The Folly of False Feedback

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Winston Churchill

I’ve been part of quite a few freelancing groups online. They’ve been based mostly on Facebook and they’re the kinds of groups that revolve around some blogger’s ability to have created a community around her- or himself.

You know the types – read the site, sign up for a newsletter or two, and then BLAM – join my private Facebook group (like there’s actually some barrier to entry) to get even more information and meet other like-minded entrepreneurs. We can all celebrate the awesomeness of our lives together!!

I quickly realized that I’m not cut out for these groups. They’re too….touchy-feely. They exist solely to prop people up when, in reality, a lot of the people involved need reality checks more than they need support. When you’re a “writer” and you post a link to one of your typo-ridden blog posts for circulation and no one calls attention to its shortcomings for fear of “tearing you down,” well, that’s a problem. (like this last sentence…holy run-on, right??)

Yet comment after comment in these groups is the same:

“Oh, this is great!”
“I really needed to read this today! Thanks!”
“Sooooo good!!”

and, my personal favorite….

“OMG – totally adding this to my Buffer.”

OMG, kill me.

In reality, the comments should go something like:

“Decent start, but your sentence structure needs a little work…keep going!”
“I got a little lost on the point you were making in the third paragraph. Otherwise, it’s a great start and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished version!”
“D’oh! There’s a typo in the second paragraph. Fix that, re-work the fourth sentence in the fifth paragraph, and fix that big block of text in the middle of the page. But you’re on to something!”

Ok, so by now you’re probably asking if I’m in a particularly bad mood as I write this. Truth be told, I might be feeling a bit snarky. But that doesn’t negate a very important fact of life and the thread that will run through today’s post. And that is…..

People don’t learn unless they are criticized.

Tell someone that they’re good at something when they’re not and they will continue to do that thing badly. You haven’t propped them up – you’ve done them an incredible disservice.

Now, I understand when friends do this for other friends. I operated as a professional photographer a few years ago and, like most people with a camera, I loved taking pictures and sharing them with my circle. The feedback was always amazing:

“Sooooo good!!”
“WOW!! Absolutely gorgeous!”
“Love this!!”
“Beautiful pictures, Eric!”

Admittedly, this was great for the ego. But, I was also self-aware enough to wonder if the same feedback would be possible from complete strangers. And, sure enough, it wasn’t until I sought the advice and criticism from those who didn’t actually know me that I started to get better at my craft. It would take years of this particular kind of growth before I would have the audacity to charge for my work.

The same thing has happened with writing. I’ve shared a few pieces with friends along the way. They were, of course, very supportive. But it wasn’t until I started putting my words in the public eye and seeking out true criticism that I started discovering the things that I really needed to improve upon. Because, guess what…there actually were faults in the writing. There were cracks and there were things that needed my attention. Hell, there were full-on holes. There was massive room for improvement.

This is what puzzled me about these Facebook groups. These are people who don’t technically know each other. They’re not friends, per se. They are merely people united under the common flag of having started working as freelancers. They are looking for some sort of common bond to share with others. They are looking to learn, to grow, and to make themselves better and give themselves a better chance at success.

So, why do they decide to spend that time lying to each other??

Here’s what happens in a situation like that.

Our freelancer in question posts blog post after blog post to their group. Week after week, they post their little “tidbits” and life stories and week after week they’re told how good their posts are. Never mind that it’s work that probably wouldn’t make it past a 7th grade English teacher. No, we’re going to keep telling our freelancer that their posts are great and we’re going to comment on them and maybe even share them with others.

Then the freelancer decides to go after a job. Propped up by months of positive feedback for mediocre work, the freelancer confidently goes after a job, somehow gets a win – probably based on personality – and starts working.

Two weeks later, the client is livid.

The work is mostly unusable and will require the client to go find another freelancer to fix it – spending even more money because they are now effectively having to buy this work twice.

The freelancer is crushed. Literally….crushed. They have no idea what just happened. Every single word they’ve ever heard about anything they’ve ever produced, even from the strangers in their Facebook groups, has been positive. But, when it came down what matters, they failed miserably.

