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Freelance as an Entrance Point to Freedom

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There is something profoundly defeating in realizing, once you’re done with school and still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, that you now have some four more decades of working. If you’re lucky, it will be a 9-5 office job with healthcare, paid vacation time, and maternity leave. But luck is in increasingly short supply these days: you’re way more likely to find yourself working your eleventh hour as a cashier in a supermarket chain, not allowed a chair (because it looks ‘unprofessional’), frantically calling around to see if anyone you know is available to pick your child up from daycare because you have to stay late. Again.

The worst part isn’t the long hours, the lack of basic amenities, or even being treated like sentient furniture at best. The worst part - by far - is the resignation you feel because you know that unless you do that job, and do it well, you simply won’t be able to afford your groceries tomorrow. There are plenty of other people who would much prefer your horrible job to none at all, so they can feed their children, send them to school, and hope they live to see a better tomorrow. You are disposable. Your worth? Not even a topic of conversation. Will your supervisor even bother to remember your name?
Unfortunately, a good part of these problems could be solved with a universal basic income - and I say unfortunately, because the solution is so simple and so obvious, yet seemingly unattainable. There is no dignity in precarious work - there is no time to remember you’re also a human being with needs and wants that you shouldn’t be ashamed of when you’re struggling to survive. When you’re constantly told that your employer deserves the tenths of millions in profit they’re raking in every year and you, one of the cogs that made it possible, don’t see a penny of it, there’s only the nagging feeling in the back of your head, “Well, it’s your fault. You’re obviously not working as hard as them.”

“There Is No Bread in That”

My name is Sumejja, I will be 26 years old on March 24th, 2020 and I live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throughout school, I was considered gifted and put into advanced programs whenever possible. When the time for college came, however, the choices weren’t enviable: comparative literature would have been my first choice (with a minor in library science), but I was repeatedly told that, literally translated, “there is no bread there.” This is a common Bosnian phrase you’ll hear when the arts and humanities are mentioned. Instead, I enrolled in an electrical engineering college with a vague idea of one day maybe becoming a software engineer. But engineering is a prestigious choice, in a large part due to the difficulty of the studies, and after two very unsuccessful years, I dropped out. Another year was spent on related studies at a mathematical college, almost as unsuccessfully, while I decided to take on some side work and earn my own money.

It was then that I first registered on Upwork, then called oDesk. Aside from Bosnian, my native language, I speak English, German, and Turkish - in that order of fluency. However, translation work is generally in short supply because the market is oversaturated by far. Nowadays, only speaking your native language makes you practically illiterate. So I worked for other students in my university: I wrote research papers, did homework assignments and helped people study. I even did one or two full projects making basic video games (those were especially fun). I charged very little, purely out of inexperience, but as the academic year was drawing to a close, I realized I had once again neglected my own studies, but also that having your own income was my first taste of freedom - especially when you choose what you can do and how much you charge. So I dropped out of that too and set off to look for a job.

And what a job I found. From 8 am to 4:30 pm, with a half-hour break, working for a furniture factory that exports its products to the rest of Europe, but mainly German-speaking countries. For a while I had my own clients, entering their orders into our database, tracking shipments, spending a good chunk of my workday on the phone with them, and in general being a cog in a much larger machine. After a while the department got an overhaul, I was transferred solely to entering orders - which is a mind-numbing job at best - and with the lack of interaction and the satisfaction of being told you’ve done a good job by your customer, I was slowly losing my will to work.

Reclaiming Your Time and Freedom to Choose

I married my husband in October 2017, at the age of 23. Our best man, who introduced us to each other, had started working for a guy only a month earlier. That guy, he explained, was a freelancer: he found jobs writing blog posts, research articles, news, and plenty of other stuff, and relegated them to other people when he couldn’t handle it all by himself. He had already made a name for himself, so clients were willing to pay much more than they usually would, and he’d forward us the topics and take a cut of the pay. When things got unbearable at my full-time job in December 2017, I talked to him, made a deal and quit my job.

In all honesty, that was the best decision I have ever made. I got ghostwriting gigs with a deadline, which meant I could choose when and how much I wanted to work, as long as the work was done on time. After a while, he pulled me into a full-time position at a news outlet specializing in cryptocurrency and blockchain - as the former had seen a boom right at the time when I had quit my job. I took the opportunity to learn a lot about that space, from the basics (what is cryptocurrency? What can blockchain be used for? Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?) to more complex matters like the principle behind mining, game theory - which is the basic principle under the decentralization of crypto - and the different ways to attack blockchains. I liked it so much that I decided to enroll in two online courses on the topic, offered by the University of California, Berkeley.

In the meantime, I parted ways with the news outlet, and set off in search of other work because private life events now demanded a more flexible schedule. Of course, this is something I could not have found in a traditional job: everyone who has worked a “normal” job knows how many hoops you have to jump through just to get your day off approved. Plus, you can’t come to the office after hours to complete what you have left over.

This is where I am today: 100% of my work is remote, a large part of it is related to blockchain and/or cryptocurrency, and I get to organize my day the way I want to - which is becoming increasingly important as time goes on. As for healthcare, I mostly just go privately where I would pay anyway - fortunately, my work lets me afford it, but even if that were not the case, I could pay out of pocket for state healthcare. Still, I prefer not waiting in line - after all, time is money, and why wait when I could be writing?

There are drawbacks, to be sure. Work can often be hard to come by. A lot of it is underpaid. I try to carve out personal time as well. Not being on the clock for eight hours a day often means you’re on the clock for 24 hours a day - whenever something comes up - so there is no real planning your day. This is where the importance of good clients comes in: in my personal opinion, I would take an understanding, compassionate client over a high-paying one any day, because when you’re working from behind a screen, it is easy to forget that the other person is also human. Of course, nobody is in the business in order to make friends - but if that happens along the way, only a profoundly dumb person - for lack of better word - would throw that away.

All in all, I can’t see myself going back to a traditional job in the near future. From the freedom to pursue hobbies, over the flexibility and convenience, to the ability to take or leave an offer according to your own criteria, the stability and security of a day job seem paltry in comparison. Plus, if everything goes to plan, I may yet enroll in a comparative literature college - not just to obtain a degree, but to study what I’ve always wished I could.
Author: Sumejja Muratagić-Tadić