The Born Freelancer on Whether or Not to Believe

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.



I was talking with a colleague recently. We were comparing notes about the freelancing life and duly complaining about this and that, when out of the blue he said, “Well, it’s not so bad for you, at least you always believe in what you’re working on”.

When I asked him to explain, he replied, “Well, I have all the same problems you do but rarely get the satisfaction of having dealt with them for something I believe in”. In other words, he was a true “gun for hire”. He didn’t necessarily have to believe in the project he was working on. As a result he had far more work and far more revenue streams than did I. Now maybe I had more “satisfaction” than he did but how relevant is that to the working freelancer with bills to pay and mouths to feed?

So I got to pondering – do you really need to believe in your work?

Now I’m not talking about caring – a related but separate issue. Nor am I talking about believing in yourself or in your abilities. I’m talking about whether you need to believe in the client or the client’s intentions, purpose, goal or product. It could be a belief in the integrity of the project. Or it could be a belief in the positive impact such a project might have on its viewers/ listeners/ readers.

I’m well placed to examine this question. Despite the comments made by my colleague I have in fact – at different points in my career – gone from needing to believe to not needing to needing again. So I’ve walked the walk on both sides of the street.

Why it matters to believe

* Greater satisfaction. I have always got greater satisfaction whenever I worked on a project in which I believed. At the end of the day I could feel good about what I had worked on that day. This wasn’t a moral thing; this was a “feel-good” issue of personal psychology. I had justified something intangible but important in my mind.

For those of us who were “born” to be creators (and seemingly had very little choice) our work is not just work, it is an extension and expression of a vital part of ourselves. It can be hard or impossible to separate personal and professional interests. Our greatest satisfaction therefore comes from work that enables us to be true to our core values. 

* Ease of effort. I’ve always found working on projects I believed in was actually easier than working on projects that I felt neutral about or to which I had personal objections. There are fewer philosophical reservations to work around; there are less reasons to question yourself; there is simply a greater motivation to get on with the work.

Whenever I’ve got stuck midway during work it’s often because I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture – of what I’m trying to achieve. A reminder of the integrity of the project and my belief in it usually redoubles my energies.

* Exceeding expectations. As a result of harnessing both personal and professional attitudes, the outcome often surpasses even my own modest expectations. When you truly want to be a part of a greater cause how can you not strive to do your very best? Without a doubt my work has always shone a little brighter, revealed a few more truths and generally kicked a bit more ass when I believed in it.

It is not hard to give a client more than they asked for when you believe in them. This is good business practice as it insures repeat contracts (if available) but it is also good for professional development. I’ve often been pleasantly surprised by the outcome of my efforts when channeled into a project in which I believed.

* Ethics. Whenever we are given talents to develop and opportunities in which to deploy those talents, it can be argued that it is morally a debasement and abuse of those talents and those opportunities in the pursuit of goals or objectives we know to be unworthy. To be involved in any project of dubious value makes us collaborators in such projects and culpable in whatever negative impact they might have.

Ethics and morality can be highly subjective, and very expensive. As my colleague pointed out, I had turned down numerous jobs I had found incompatible with my beliefs causing my bank balance to suffer. But I became much more adamant about this approach having walked the other side of the street and found its impact on my psyche too corrosive to long withstand. 

* Legacy. When we are long gone our work may well live on to inspire or conversely do harm. I’m not arrogant enough to think that anything I’ve ever worked on is all that important in the bigger scheme but I do know that sometimes even the smallest project can have a disproportionately powerful impact in unexpected ways. I know I want whatever I’ve worked on to inspire positive values that I believe in and not to promote qualities I would normally shun or even be repelled by.

I’ve worked on a number of political projects that I felt strongly about over the years. The direct impact of my work on the outcome of issues may be unknown but that positive action was taken in directions that I had worked towards achieving is undeniable. I would never want my work to have promoted policies and future actions in which I did not believe. 

