Tag Archives: Tyra Seldon

Affordable Freelancing [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Sensei Tyra Seldon discusses a new report from Commercial Café which surveys the cost of freelancing in various cities.  The basic idea is to calculate the base cost of renting an apartment and an office, and take a national average $38 hour charging, estimate how many hours per week is needed in different cities.  (The logic here is that freelancers can live anywhere, while charging national rates.  Your mileage may differ.)

The results are not particularly surprising, in line with what we already know of relative costs of living.  But the “hours per week” metric is revealing:  the most expensive locations require 100 hours per week or more (at the nominal $38/hour) to just get by [1].  Personally, I don’t think that’s feasible.

Sensei Seldon points out that this kind of calculation is an economic driver for “co-living” arrangements  [2]. Or, I’d say, moving out of the city.

I don’t have precise statistics at hand, but a back of the envelope calculation indicates that even the cheapest major city are more expensive than living in a small town or small city.  Assuming you can really charge NYC or Bay Area rates while living in a small city, my calculations say you can get the best space in town (with a yard for pets, kids, and a garden!) at about 25-30 hours per week.

It may not be as “exciting” as the big city, in all the unnamable ways that people like living in major urbs.  But there is an affordable opportunity.  And if you have connections to family and/or a major University, then this can be a quality lifestyle.

So, to the degree that Freelancing actually lets you actually live out here in the hinterland, and still have a good career, then it is a very interesting New Way of Work indeed.

  1. Diana Sabau, Your Work Week Could Be 10 Hours Shorter in Dallas or Houston – What’s it Like to Live and Work as a Freelancer in These US Cities?, in Commercial Cafe. 2018. https://www.commercialcafe.com/blog/your-work-week-could-be-10-hours-shorter-in-dallas-or-houston-whats-it-like-to-live-and-work-as-a-freelancer-in-these-us-cities/
  2. Tyra Seldon, The best cities for freelancers who want affordability, in Freelancers Union blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/12/10/the-best-cities-for-freelancers-who-want-affordability/

[For more on this, see the book “What is Coworking?“]

What is Coworking?

“Freelancing can be sustainable”

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this week about the “Sustainability” of freelancing.  As she says, besides the attractions of freelancing, such as “the ability to work from home and to spend quality time with family” it is still critically important “to support and provide for oneself and one’s family.”[4]

As she says, sustainability is a significant challenge and cause for anxiety for freelancers. There are plenty of exploitative, low paying “opportunities” for freelancers.  Every freelancer has to worry about money.

In a second piece, Sensei Seldon gives some sensible advice about long term thinking, which includes maintaining cushions for lean times and flexibility for the inevitable changes to come [3].  This advice is actually the same for all workers these days.

On the question of whether there is enough money out there, Sensei refers to a recent study that reports fairly rosy statistics [4].  A study by MBO Partners find 20% of workers earning $100,000 or more annually, and the “average” income of the sampled independents slightly higher than the overall “median” income for the US [1].

One explanation for these numbers is that there are an increasing number of highly skilled technical professionals in tech and pharma who work as independent contractors, with concomitant salaries.  So high paid workers can be high paid contract workers if they want.

This kind of survey tends to make me twitchy and hypercritical.

Obviously, warning lights come on with statements about the “average income” of $69,000, especially when compared to “median household income” ($58,000).  We all know about the different kinds of “average”, and with the information above we know that there are quite a few high end earners who will skew a mean income, and shouldn’t be compared to medians.  The fact is, the vast majority of independent workers earn less than the average median income (which is none too high, IMO).

There are other warning flags about this and similar studies.  For some reason, the study defines “full time” freelancing as 15 hours or more per week. (They also confirm the FU survey’s finding that “full time” freelancers average about 35 hours per week—less than a conventional work week.)

There is the question of what that income figure should be compared to.  For a conventional job, the salary is only part of the compensation, which can include insurance, pension, and other benefits, which can be as much as 50% of total compensation.  So comparing the pay must account for the cost of benefits, etc.  And it is not clear how these are accounted in this survey.