So what was the difference? What was that thing that mattered? It’s simple.

Money.

Clients expect value for the money they are giving in exchange for your work. They are enriching you financially so they damn well better be getting something in return. They’re not paying you in feedback or in slots in their Buffer queue. They’re paying you with cash. Legal currency that could do just as much for them as it can do for you.

Keep that in mind when you’re feeling like stepping outside of the guarded walls of your positive feedback loop. Seek out critical eyes that have no problem telling you that your work is just ok.

Opportunities to improve are everywhere – even in the places we don’t want to look.

Freelancing Might Not Be for You…And That’s Ok

I read a post by Salon’s Steven Hill the other day that got me thinking. The title?

The Uber-economy Fucks Us All: How ‘Permalancers’ and ‘Sharer’ Gigs Gut the Middle Class.

As a permanent full-time freelancer and a member of the middle class, I desperately wanted to know how my job, and the jobs of over one-third of the US workforce, was killing the country’s economy.

The title alone probably should have given me pause before clicking. First of all – he said ‘fuck.’ If this was going to be some sort of brainy academic analysis of the economic costs and benefits of this new way of working, then I think…well…I think that would have been the title. “A Brainy Academic Analysis of the Economic Costs and Benefits of Permalancing and Sharing Gigs, by Salon’s Steven Hill.”

Alas, it was not meant to be.

No, this was going to be an angry post full of angry words written by an angry man. And, sure enough, the first thing you see when the page comes up is an angry picture of a very angry Donald Trump.

Oh boy.

And so we begin with the first sentence:

A significant factor in the decline of the quality of jobs in the United States has been employers’ increasing reliance on “non-regular” employees — a growing army of freelancers, temps, contractors, part-timers, day laborers, micro-entrepreneurs, gig-preneurs, solo-preneurs, contingent labor, perma-lancers and perma-temps.

Hill goes on, over the course of the next 1200 words, to detail a laundry list of complaints that he has with this new reliance on non-W2 workers:

  • Companies aren’t responsible for contractor’s benefits, retirement, sick leave, vacation time, or any of the other perks that come with full-time employment.
  • It breaks the agreement that corporations made with workers during the New Deal, creating a dystopian world of “on-again, off-again” employees.
  • You only get paid for the work you’re actually doing. Mr. Hill no longer gets paid to go to the bathroom or chat at the water cooler, and this was a big enough problem for him that he included it as a complaint in his post.
  • You have to track multiple income streams and exert effort to make sure that you get paid for the work you do.

The list goes on and on. The “1099’ed” economy means the end of the “good jobs that have supported American families,” the end of the middle class, and the start of the decline of the United States as a world leader.

Oh please.

While I understand that most of his anger is directed at the companies that have triggered this shift and not so much with the people who now live and work it, I still have to ask a fairly basic question:

Mr. Hill, could it be that freelancing just isn’t for you?

And couldn’t you be ok with that rather than condemning the choice that millions of Americans have made in their method of work and “the sky is falling” your way to the end of American civilization as we know it?

Hill wrote his post as the result of having been laid off. And believe me; I understand the anger that comes with a layoff. When I was working in the technology industry I was laid off twice in less than a year. Both jobs were outstanding opportunities that evaporated because…well…what good does it do to try to place blame at this point. Business is business and the choices that businesses make have consequences for their employees. Anyone who has held a job in the past decade can attest to that.

But, in his anger, Hill has made some assertions about life in this freelanced economy that I, and those like me, have to take issue with.

I voluntarily left full-time employment to work for myself and become a full-time freelancer. I wasn’t forced out. It wasn’t a “resign or be fired” situation. No, my desk was empty the day after my final two week notice because I chose not to go back.

And, honestly, I don’t know what it would take to get me to go back to that life. Everything that Mr. Hill abhors about the freelance life is something that I adore because it has made me infinitely better at what I do.

