Reflections is a series of essays embracing the power of introspection, taking on personal topics and rooting out what is just below the surface.
“Am I desperately trying to animate a clichéd dream, typing in the corners of coffee shops when I’m not a “proper” author? Am I drawing out an unviable career, taking photos in outfits when I’m not a “proper” stylist? Or a “proper” photographer? Or a “proper” copywriter, marketer, journalist?”
“Do you have work tomorrow, Chloe?”
I averted my eyes from the television I was only half-watching to meet the gaze of my friend across the table. It was the kind of summer Sunday that beers and barbecues were made for, and after a few languid hours spent baking in the sun, the conversation steered towards the week ahead and any potential rumbles of a hangover.
“Uh, well, I don’t really have a job at the moment, so I guess not.” Though it was a statement, the inflection at the tail end of my response lifted into a question, like I was searching for the answer in the fabric of my words. If I’d convinced myself of any confidence so far, it was completely betrayed by the sincerity in my voice. The solid foundations of my career were shifting beneath my feet and I was a little baby deer with wobbly knees.
A few weeks earlier, I’d quit the freelance job which had until that point occupied 50% of my working week. Monday started with a team meeting, as did Wednesday and Friday, and I structured the rest of my time around this reliable schedule. If you’d have asked me at the time whether it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I would have plainly answered no. But it had been a part of my routine for five years, and the little regularity that I had as a self-employed person was rooted in this one role.
Without the staples of these appointments rising like columns through the five days ahead, I suddenly found myself panicking about the legitimacy of my ‘work’. All that spanned ahead was time: big, bare, open time. Sure, I would wake up the next day as normal – enjoying a tea in bed while fantasy-browsing magnificent houses I could never afford – and I would shower, sit down and start typing as on any other Monday. But this time, I wasn’t doing it for anyone, and I didn’t have to be anywhere at any certain time. Or perhaps it would be more authentic to say that I knew I was doing things only for myself, and that felt far less worthwhile.
On this particular Sunday, I’d arrived at the reflective stop on my grieving tour. I’d passed through elated freedom and panicked breathless tears on my Mum’s shoulder. I’d declared I was going to change careers completely or maybe I’d never work again and live off the land instead. I hadn’t clawed myself so far out of the catastrophe hole to believe I’d have a stable job but my fingertips were over the edge and I’d made peace with the financial necessity of milking my own oats. So what if Clacton were my new Cannes? I could live without the M&S 3 for £7.
“As I sat with the feelings a little longer and started pulling apart the knot in my chest, I recognised that my spiral was far more motivated by my own self-image than genuine concern for my future.”
Okay, I lied, I can’t live without it, but as I explained to my friend how the company and I came to part ways (the classic “it just didn’t work out”), and she in turn shared her perspective of being a new Mum whose maternity cover was soon to run out, the topic of money vs. reward came into question. “I think we need to reframe the relationship between work and suffering”, I posited, and the irony that I was dropping a few more ice cubes into my giant wine glass at that moment was not lost on me. “When I pay myself, it feels like I’m staving off destitution for another month. When somebody else pays me, it feels like a salary. A valid salary. What is that?”
This echoed a conversation I’d been having with another friend a few days earlier around the difficulty of work equating to its value. The harder the work, the greater the reward: that’s what the myth of meritocracy tells us. And hustle culture insists that if the reward has yet to reveal itself, we can’t be pulling enough all nighters or weekend shifts. Although I generated an income already through ad-hoc projects like content-creation and writing – and although this had been a source of income for me for longer than I’d been in any other job – when I quit the role that compensated me via another person’s purse, I suddenly felt adrift.
Initially, the fear was rooted firmly in finances. I was cutting out a solid chunk of regular, reliable income, something any self-employed person or small business owner will know is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. But as I sat with the feelings a little longer and started pulling apart the knot in my chest, I recognised that my spiral was far more motivated by my own self-image than genuine concern for my future.
“What actually am I? Is it the curse of my multi-hyphenate, that I’ll never settle on a firm sense of career identity, or is my sense of identity being clouded by the unsettling shift of change?”
I’ve had a job since I was 14 and independence is a part of how I value myself. It shapes a part of my identity, the corner of me that wants to prove I can be successful. Up until this point everything had been following a steady trajectory, gradually improving with a few minor bumps in the road. It may not have all been meticulously planned but there was order, structure and a sense of direction. When that changed – and changed quite suddenly – I was forced to reevaluate the relationship between my career and my self-worth.
Freelancing doesn’t feel like a “proper job”. Neither does creating content or writing articles. They’ve been my only source of income for the past 5 years but thanks to the quiet gaps which can be relied upon to pop up at the most inconvenient of times, the sometimes patchy and uncertain nature of working solo can sometimes be infantilising.
Am I desperately trying to animate a clichéd dream, typing in the corners of coffee shops when I’m not a “proper” author? Am I drawing out an unviable career, taking photos in outfits when I’m not a “proper” stylist? Or a “proper” photographer? Or a “proper” copywriter, marketer, journalist?
What actually am I? Is it the curse of my multi-hyphenate, that I’ll never settle on a firm sense of career identity, or is my sense of identity being clouded by the unsettling shift of change?
“I can’t help but catastrophise the worst case scenario – the situation where I lose everything and have to move back into my Nan’s tiny bedroom.”
“You are good at what you do!” My loved ones will sing whenever I release my brain worries into the world. But what if I’m not? And that’s the heart of it: not believing, deep down in the tangle of my roots, that I have any real value to offer.
My fear is that I’ve blagged it this far and I won’t be able to blag it again, and I’ll flounder, without a real job, without security, until suddenly I’m 40 and I have nothing to show for it apart from an Instagram account and a shit load of random skincare. Can people who are conventionally employed lose their jobs and have to suddenly change direction? Sure! But for some reason that doesn’t assuage my fears.
I can’t help but catastrophise the worst case scenario – the situation where I lose everything and have to move back into my Nan’s tiny bedroom – and in this scenario, I’m at fault for never getting a “proper job”. For resisting the 9-5 and trying to have my cake and eat it (read: work and enjoy my job).
“The time I waste worrying about the validity of my job and where I’m going to be in 10 years and whether I’m actually any good at anything, could be spent doing the things I want to do.”
If there’s one thing that sends me into a downward spiral, however, it’s wasting time. I’m tormented by my own mortality (we’ll save that for another article) and the prospect of having to start my career from scratch would feel like every hour of work up to that point had been wasted.
Truthfully, though, I’m wasting time right now in the pits of my own self-doubt. I’ve got one foot in the door and one foot out, not giving 100% because I’m afraid that if my career doesn’t work out, I’ll have cared about something and failed. It’s easier to protect yourself from disappointment when you’re not invested, and keeping that little bit of heart back is a method of self-preservation.
But I have to let go of the career fear. If I ever want to know what I’m capable of – if I ever want to give myself the opportunity to bat away self-doubt and say, ‘look, here, I did this!’ – I have to have a little faith.
I would love to be in control of every step of my life, to prepare for every eventuality and every ‘just in case’, but I can’t. And the time I waste worrying about the validity of my job and where I’m going to be in 10 years and whether I’m actually any good at anything, could be spent doing the things I want to do. The things I have been doing. The things which have paid me a consistent salary for the past 5 years, and which I’ve enjoyed – immensely – even if the bind of self-doubt within my mind is insisting otherwise.
Illustrated by Anna Jane Houghton, a Liverpool based researcher and artist. Drawing influence from the ‘motel’ aesthetic and beatnik literature; her illustrative style combines florals and fruit, amongst plant-life and mid-century interiors, to reimagine the classic still life.
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