though. That’s a scary thing.

Pure, unadulterated meritocracies may exist, but after a while it becomes hard to believe in them. Hard not to grow bitter, for the victim complex not to scale. You must continue to have faith in yourself. You look around you at the produce of others and you do by and large have that faith, but it’s bewilderingly frustrating.

You can only go it alone for so long before spluttering, stalling, crashing to earth in an undignified heap.

Your online stats reflect the ambivalent majority. But even if your numbers were higher it may not matter. What matters is finding one person with influence who wants you on their side. Then word-of-mouth can take over.

You begin to think that it doesn’t matter how good or regular your produce, how hard you work, how committed you are or how much you care. You need more people and you need at least one ‘important’ person with deep pockets and strong influence. You need to get the right people on your side. How you do that and how that happens must depend a lot on luck.