OK, so now let’s look at arguments for not necessarily having to believe in work in which you are engaged. I don’t mean to justify doing a sloppy, incompetent or unprofessional job. I mean doing the best job you can do for projects for which you have no personal positive feelings, or else personally disapprove to some degree or another.

Why not believing can be justified

* Greater revenue streams. This is the greatest single reason not to get caught up in believing or not believing in any project, client or cause. A political party you oppose wants to pay you a fortune to write ads? Let the people make up their own minds. You have bills to pay.

Without a doubt, not worrying about whether or not you believe in a project or a client can increase your income, practically overnight. When you have to struggle to get a freelance job, any job, and then have to decide if you “believe” in it you greatly reduce the possibilities of gainful employment. Likewise if you only look for gigs that already reflect your “beliefs” then you are severely limiting the options available to you.

* Opening up new points of view. Who says we already know everything there is to know about every issue? Working on projects with opposing viewpoints from our own may open up new avenues of thinking, new modes of problem solving and expand our personal as well as professional horizons.

I once worked on a promotional campaign for a series of events that supported certain social issues that I had never thought about in the past. By working on the project and learning a great deal more about the subject I found myself redefining my own attitudes and gaining a genuine appreciation for its particular cause.

* Exercising your skills. Working on projects you believe in can be like jogging downhill. But are you really gaining any new skills or developing new techniques? Working on projects you don’t particularly believe in forces you to really sharpen your game; you can’t fall back on fuzzy warm assumptions and tried and true approaches. You have to really focus on the goal at hand and push yourself beyond your comfort zones.

I once had to make a public personality appear funny, warm and friendly. Having briefly met the individual ahead of time, I can tell you that they possessed none of these qualities. I considered it a highlight of that year’s work when I was told by friends that it must have been an easy job writing a speech for such an obviously “funny, warm and friendly” person.

* Ethics and morality in this specific instance are precious exercises in philosophy that the working freelancer does not have time, energy or inclination to debate. It’s not our mission to inflict our personal visions on the world with every project we work on. It’s our job to use our skills to put across the message of our client.

This attitude reminds me of criminal defence lawyers who may know their clients are less than honorable citizens. “Everyone is entitled to the best representation money can buy”.

However, I believe in personal responsibility. I know I cannot always control how my work is to be used nor how it may appear in its final form but I can still take responsibility for what leaves my laptop. 

So which is right?

It’s a highly personal choice. For many years I had (without even thinking about it) only accepted or gone after jobs that coincided with my own personal beliefs.

I enjoyed a limited success financially but always felt good about the work I was engaged in. It always felt “right”.

Financial hardship followed an especially bad downturn in the economy, forcing me to examine in detail the nature of the jobs I pursued and accepted.

Well-meaning friends pointed out that I was limiting myself to projects that fit into a very narrow range which effectively lined up with my own personal beliefs and outlooks. In order to make serious money, I was advised, I had to throw away such restrictions and go flat out for the best paying jobs whatever the goal, message or integrity of the client or project.

And so I did.

For several years I accepted projects that I had no particular belief in at all. I opened myself up to a broader range of projects, clients and points of view than I had ever previously considered.

After a few years, my bank account had never been healthier.

I had also never been so miserable.

I had found out, somewhat to my surprise, that I actually needed to believe in what I was doing in order to fully live my life well.

To clarify: I was never working for anyone or anything illegal, immoral or even especially distasteful. 

I was just working for people and projects that I actively wished I was not. People and projects I did not believe in.

When I stopped, my bank account never fully recovered.

But I did. I felt a whole lot better, healthier and happier. My work improved as a result.

And I have never looked back.

The takeaway

It’s not necessary for everyone to believe in all their work all the time. 

But for some of us not believing in what we do is profoundly alienating – not only from the world around us but also from ourselves.

Our work is more than just a job, it is an expression of our deepest desires to connect with others, to do good, to try to make sense of things in this world and to inflict no harm.

A  key reason why many of us chose to freelance is the freedom to choose work in which we can believe.

For me it turned out to be absolutely essential. 

Posted on October 16, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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