finding happiness in freelancing

It’s my five year freelance anniversary! Unbelievable. I have now been self-employed the same amount of time that I was “stuck” in a full-time job that drained me. Why did it drain me? I used to think it was the job itself. Over time, I have come to realize that one thing is essential when it comes to being happy with what I do—and that is doing what I like to do.

freelance logic
“To be happy, do what you like.” This may sound logical to you or even like a tautology, but believe me, it took me a while to get to this epiphany. Back then, when I was working at a publishing company, my work life turned sour when I was no longer working on manuscripts but rather coordinating publishing projects. One might think this is the logical next step on the career ladder— which may even be true—but it simply did not make me happy.

pick and choose
As a freelancer, in my capacity as a translator, editor, teacher of adult education and yes, entrepreneur, I have been lucky enough to be quite happy. Why? Because I’ve been blessed to pick and choose not only my clients but also my tasks. And while it is true that as a freelancer I have profited greatly from the superior position of project coordinator I fulfilled in the publishing company, it’s the tasks that focus on language and optimizing language that keep me motivated and happy. Solving a language issue, translating a text, correcting mistakes in existing texts—all these tasks are things I do well, and most importantly, I enjoy doing them.

Teaching has also given me a great amount of joy. Not only am I working with language and—especially on higher linguistic levels—optimizing someone’s understanding of it, but I am empowering others. This social aspect of my work emerged during the process of going freelance, when I was forced to ask myself which role in society I want to occupy, which problems my company should solve. So not only do I empower others or make the world a better place by improving language use and understanding, I only do so for clients I don’t have to be ashamed to work for. And when teaching adults, you almost always teach those who are eager to learn and improve themselves.

When I first became self-employed, I thought it would be important which type of text I would be working on. In the past five years, I have translated and edited touristic texts, medical texts, technical texts, novel abstracts, websites for other freelancers, legal texts, restaurant menus, marketing texts, PR texts, and others. I have come to learn that the type of text makes no difference at all, but rather what counts is the amount of work I am permitted to put into a manuscript. When clients appreciate my input or comments and become sparring partners, I do my best work. Work is most unsatisfactory when a client does not really care about the quality of their text but simply ‘needs’ a translation or an edit. The type of text makes no difference, similar to the language level in teaching. What really makes me happy is working with language. German or English, I love the fine-tuning that language offers, whether it’s in translation, when correcting texts, or when teaching an aspect of grammar that will propel a student’s overall understanding of language use.

As a freelancer, you also have to make sure to achieve “work-life-balance”, just like employees. At times, this can be difficult. As most freelancers know, the saying ‘When it rains, it pours’ holds true. Taking on work in a low workflow can result in 60-hour work weeks the following month. But here too, I have gotten smarter. Balance is not so much based on time as it is on tasks. I have found that when I balance out my tasks, I am much more content. A bit of translation, some editing, and a bit of teaching was my balance for a long time. Over the past two years, I have added the creative task of lettering and the holistic task of Pilates training to the mix, which are both tasks that I do more for myself than for clients, to be completely honest. Nevertheless, this balance is what has kept this freelancer happy and motivated these past five years.

unhappy or happy
When I look back at how unhappy I was after five years as a full-time employee and how happy I am now as a self-employed entrepreneur, I realize it’s not the job or the client that defines your happiness—it’s the task. Whether you work for yourself, a start-up, or as an employee of a large company; with the right tasks, a bit of appreciation and some balance, you’ll be happy. It took me five years to figure it out, but I think I’ve got it.