(??) “full-time independents in the tech and pharmaceutical industries tend to earn more than their peers.” (from [2])

So, does a freelancer’s $100,000 have to pay pension and insurance?  If so, it’s no where near as much take home.  Again, I can’t tell from the report.

I’ll also note that the study is based on an internet poll, self-reported.  Who knows how representative the sample may be, or how reliable the reporting.

One more critical point in the survey:  all these trends are happening in a tightening job market, at the end of a big run up. Wages are rising, positions are unfilled. Rising pay is to be expected.

At the next downturn, though, these trends will reverse, and freelancers will be the first to feel the hit.  Conventional workers will lose their jobs, but freelancers will lose contracts first, and will have to take less money for the same work.  So whatever this survey shows, it certainly isn’t a guide to the future.

Let’s not be too pessimistic.  There are opportunities, especially for skilled workers with established credentials.

But let’s not fool ourselves with weak statistics.  Freelancing is still risky, especially in many industries, and especially when economic cycles turn down.

On the other hand, conventional employees face similar risks.

  1. MBO Partners, The State of Independence in America: 2018: The New Normal. MBO Partners, 2018. https://www.mbopartners.com/uploads/files/state-of-independence-reports/State_of_Independence_2018.pdf
  2. Elaine Pofeldt, New Data: Six-Figure Freelancing Is On The Rise, in Forbes. 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/elainepofeldt/2018/07/12/new-data-six-figure-freelancing-is-on-the-rise/#5a65906c2a94
  3. Tyra Seldon, How to make your freelance business sustainable, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/09/21/how-to-make-your-freelance-business-sustainable/
  4. Tyra Seldon, A new study shows freelancing can be sustainable, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/09/13/freelancing-can-be-sustainable/

Seldon on work life balance for Freelancers

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this month about the importance of work-life balance for Freelancers [1]. There are a whole lot of issues under the general challenge of “work-life balance”, and they are vital for all workers, not just Freelancers.  If you don’t get it right, there could be a high price to pay for you and people you love.

Her tag line is “Good boundaries make good freelancers.”  She’s right on target.

Sensei Seldon points out that seeking more control over these issues is one of the reasons people choose to Freelance.  The good news is that Freelancers get to set the boundaries and rules.  The bad news is that Freelancers have to do it on their own.

Seldon’s suggestions include three basic strategies:

1.    Set office hours

2.    Say no

3.    Budget for vacation time

These are all pretty good advice, which actually apply to any work.

I would add one more suggestion: you should account for and “charge” for the “life” part of the balance, at least mentally.  Whatever my regular working time is worth, I always set a high price on non-work time.  Work all weekend?  That would be “charged” at ten times normal hourly rates.  It better be important, and the time better be made up later, or it’s an overall loss.

This kind of accounting helps with the “say no” decision, too.  Does the work actually pay enough to justify the time it will take?  That partly depends on what other activities will be displaced.  I.e., not just the amount of time, but the exact periods when it will have to be done.

I would emphasize how critical it is to think carefully about these issues all the time.  If you deeply hate what you are working on or how you are working or who you are working with, that needs to be fixed.  If you miss your family all the time, or they miss you, or you don’t even know if they miss you, then that needs to be fixed.

As Sensei Seldon puts it, “The key is being clear about what work needs to looks like and what life needs to look like for you.”

The other good news is that there doesn’t have to be a conflict, if you can make it happen.  If you can work at things you love, with people you like, doing things that are important, odds are these will mean that “life” is going right, too.  And this is pretty much the point of Freelancing in the first place.

  1. Tyra Seldon, 3 ways to build a work-life balance, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/07/13/3-ways-to-build-a-work-life-balance/
  2. Tyra Seldon, “You good?” The importance of checking up on a fellow freelancer, in Frelnancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/07/03/you-good-the-importance-of-checking-up-on-a-fellow-freelancer/


Seldon on AI and the Future of Work

Sensei Tyra Seldon generally has her head screwed on right.   I hate to disagree with her, especially since she is usually right [here, here, here, here, here, here].

