A Sustainable Life

I’m beginning my second month of being ‘independently’ (i.e. self-) employed by reflecting on this more precarious existence. I’ve only ever grafted in the service of others and the reward for that is to know how much money was going into my bank account each month (for most of my working life, anyway). Thursday will be my first ever ‘pay-day’ with no pay and I feel a little apprehensive about that. But this is what I wanted; I’ve wanted it as much as I’ve feared it for the longest time and above all I’ve done in the last month, I’ve spent time re-learning myself as a freelancer.

As a freelancer, you are your own ‘machine’; your payroll and accounts, your leader and (self) manager, your marketing team. I’ve committed to averaging 30 hours a week in my new career and much of that is going to be technically unpaid (the paid bits won’t happen without it). Getting that balance right won’t be easy; I’m determined that the appeal of backroom stuff won’t lose its shine once I see the glimmer of dollar. Much as I like the idea of surviving on my own wits, I’m not a natural capitalist and there will be danger always in me giving away my skills for free and not covering my backside when it comes to paying the bills. But what I’m after here is a sustainable life, not a greedy one.

As the weeks passed, and opportunities – including opportunities to apply for proper jobs – presented themselves, I’ve become more certain that this is my best shot at being congruent with the posthuman philosophy I’ve been embracing in the past couple of Botanic painting of a ginger plant, which is a rhizomeyears. Of the many concepts embraced by posthuman thinking, the one which is resonating most strongly right now is the opportunity I have to work rhizomatically, in project-focused, time-limited constellations of practice with other activists, playing out my conviction that the work can be the organisation, after many years where the organisation was the work. I know that I don’t want a job, but I do want to work with others where our energies collect around an issue or initiative; work as equal thinkers to challenge and complement one another and then move on.

It has been liberating to spending time writing and working social media channels without feeling I was robbing someone else’s time. The problem with conventional ways of working is that we all buy into them as ‘the norm’ (i.e. we hegemonise them), even as we are attempting as individuals to work differently, so it’s easy to feel guilty even if no-one is calling you to account. Conflict is intrinsic to change within organisational structures, whether change is welcomed or not. That’s why we talk about new practices being ‘disruptive’ (again, a neutral word, but with negative connotations, unless, like me, you’re that contrary soul who loves a bit of disruption).

So the opportunity I’ve yearned for, to work smarter once freed of systems designed to suit a previous age, is here, and I’ve already made strides in terms of organising myself digitally: figuring out what to pay for (insurance, Google G-Suite) and what not to pay for (LinkedIn Premium), how and where to store stuff, developing online spaces, finding and building banks of open source images, using my calendar effectively and committing to weekly blogging (oops). I’ve still got much to learn re analytics, marketing and PR and I know I can plan and strategise more, but I’ve got the purpose and principles in place.

‘The work’ for me is about influencing how effectively other people think – about the world, about education, about health and wellbeing, about themselves – and I know that influence is partially about creating an echo chamber (it’s also about strategic focus) but there are dangers inherent in this. I want to make my work count; whether that’s in terms of education policy or a woman in Mexborough making a powerful healthy choice because she’s come out of my Slimming World group feeling good about herself. So there’s no good only ‘reaching out‘ to people who already think like me. There is very, very much that I don’t know and can’t see because of my experience, bias and privilege. I don’t want to uphold the status quo, I want to disrupt it and that means ethically drawing on different perspectives. So I’m figuring out how to stray into diverse spaces and encourage others to do the same.

I’ve been busy enough not to worry too much about the future (yet) and I’m loving being myself across the breadth of my life. I was talking with a friend yesterday about how we dress for work; having special ‘work clothes’ (I’m not talking technical gear here) and whether what they express about us in the workplace is really congruent with the people we are.  Keeping work and ‘life’ (is work not life?) separate only really makes sense within capitalism, where the majority work to further the minority. The theory I’m testing is that it really is OK to be myself, without shame, no matter where I am; that I don’t need the exo-skeletons of ‘management’ or codes of practice to conduct myself appropriately in any environment. Slimming World requires a ‘smart yet comfortable’ standard of dress; to me that’s an exhortation to go clothes shopping, not to put on a uniform that doesn’t suit my style. The same goes for behaviour: any prospective commissioner of my work won’t find a foot out of place if they check my social media profile; at the same time if they are offended by a bit of political ranting on Twitter we are probably not going to get along and I’d rather know that now, thank you very much, than live with the pain of it down the line.

It has been really helpful to answer the question, “what’s this new enterprise?” numerous times over the past couple of weeks. I think I’m getting better at being succinct! At first, even though I don’t really think like this, I separated out the ‘Culture Change’ part from the ‘Wellbeing’ part and – if I am to be completely honest – foregrounded the Culture Change work as being ‘proper‘, more ‘social purpose’ therefore more important to the world. How pompous is that? And why do I believe that some work is more credible? It’s definitely not about what pays the best (if it ever does become that, make me watch Ken Loach films). The amount of time I spend writing would not justify itself in terms of how much money I make from it but I’m not going to stop writing (or not see it as being ‘work’). Equally, selling Neal’s Yard products, whilst currently cringe-making to my public sector identity (CAPITALISM!) is doubtless an ethical way of making a living; more honourable than some of the abuses of public sector funding I’ve seen down the years (in every sector) for sure. It’s social purpose – organic, fairly traded, cruelty free – what’s not to like? Yet I creep apologetically around mentioning Neal’s Yard on social media, not out and proud like I am with my work as an educator – and I need to urgently deal with that because those are untrue limiting assumptions at play there. Equally, if you compare the impact of a successful Slimming World intervention on a woman (and her family), with – say – a one-off educators’ CPD event, in terms of immediacy (and a solid research base, incidentally) there is only one clear winner (clue: not the CPD).

So the next month’s challenge is to step up in terms of affirming the decisions I’ve made to pursue certain social purpose constellations – twelve at the last count, including writing and the pro-bono political journalism I’m doing as part of the Campfire movement. Whether it’s paid or not, whether it’s private sector or not, whether it’s sales or not, whether it’s ‘academic’ or not (what does that even mean?) is it social purpose is the first thing I will ask myself when I’m thinking about taking on something new.