Stalking the Wild Mastodon (a.k.a Freelance Project Management)

A growing number of Americans like me lack what is called, in polite circles, a "job." Instead, we have "projects" that we do for various clients.
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A few days ago, the Labor Department went through its monthly ritual of releasing the nation's employment statistics. This specific number is intended to show the economy's overall health. In May, for example, employers created 157,000 "non-farm" jobs. In April they'd created 88,000 jobs, but the unemployment rate had ticked up a notch, so this inspired stock confusion and worries about the Fed. Of course, the numbers will be revised later. But this monthly data dump is still a ritual economists and stock pickers seem as addicted to as their morning coffee.

Personally, I've taken to looking at a different number on the Labor Department's monthly stat sheet. Follow down the page to link A5, and you find the number of self-employed people (in the "non-farm" economy). While this number fluctuates with the seasons and the economic cycle, it's certainly been rising over the past 15 years or so. The number of non-employer businesses - which tend to be run by self-employed people with a different tax status - has also been rising.

What all this means is that a growing number of Americans like me lack what is called, in polite circles, a "job." Instead, we have "projects" that we do for various clients. This is actually safer than working for one client that could go belly-up, as people with "jobs" do. But -- I've learned after interviewing hundreds of self-employed people over the past few years -- this jobless life also inspires a reasonable amount of angst about what you should be doing on any given day. Write a blog post? Brainstorm a book proposal? Pour a glass of Merlot and read Glamour in the guise of "market research"?

The most successful free agents have less angst about this. That's because they're clear on their priorities. They know how to balance current income with speculative projects and long term career growth. They have what I call the "mastodon mindset."

I came up with this metaphor not too long ago while brainstorming with Andrew Brooks, Phoenix-based owner of a life management company called Maximum Balance. Lacking Stephen Covey's motivational seminar gift for apt illusions, I suggested that maybe it was smart to pretend we free agents were cavemen, and going after big, dream projects was the caveman equivalent of hunting mastodons.

You always want to be hunting a mastodon. That's because mastodons are hard to catch. You don't catch many in a lifetime. They are career-making projects, and should be seized immediately. Yet they don't last forever. That's a problem because the old rules for building a career are based on hunting for one mastodon and gnawing on that thing until you retire. You live in fear of gaps between mastodons. If someone moves your mastodon, or your caveman tribe merges with another and there's only so much mastodon to go around (stay with me here), or you decide that your fellow tribe members are losers, you're left scrambling for more mastodon. So those of us with projects, not jobs, need to be smarter about our mastodon hunting strategy.

Brooks was wary. First of all, did mastodons and humans even exist concurrently? But once we decided this was irrelevant to a good metaphor, we decided that man couldn't live on mastodon alone. You need balance and back-up plans. So we pursue smaller, easier-to-catch, but still career-advancing projects as we hunt our mastodons. We could think of this as spearing fish and gathering berries.

But these fish and berries shouldn't be just any fish and berries, Brooks reminded me. "They should be giving you introductions to people who will be customers of your mastodon business. Or they should provide you with new ideas for your mastodon business."

Point taken. And what about those times when things are particularly rough, when you're forced to rely on tree bark and grass (mindless pay-the-bills work) for roughage?

"Make sure the things you're doing to stay alive are not pulling you away from capturing the mastodon," he said. In other words, if you've got to eat grass, make sure it's grass on the mastodon-hunting trail. To sum up:

* Always be chasing a mastodon (dream project). Even if you can't eat more than one mastodon at a time, be thinking about the next one while you're chewing.

* Choose fish and berries (good projects) wisely to round out your diet and improve your chances of landing future mastodons.

* Even tree bark (pay the bills projects) can keep you on the mastodon hunting trail.

To make a good living as a freelancer, you'll have to spend some time every day on all three of these categories. The trick to feeling like you're making progress, though, is to make sure the grass-and-tree-bark munching, even if it constitutes the bulk of your income, doesn't consume all your time.

Personally, I try to schedule my mastodon chasing for the first two hours of the morning (sometimes before checking email, in deference to organization guru Julie Morgenstern). Then I spend two hours doing the mindless projects that keep my checking account in the black. Then I spend my afternoons doing the good fish and berries projects that are both fun and pay decently. Well, I did until I had a baby a few weeks ago, which has compressed the time scale somewhat. But the principle still holds.

According to the Labor Department, I still don't have a job. But following these rules can make you feel a lot less angst-y about that fact.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

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