But this month she blogged about AI and the job market [3].  Don’t be afraid, “The future won’t be automated,” she says.

Uh, oh.

Actually, I’m afraid it will be.

Of course, Sensei Seldon is hardly naïve.  She knows that digital technology (AI or otherwise) has and will continue to change life and work.

One point she wants to make is that being afraid of these changes isn’t the right approach.

“There is no need to panic, but there is a need to be prepared.“

She draws lessons from industrial automation.  Panic, denial or resistance isn’t effective.  Embrace and make the best of new technology.

“Many of my friends in the automotive industry have shared with me that the key to their job security isn’t competing with technology, but it is learning how to leverage technology more effectively to accomplish an end goal.”

Seldon herself works with words, and hopes to continue to get paid to work with words. Taking this model of auto workers, the question is, what will AI be able to do, and what will humans be able to do better than–and alongside–AI?

Seldon argues that “there are certain things that AI cannot do and that revolves around uniquely human traits that make us, well, human.”  In short, we puny Carbon-based entities should understand their own strengths, and let our Silicon-based masters do the rest.

What are humans uniquely good at?  Seldon quotes Frida Polli, to say “Creativity. Empathy. Compassion. These are uniquely human traits that no AI guru is claiming are going to be automatable anytime soon.”

Here I have to disagree, at least partly.  Our intuitions about what can and can’t be automated have proved to be wildly inaccurate over and over again. Personally, I still don’t believe that it is possible for computers to generate and understand speech.  But they do.

Depending on the definitions and context, there is no reason why digital systems might not provide adequate “empathy” and “compassion”.  They already are giving puny mortals a run for the money in “creativity”, at least in certain contexts.

Basically, I never bet against AI.

So let’s refine this thought.  I think the thing that AI can’t match is embodied intelligence, and face-to-face interaction.  On the internet, noone can tell if you are a dog, a human, or an AI.  In the flesh, everyone can tell, and everyone cares about the differences.

The implication is, whatever you do, make it personal and, to the degree possible, in person.  Match that, Siri!

So: don’t try to compete with computers for speed or price or even language skills; but do try to challenge them on being there, right now, in person.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of this issue, and that is the “making a living” part of it. Whatever the competencies of humans, can they be monetized or otherwise turned into food and shelter?  It’s not just what can humans do that computers can’t, it’s what can humans do and get paid for in a decent way?

Here, the challenge is capitalism, not technology.  And here, you should be afraid.  Siri isn’t after your job, but Apple sure is. It’s nothing personal, they’re just interested in the money. All the money.

This is why there needs to be a Freelancers Union and other efforts (such as Platform Cooperativism [1, 2].)

The future will be automated.  The question is, how will we run the future.

  1. Trebor Scholz, Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, New York, 2016. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/
  2. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017.
  3. Tyra Seldon, AI and the job market: Why we shouldn’t be afraid, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/05/16/ai-and-the-job-market-why-we-shouldnt-be-afraid/


Disclosure:  I have been a client with Seldon Writing Group in the past year.  Opinions expressed here are my own.

Study of Self Employment and Satisfaction

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this week that self-employment leads to happiness [1].  From her own experience, she endorses the finding.

She says that the study “captured what so many of us know to be true: Self-employment can also lead to happiness.

She points out that self-employment provides many non-tangible rewards, including the personal satisfaction of doing good work.  She also notes that her standards as an independent worker are higher than when employed.

This study identifies some of these factors, including autonomy and especially “engagement”. Seldon refers to these as the intangible benefits of self-employment, which are at least as important as productivity and income.

Looking at the study itself, it compares the responses of professionals who are employed as managers, non-managers, and self-employed [2].

The researchers indicate that many previous studies show that self-employed workers are more satisfied than conventional workers.  This study goes further, to compare managers and non-managers, and to try to look at different aspects of “well being”.  In particular, they look at engagement, challenge, and workers’ preferences.

