On professionalism

The Born Freelancer replies to a comment on bridge-burning

Last month, “Dude” commented on my post about blowing up bridges: “I think it quite ironic that in this post you caution against bridge burning, then two posts down celebrate the life of someone who was fearless—and sometimes reckless—enough to burn every bridge he’d ever built. As for this fetishism regarding “professionalism”—get over it. There’s not enough money, almost literally, in publishing for you to care. Be bold. Be brave. Be uncompromising. Or find a career where being obsequious can actually pay dividends.”

Dude —

Many thanks for taking time to share your thoughts. You bring up some pertinent issues.

For the record, to be strictly accurate, I (the Born Freelancer) did not post about Christopher Hitchens. That was done by the Editor of this site (in this post). And quite rightly, too, for he was a charismatic force of nature to be reckoned with and his passing leaves a great void to be filled.

Hitchens was an exception to some of the advice I try to share here but his bridge blowing didn’t get him there, his hard work and unique talents did. His success then gave him license to behave as he wished although his particular style of bridge burning was extremely strategic and became part of his distinctive brand. However there was only one Christopher Hitchens. I’ve met many less successful freelancers without his talent who believed that they too had earned the right to behave similarly. I often wonder whatever became of most of them.

That he was a personal role model for many I get, although he was never one of mine. However I thoroughly enjoyed his cutting dry wit and appreciated a great deal of his body of work. The world is richer for his crusading brand of journalism.

“Dude” inadvertently raises a useful question, one that every committed freelancer ought to ponder. What is “professionalism”? For me it’s definitely not any kind of mere “fetishism.” It is a matter of self-respect and pride in creating a rational standard of responsible adult behavior that directly informs my brand. Your mileage may vary. And I would posit that if someone doesn’t care—enough—about themselves, about their work and ultimately its affect on them then they should get out of freelancing altogether. There is not enough money in this business for anyone who doesn’t absolutely have to be in it!

You see, I’ve been there. First I cared too much and with that they tried to destroy me. So then I stopped caring at all and I nearly destroyed myself. Finally I found a balance of caring—enough—without letting them destroy me because of it. It took a lot of time and energy to find that space. In my posts I guess I’m trying to save some of you some of the agonizing steps in between if at all possible. But I know it won’t be relevant advice for everyone. It certainly would not have been for Mr. H.

I would agree with “Dude” that being bold and brave and uncompromising are all laudable goals. But I think most people would accept that these very desirable life qualities have many avenues for expression. Working to put food on a family table or making a lifetime commitment to specific issues or the art and craft you engage in are alternative examples that readily come to mind. I would further propose that they are in reality much more bold and brave and uncompromising (although obviously less glamorous) than highly fashionable attention-seeking public meltdowns. This definition won’t do for everyone of course nor should it. And so if blowing up bridges works well for some freelancers that’s great because it certainly leaves more work opportunities behind for the rest of us. But no one will ever become the next Christopher Hitchens simply because of it – that is to confuse form with substance. It will be because of much deeper, more profound insights into the human condition which can be achieved and expressed in any number of different ways.

Finally, I have never been an advocate for obsequiousness. On the contrary, to survive and thrive in freelancing requires the antithesis of it. To expand upon what I have previously written—I think freelancers should always feel free to walk away from any employer for whom you do not wish to work based upon compatibility of viewpoints or integrity of your brand. Indeed it is one of the many great advantages of being freelance. And of course you should always try to bravely stand up for what you believe in. (Given that this is a business you also need to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em as the old song goes). I have on occasion lost jobs for sticking uncompromisingly to my own principles. More on this another time.

But how we play the game can take many different forms at different times, some decidedly less theatrical than others. It’s a matter of choosing your battles and seeing the bigger picture—for example, do you want to fight social injustice or every jerk for whom you were ever employed? When I leave a work relationship for whatever reason, as I’ve already outlined, I rarely feel the need to blow it up gratuitously behind me just to say goodbye.

But, hey, different strokes for different folks.

Rest In Peace Mr. Hitchens, although I suspect you probably won’t enjoy it.

— The Born Freelancer

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Posted on February 17, 2012 at 10:25 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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