I’m the person that gets called when companies don’t have someone on staff that can solve their problem. Every dollar I make is made because I’ve added value to a situation that required my assistance in order for it to become successful. While companies and corporations lumber their way through their day to day operations, carrying their full-timers on their backs and paying for their best and their worst work, I have to create value 100% of the time or my clients will find someone else who can.

Subsequently, I’m able to charge for the value I provide, and my services are not cheap. However, as if following the tired “they’re taking our jobs!” battlecry to a T, Hill focuses his attention and energy on the lost income and “race to the bottom” aspects of freelance income generation. Try hard enough and you can actually see the same arguments used by the anti-immigrant community creep into Hill’s anti-freelance sentiment.

“Those with money,” he says, “will be able to use faceless, anonymous interactions via brokerage websites and mobile apps to hire those without money by forcing an online bidding war to see who will charge the least for their labor, or to rent out their home, their car, or their personal property.”

And later…

“Indeed, the so-called “new” economy looks an awful lot like the old, pre-New Deal economy – with “jobs” amounting to a series of low-paid micro-gigs and piece work, offering little empowerment for average workers, families or communities.”

For freelancers who focus on providing value to their clients and ensuring that they are functioning as valued members of their clients’ teams, this “race to the bottom” is a figment of the imagination. It doesn’t exist. We don’t compete in that space.

Having properly executed my plans, my freelance income levels are well above anything I ever made as a full-time employee of any one company. See, while Mr. Hill complains about not being paid for time not spent working, I spend my time figuring out how to become more valuable to my clients. Rather than talking about the weather while I wait for the Lean Cuisine that I pulled out of a disgusting shared freezer to finish microwaving, I’m figuring out new ways to make my clients successful.

I compete on value – not on price. And, as a result, I have been repeatedly tasked with “fixing” work that other, low-priced bargain basement freelancers screwed up. At times, I’ve been able to do things that a company’s full-timers simply couldn’t make happen. Why?

Because changing course on a jet ski is a hell of a lot of easier than turning a cruise ship.

And I’ve done this while enjoying all kinds of benefits.

While I don’t have sick leave or paid vacation time, I work when and where I want to work at times that are convenient for both me and my wife, who also happens to work a non-traditional schedule. As a result, we see each other more than we could dream of if I was forced into a standard 9 to 5.

I’ve set my own rate as a function of the value I provide to the clients that I work with, rather than laying down at my full-time employer’s feet and hoping that they can find it in their heart to give me a cost of living increase for the year…a function of inflation and economic conditions; not my organizational contribution or value.

I pick and choose the projects I want to work on. If I don’t feel a task or an employer is a good fit, I simply decline it.

I am talent for hire and my skills and abilities go to the highest bidder, not the lowest. I am the most professionally empowered that I have ever been.

And what do I give in return for all of this? I have to work to find jobs to fill gaps when I’m not working with my regular, repeat clients and, no, I don’t get paid for that time. I have to pay more in taxes and track the finances of my business rather than just checking to make sure that my direct deposit went through every two weeks. I have to be “on” 100% of the time. And, I have to constantly question and take inventory of whether my business is moving in the direction I envisioned when I started it.

If Mr. Hill ever found another full-time job, and I hope he did given how long ago the post was written, then I wish him the best in it. But that world is no longer for me and millions of people like me. We understand that corporate loyalty died with our grandparents and the freelancing economy is simply that death taken to its logical conclusion as seen from the workers’ side.

The wonderful thing that no one could have ever seen coming, however, is that we don’t need the full-time employment of those corporations and companies and the bullshit that comes with it. Rather than completely surrendering to a fate over which we have no control, we’ve chosen to seize the opportunity presented by living in this era and become our own businesses. Technology allows us to enjoy freedoms that we never could have considered while under the thumb of a W2. I don’t need an office park, a cubicle, casual Fridays, and an office manager tracking whether I’m two minutes late through the door in the morning.

I need my laptop or iPad, some wifi, and a decent cup of coffee.

My life is far from dystopian, Mr. Hill. In fact, it’s the closest I’ve been to Utopia in my entire professional existence.