The overall findings are that self-employed workers are generally more satisfied than employees, but that the biggest difference is between non-managerial employees and both managers and self-employed workers.  (One interpretation would be that self-employees are their own manager, which carries the satisfaction of that role.)

Another interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, finding is that the misfit between preferences and job demands is lower for self-employed workers than for all but top managers.  In general, self-employed workers are choosing work that suits them, and have the autonomy to make that choice effective.

This study is fairly careful, but there are caveats to bear in mind.

The data is from an on-line questionnaire.  This means that these are verbal self-reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the feelings of the respondents.  The questions were administered carefully, and there are no obvious biasing factors, but there is always question whether respondents are interpreting the questions and answers the same way.  (For instance, just how meaningful are “average happiness” numbers, accumulated across multiple individuals reported “happiness”?)

A related challenge is that the sampling in this online study is rather opaque. It is difficult to know how representative the respondents may be.  It is a pretty big sample, but we really don’t know who was left out. Some workers may be less likely to volunteer information on this survey, which could bias the results.  For example, if discouraged, demoralized, or marginal workers are unrepresented, then the reported levels of satisfaction would be skewed.

This study did include a very large sample of managerial employees, which is important and often missing from studies of worker satisfaction.

The study reports the average age of the respondents to be around 40, though one wonders about the age distribution.  But there is no longitudinal data here.  How do these attitudes evolve over time?

Notably, the engagement and satisfaction increased with advancement in the organization, which surely correlates with longevity.  And are non-managerial employees less engaged because they are new or because they don’t fit or because their ambitions have been disappointed?

In the case of self-employed workers, one wonders what time frame their responses represent.  In the event they work from gig to gig, are they reporting the current or recent gigs, or multiple gigs over a longer period, or what?  I have to wonder if concepts such as engagement or satisfaction mean the same thing to people in a long-term position, compared to short term.  Engagement and satisfaction are probably not the same after several years in the same job as on the first day.

Finally, I’ll note that there are similar findings from the limited research about coworking:  coworking seems to make workers happy. (this  and see Chapter 6 and 7 of the new book “What is Coworking?”)

This study raises the possibility that coworking has nothing to do with happiness.  Given that most coworkers are freelancers, it could be the case that freelancing makes workers happy, and the workspace doesn’t matter.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis.

In the case of coworking, there is also a very strong selection bias in the studies.  Dissatisfied coworkers stop coworking, and are almost never sampled.  Reports that “coworking makes workers happy” must be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, coworking spaces were invented to support independent workers.  In particular, they offer social support that conventional employees find in their workplace.  Therefore, it is very possible that self-employed workers who belong to a coworking space are even more satisfied than self-employed workers in general.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis, either.

Self-employment may not suit everyone, all of the time.

Overall, I would say that this study is more evidence that self-employment, freelancing, and coworking make some workers happy, some of the time.

As Sensei Seldon explains, this has a lot to do with things like setting your own standards, that lead to a stronger personal engagement and motivation.  For many freelancers, these psychological benefits even offset the uncertainty and financial struggles they may face.

  1. Tyra Seldon, A new study shows self-employment leads to happiness, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/04/18/a-new-study-shows-self-employment-leads-to-happiness/
  2. Peter Warr and Ilke Inceoglu, Work Orientations, Well-Being and Job Content of Self-Employed and Employed Professionals. Work, Employment and Society, 32 (2):292-311, 2018/04/01 2017. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017017717684


Slow Down, Work Better?

The contemporary “Gig Economy” is said to be the New Way of Working. Freelance workers are “free” to hustle for gigs and work as much or as little as they want.

But people are still people, and work still sucks, mostly.

But workers are on their own.

It isn’t too surprising to me that both the Coworking Movement and the Freelancers Union are coming to talk about mental health.  Liz Elam includes “wellness” and dealing with loneliness as a top megatrend in coworking.

And this month, Sensei Tyra Seldon muses on “slowing down” in the Freelancers Union Blog.

