Friday, August 17, 2001

Following in my Father's footsteps

The previous Chief Rabbi, Lord Jacobovits z’l was a strong believer in the work ethic and like to quote the passage from Pirkei Avot: “The day is short, the work is great, the labourers are sluggish, and the master is demanding. It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither are thou free to desist from it”. This passage reminds me of my late sister Evie. When still a small child at Kerem School, there was a class discussion about what the children’s parents did for a living. Each child put his or her hand up. All the predictable careers were represented: “Please Miss, my Daddy’s a Lawyer”, “Please Miss, my Daddy’s a Doctor”. When it came to my sister’s turn, she put up her hand and said: “Please Miss, my Daddy doesn’t do anything, he just sits at home and writes”.

My Father was, of course a freelance journalist. He loved what he did, and was up and working as early as four or five in the morning. It wasn’t easy. He worked a six day week, often didn’t take a holiday, but was independent and creative in a way that few people dream of.

Many people have strange ideas about freelancing, assuming that you get up at around 11, work till about 2, and then take the rest of the afternoon off. What they don't realise is that you have to be the boss, the bookkeeper, and even the salesperson, often wearing all three hats at the same time. There is no office family, no paid holidays, no pension, no medical aid, and no bonuses. But at the same time, there is no nine-to-five employment trap with its corporate corruption, office politics and altered agendas. Freelancing may not offer instant fame and fortune but nothing can compare with the elation derived from achievement purely of one’s own making.

But don’t be under any illusion. If you want to freelance, you have to offer something people want to buy. It’s no good just telling people how great you are. You need guts, a sense of humour, self-motivation, and to think for yourself. There are as many as three million self-employed people in Britain today, and as employers seek to be more flexible, that figure is likely to increase. The fine line between freelancer and employee is blurring, as more and more work is being outsourced.

Like many others, my decision to become freelance was influenced more by the jobs market than by choice. Two years ago, I left a career in Sales to retrain in web design. I contacted Agencies and was prepared to take any job going. The first position to come up just happened to be a three-month freelance contract. Nothing prepared me for self-employment. First, I had to come up with all the ideas as there was no one else to generate them for me. Second, I was the point of contact with the client. And third, I was paid for the amount of time I worked, so if I took a day off or was ill, I received no salary.

On my first day of work, I had to design a home page for a web site. I asked the client, “what kind of web site would you like?”. Their answer was: “We don’t know. You are the designer, you tell us!”. I was petrified. It was all so easy before, having a Boss who gave me instructions and monitored my progress. Now I was on my own, I had to tell myself what to do. Over the next twelve weeks, I had to adjust to working in a framework where I chased the Project Manager to get designs approved, I had to point out faults to Senior Managers, and I had to remind clients of deadlines.

I began to feel a sense of exhilaration. As I was paid by the hour, no one was looking at their watch to see when I arrived or when I left. And I felt no guilt about taking a holiday. I had to account for every hour that I was paid, thus I had to become responsible for myself. One is unlikely to find a freelancer surfing the internet, or mysteriously calling in sick because it’s a sunny day. More to the point, as I bear all the accountability, I can be as creative as I want to be. Providing a service, and a product that pleases the client is all that matters. I don’t need to worry about impressing the boss, or being seen to do the right thing.

Since completing my initial three-month freelance contract, I won several private contracts and now work mainly from home. I may not spend time commuting, but the lack of a “nine to five” environment also has it’s drawbacks. When one is working from home, the line between work and leisure can sometimes be blurred. I will often work Sundays and I usually return to work after supper, staying up till 11 or 12 at night. But the difference is, I do so out of choice and not out of necessity.

And because I don’t have the structure of an office environment, I have to create my own. Being a regular Shul goer is an advantage as it adds structure to my day. It also means that I have contact with other people, which is all the more important when working alone. I also have to schedule my days, weeks, and months ahead, so I have goals to work towards. Because I don’t have a Boss, I have to build in my own deadlines, and I also have to set aside time to put my “Salesman hat” on, so that when one contract ends, I have another in the pipeline.

Despite all this, I have no regrets. The office environment I left behind reminds me of school - buttering up to the teacher, trying to impress your “mates”, and making sure of friends in the right places. There is bullying, by teachers as well as pupils, people who “stab you in the back” because they may feel threatened, and a constant reminder of “rules”. I recently came across an advert on TV which features an employee sleeping all night at his desk. He’s pretending to have worked all night in order to impress his superiors. His Boss eventually walks in and says: “you’ve been working too hard, I should give you a pay rise”.

It’s a disturbing reality that in “enterprising Britain”, there isn’t much of a work ethic. Many corporations have an employer – employee relationship that equates to little more than mutual exploitation. Corporations don’t trust their employees, feeling the need to impose rules and hold down salaries, regardless of achievement. Employees in turn don’t feel rewarded and are inclined to give little back.

On reflection, it is not surprising that after more than a year of freelancing, I still get friends coming up to me asking when I’m going to apply for a “real job”. They find it hard to believe that someone can get up early in the morning of their own free will, in order to earn an honest salary