Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Forget Paying Your Dues: Why You Shouldn't Wait to Live Your Dream

Before I quit my job to start freelancing full-time, I visited a city organization that pairs aspiring businesspeople with retired, experienced business owners who can give them advice on getting started. The guy I was paired with used to own a retail store. I told him all about what I wanted to do--I was excited about it--and he responded with skepticism. "What's your hurry?" he said. (I was 24 at the time and probably looked about sixteen, so I can see why he said this.) He told me I should get a job with an ad agency, work there for five or ten years, build up some experience, and then start out on my own.

I couldn't tell him why I was in such a hurry--and why the last thing I wanted to do was follow his advice. From a practical standpoint, it made sense. But I knew what I wanted right then, and five or ten years of "dues-paying" at an ad agency sounded to me like five or ten centuries of purgatory. It felt right to be in a hurry, and I didn't think paying my dues was useful. So far, my gamble has paid off and my business has been going well--and I've had some time to think about why I thought paying my dues was a bad idea. Here are a few reasons why I encourage aspiring writers to jump in--especially if you're starting in your twenties, like I did.

Because if you really want it all, you'd better start early. How many times have I heard that today's young women just can't "have it all"? (Nobody talks about whether or not men can "have it all." But that's another blog post.) One of the biggest stereotyped qualities of Generation Y is that we work to live, and we care about family time. We really do want it all--a fun, fulfilling job, plenty of leisure time to enjoy ourselves, spend time with our families and enrich our lives, and enough money to not have to worry too much about money (we don't all have to be Donald Trump, though). The thing is, it takes time to find that great career with that great flexibility built in. And if you want kids too, you're racing your biological clock the whole way. It's easier to make career gains while you're child-free. Since we don't want to wait til retirement to enjoy ourselves and we can't wait too long to have kids, we can't afford to put in a decade of dues-paying that may or may not pay off.

Because if you're young, it'll be easier now than later. Taking a chance on your career is so much easier before you have a mortgage and a family depending on you--and that's more likely when you're young. Of course, many people of my generation are stuck with enormous college loans, which makes taking risks more difficult. But even so, it might be easier when you're young than when you're older, with more responsibilities.

Because it's possible to fake experience--as long as you have the skills. Writers need samples. That's it. Period. You don't need a long list of previous employers. In two years, I've never gotten asked for a resume and I've only rarely been asked who else I've written for. If you have decent samples that show off your skills, you're going to be fine. If you have ad agency experience, by all means you should highlight that in your marketing materials--but you don't need it.

It took me a while to really have confidence in this. I thought that because I was young and didn't have dozens of years of experience starting out, I couldn't possibly know enough about life in general to do this. But I knew I could write--and I'd seen samples from professional writers who had dozens of years of agency experience. I absolutely knew I was a better writer than some of them already. Believe me--if you can write, you're set. Everything else is just extras.

If I had listened to that well-meaning retiree, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I'd still have a few years to go before I'd paid enough dues to start my real career. Maybe paying your dues is a sensible choice in some professions--but in my case, it would have left me hopelessly behind on the life I wanted. If you've been thinking about starting a career in writing, maybe you're more ready than you think.


G Man said...

Truer words have never been spoken!

I just quit my job this Monday (4/15).

I've been meaning to start my freelancing career but I've just been holding myself back.

Afraid to let go of a "guaranteed" check.

I took my vacation time and then told everybody I'm not coming back.

I have 4 weeks of vacation time and I'm gonna work (freelancing) myself till I can hardly type.

I would rather starve - eat ramen noodles, drink water...whatever, than go back to being employed ever again.

I'm 31 going on 32 in a few months and I've never been more prepared for this.

I have a background in writing spec screenplays so writing is something I know I can do.

I just needed the mindset and your blog, along with a few others, gave me that.

I am ready to sit down (18 hours straight, if necessary) and do this.

thank you for a very inspiring blog.

Bill said...

I've had an unusual career arc; started out as a freelancer back in my 20's, then spent a long stretch in my 30's as an employee, and now I'm back to the freelance gig in my 40's. I can see where the myth of "job security" came from in my parent's generation, but I'm skeptical it even exists anymore. Yes, it's true, when you freelance you often can't be sure of where your next check is coming from. But after repeated layoffs and downsizing in my previous few "regular" jobs, I can tell you that you can never be sure you'll have a job next week in this economy, either.

Freelancing isn't for everyone, but I heartily agree with your advice. If you want the freelance lifestyle and you think you're ready, go for it. Age isn't half as important as the strong desire to work on your own terms.

GrammarScribe said...

This was incredibly inspiring. Thank you. I'm still stuck in the 9-5 corporate world, but I've been freelancing on the side for about four months and looking forward to the day when I make the great leap. Bravo to you for just going for it.

Star Lawrence said...

Don't forget the ever-popular Kraft Dinner! Welcome to out in the cold! You can do this. You can ask anyone anything--I built a whole career on that. They don't have to answer. But jump in! And don't ever, even for a second, buy into the "I must write for free or accept ridiculous rates at first" nonsense. No other profession requires this and this one doesn't either.

Raul said...

Very inspiring stuff. I am just in college & cannot differentiate between a 9-5 job and a freelancer's one. But your post has made inclined to the latter one.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that everything paid off for you. Sometimes it's necessary to take risks to get what we really want.

Unknown said...

What a great post, Jen! I think the well-meaning retiree didn't factor in your gender, the changes in the industry since he was a lad, nor any of the factors you pointed out. Maybe you should be mentoring him. :)

It's so true - I had exactly 3 1/2 years of experience under my belt when I found myself facing a freelance career. When your options are work or starve, guess which one you make happen?

anthony santoro said...

You definitely speak the sooth, Jennifer.
Having adopted a similar approach to life and business, myself, I can attest to the fact that the best way to get something done, is just 'doing it'. I think planning is important, of course. But unless you actually 'do' what you've planned, then you haven't even begun the race.
A few years ago I wrote a book and was told that it would be virtually impossible to get it published. Fortunately, I didn't listen to them and did get it published and onto shelves in bookstores.
I started a busines soon after and was told, just like you, it would be better to start off with someone else, on smaller jobs, blah, blah, et al... No thanks. I jumped in the deep end and learnt to swim, very fast.
There's an old saying where I'm from: if you bite off more than you can chew, better chew like buggery (or 'hell', if you're from the US).
Anyway, hat's off to your refreshing viewpoint to being in business. I think it's a very welcome change to the dark and dreary news I see around the traps.

Cheers and look forward to reading more.
Anthony Santoro

Matthew C. Keegan said...

Well put, Jennifer. We're all "paying our dues" as it is when we're working for ourselves. We constantly tweak and modify the way that we sell ourselves, learning from our experiences.

I'd rather pay these dues to myself then to pay someone else!

Shirin said...

Risks are definitely worth taking if you're willing to encompass all possibilities that come with it; for me, I know I have to finalize a few skill sets (radically changing from biology undergraduate to industry forecasting...or as my dad calls it "keeping up with business gossip") but then I have a few "paths" I can go down that can let me end up where I want to be.