I admit that my reaction to here headline, “Can slowing down make you more productive?” was, “I hope the answer is, ‘yes’?”  For one thing, going slow is definitely in my personal wheelhouse. : – )  But also, advancing faster by moving slower is a natural strength of older workers, who face brutal challenges in the gig economy.

Anyway, what Sensei Seldon is actually talking about is not so much working slower, as living simpler.  In particular, she’s talking about turning it off.

She starts with the ubiquitous problem of digital distraction. Recording how she spends her time yielded alarming results: lot’s of activity, much of it irrelevant.

Whereas I thought my 60-hour weeks were signs of my being a dedicated entrepreneur and being uber productive, this reality check proved otherwise.

She did the obvious experiment, i.e., turning it off.  Spending more time in face-to-face conversations.  She also started to redefine “productivity”, to include “things that were meaningful and valuable”, such as meditation, prayer, and journalng.

And she liked it.

Even better, she worked better.

I don’t think I can fully go back to the person who I was

I’m not in the least surprised by Seldon’s experience.  There is a large and growing literature that tells us that constant digital engagement is bad for you in many ways. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

It is also true that one of the principle reasons that contemporary coworking was created is to deal with the need for face-to-face interactions.  Today’s workers are well connected digitally, but many are more socially isolated than ever.   It is important not just to unplug to take care of yourself, we have to take care of each other. The best way to do that is to talk face-to-face.

These problem have been around for a long time.  Working in a conventional organization is generally just as bad or worse as freelancing in this regard. In a conventional job, it isn’t easy to tell your boss that you don’t look busy because you are doing something more important than her deliverables.

The best thing here is that Freelancers actually can unplug and focus on more than being “busy”.  In this, the contemporary Gig Economy is directly attacking one of the most critical problems facing contemporary workers.  If Freelancing and Coworking end up actually helping people  live a better life, then they will be counted as great and successful innovations in working.

  1. Tyra Seldon, Can slowing down make you more productive?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/01/15/can-slowing-down-make-you-more-productive-2/

Tyra Seldon on Freelancers Giving Back

The turn of the new year is a time to think about giving, and strengthening our communities through volunteering.

For many independent and freelance workers, it may be difficult to be philanthropic or even to think of how to do so. Working on your own, how can you find time, and what can you give?

Sensei Tyra Seldon says, “Giving back is not only doable, but quite enjoyable.”  [1]

As she says, as a freelancer, “I no longer have the ease of showing up for an event on behalf of my employer or checking off a box for my HR representative.”  This means she has to do more work to connect with and support organizations that she believes in.

She lists five good ideas for freelancers who want to give back their communities

  • Volunteer with other freelancers
  • “adopt” a local organization, to support through the year
  • dedicate your birthday to a cause
  • donate unused supplies
  • volunteer at local schools

She concludes,

“I have found that pouring into my community and engaging in service has enhanced my life tremendously. In fact, it has made me a better freelancer, business owner, and most importantly, a better human being.”

Hear, hear!

I’ll add another  suggestion.

Most communities and schools have programs that introduce school kids to possible careers and occupations. A key part of this “career fair” or whatever they call it, is opportunities for students to meet and talk to professionals, to discover and be inspired to think about their own future direction.

Clearly, it is important for kids to learn about freelancing, no?

So, I encourage freelancers to try to participate is these youth programs, to visit middle and high schools.

Tell kids what freelancing is all about, why it’s cool, and how to become one.  Show kids how cool freelancers are.

For extra credit, think about ways to create summer work experiences (internships, part time jobs, etc.) for high school kids.  This is an incredible opportunity for a kid to discover a future career that he or she never even knew existed, as well as get some critical early experience.

I know it’s hard for a solo part-time worker to host a kid for a few weeks in the summer.  But perhaps it would be possible banding together with other freelancers to share the load.  Thinking caps, people!

I bet it’s doable.  I know it’ll make your community a better place, and you’ll really love it.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to Sensei Seldon.

  1. Tyra Seldon, 5 ways to be philanthropic as a freelancer, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/12/21/5-ways-to-be-philanthropic-as-a-freelancer-2/