For most of the past year, I've described myself as some variety of "freelance hardware guy." It's an admittedly vague description, and every few days I'm asked what it actually means.
My stock response begins by acknowledging, with an ambiguous amount of humor and a full stop at the end, that it's a good question. I'm not comfortable with the hazy distinction between being freelance and straight hustling, which is a space I've explored in depth since quitting my job last January. I made a few quick changes in my life last winter, and did so without a plan for how my career was going to proceed. My path since then has been, unsurprisingly, a bit circuitous, and though I've managed that with healthy doses of humor and enthusiasm, I remain somewhat unsettled about where I've gotten myself.
It's definitely the case that I'm happier now - both with the direction I'm heading and with the work I'm doing - than I was in the year prior to leaving my job. Ditto with my time building custom bikes and managing construction projects - which is to say, the vast majority of my post-college life. My relationship with my work is probably healthier now than it was at any point prior.
But defining my place is tricky. I am generally disinterested in pursuing freelance work. I want to be working intimately with a committed, integrated, cross-functional team, and the freelance channels I'm aware of tend to reward specialists, not generalists.
I have interviewed for a handful of full time jobs, and while I've generally enjoyed the process (true story) my results there have been decidedly mixed. "Cross-functional" isn't a term that pops up much in the hiring process, and my particular form of cross-functionality is additionally weird. I like to think that my formidability, intelligence, and broad skillset would make hiring me an easy choice, but i recognize that I'm a Jack of a particular subset of all trades - as all are - and that's not always a selling point.
I have been lucky to get a few interesting design contracts, and have hit them well. I've done my fair share of hustling, too. I worked as a CAD designer for an architectural metal shop for a few days, and part-time in a bike shop for a little while. I've spent a considerable amount of time doing maintenance on my dad's boat, which ends up being rather interesting. But it isn't exactly a path towards anything in particular, and it takes me away from the city, where I've built a richer social and emotional life than I've had since college.
The meat of my year has been spent on "independent work," which is both a euphemism for "whatever I want to geek out about today" and also a convenient shorthand for both diverse and serious entrepreneurial exploration. I've reimagined myself as a variety of types of strategist/designer/manager/promoter, and have put my whole self into developing those skills on projects that I strongly believe have legs.
I've spent a ton of additional time learning. I've read more in the past year than anytime prior, and have documented my intake (along with the things I've done) more completely and succinctly than ever before. I've taught myself a few new CAD workflows, and learned a bit of Ruby, and would go so far as to call myself pretty competent when it comes to advanced manufacturing. I've stepped my game up with open source electronics, and taken a big jump with PCB layout as well.
Sometime over the summer I acknowledged that this would be my hungry time, and hungry I have been. It's an exciting mode of existence, but it has been difficult, from time to time, to maintain my belief that I'm on a path towards the life I want. I crave daily external validation, which comes in discrete and all too infrequent spurts. And more importantly, my life now lacks a single, shared vision that what I'm working on is good. At my last job that feeling was at times palpable - though in the end it slid into a chilling sense of hubris. I recognize that one's hungry time will, as a matter of course, lack a sense of shared vision, and I accept that as a built in feature of the life I've chosen. But there are times when that tradeoff is difficult to bear.
My life now requires more of an internal locus of control than I have ever needed.
I am not given to predicting what my next year will hold. It's a difficult idea to wrap my head around, and in all honesty I'd rather not consider the possibility that my hungry time will continue through 2014. But I must also consider that - despite my shaky income and inconsistent external validation - my life now is remarkably close to what I want. I'm working on things that I care about, and collaborating with people who I respect deeply. My ability to spend quality time with the people I love is as great as it ever has been, and my physical condition - though down a bit from a year ago - is generally good.
The fact that these factors are all positive makes me question my desire for a traditional career. I wonder now what that's worth to me, considering that there are (presumably) other viable options towards happiness.
So what does freelance mean? To me, it's about structuring your own life, and doing so in a way that involves many small commitments in lieu of one large one. It means following up on leads, emailing *all* of the people, buying them coffee. It means hustling. It means asking people tough questions, and giving yourself the same treatment.
But most of all, it means holding an explicit belief that what you're doing is right, and making sacrifices in order to keep doing whatever that is.