The Free(lance) Life, The Most Valuable Time Isn’t Billable
Now that I have a bit more of it on my hands, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Since I don’t have to be somewhere between 8:30 am and God-knows-whenever-past-5 pm each day, time just looks different to me now. Unequivocally, hours used to equal dollars, and 40 to 60 of them a week translated to stability. I was always trying to hit some arbitrary hours quota, and rarely did there ever seem to be enough of them in the day to do so.
Rather than wish for those years back though, I’m using that memory as a way to more fully appreciate how things are now, a way to interact with life outside the norm I’d created for myself. I still set my alarm every day, but I’m not beholden to it. I still take on many projects and always hit my deadlines, but I’m not bogged down by endless meetings and constant interruptions. I’m still incredibly inspired by the work, but I try my best to not let it consume me.
Take my word for it, owning your own time feels really, really good. Part of me wishes I would’ve done it sooner, but my saner half knows I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much if I had.
My 14-year-younger wife, Whitney (aka the love of my life aka my retirement plan) has always been motivated by seeing the world and exploring other cultures. So even though I’ve always been quite content staying close to home, we end up travelling quite a bit. Our most recent international trip was to Croatia. I’ll spare you the vacation photos (well, except the one above), but I can honestly say that over an 8-day span, from Zaghreb to Split to Dubrovnik and back, I only responded to one email (Yes, Moody, it was yours!). Whether driving alongside the calm, intoxicating blues of the Adriatic or taking in the world’s second longest wall in Ston (fingers crossed it remains the second longest), there I was, living in the moment, trying to soak in the experience even just half as much as she was. (As someone who just a few years earlier proclaimed, “Let’s go home” immediately upon arriving in the Cabo airport, that was new for me.) One day, on an impromptu excursion to the quaint Croatian island of Brač, I found myself art-directing a photo of a lone pine cone atop a small boulder before a sparkling crystal blue bay backdrop as though it was the single most important task in the world.
We also recently took a short trip to Colorado with my father-in-law, his wife (they live in Arkansas, so we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to) and my daughter, Summer (she lives in our basement, but we don’t see her nearly as much as we’d like to either). Amid all those snow-capped mountains, brief wildlife encounters, and minute-by-minute weather changes, we managed to do more than just catch up — we truly connected. Maybe for some people, that’s not such a big deal; it’s just what you do when you’re with family. But for me, after years of putting work before all else, the experience was nothing short of profound. My laptop never left my bag. More importantly, my mind never wandered further than Keystone or Vail or Breckenridge or Leadville. On our way back from lunch one day, we spotted a family of moose in the tall grass. Parked at a good distance, we sat in awe watching their casual movement through the brush. I’m certain we spoke about it, but all I recall is the silence.
And just a short while ago, Whitney’s mom, sister and three nieces – 12, 9 and 3 – came up for a two-week stay from Missouri. Though I had two larger projects on my plate at the time, I was able to free up my days by putting in a couple late nights. I never felt too tired, stressed or overwhelmed, the work was very well received, and I was grateful for all the time with family. I took Aliana, the oldest niece to lunch one day, just the two of us. We sat outside at Amazing Thailand, gorged on tom yum and wontons, and bantered about what it’s been like for her living the military family life, moving from place to place, always in the position of having to make new friends. Afterwards, we went jeans shopping for her, only to end up with her picking out a new shirt for me. Now she claims Uptown is her favorite part of Minneapolis, but all I choose to hear is “Zaar is my favorite uncle.” I can’t say that I’m looking forward to any particular projects next summer, but I can definitely say I’m already looking forward to next summer’s visit.
Truth is, it’s easy to label our days abroad or in the mountains or surrounded by loved ones as valuable non-billable time — that’s just the way it should be, right? But beyond those more obvious moments, somewhere deep in the solitude of the freelance life, I’m finding myself increasingly more inspired by an hour here and there spent helping someone craft a résumé, reviewing a student’s portfolio, or spicing up a personal piece for a friend. Not only does it help me feel productive when paying work slows down, it makes me feel needed. And sometimes, there’s just nothing more valuable than that.