Ed note: This essay started live back in 2019 when I was indeed freelancing right at the start of my new career as a writer. As of mid-2020, I have been employed full-time as an in-house writer, first on a contract basis, then moving to FTE status in my current role. While the specifics have changed, the underlying reality of my career jump remains the same, and remains something I think others can benefit from hearing about. Thus, this will be but the first of a series of pieces here on I Like How You Think that cover changing careers in midlife.
Basically, what I’m saying is that if I can do it, so can you.
I’m a writer.
I used to be the IT guy.
After much hemming and hawing about what to write about here on LinkedIn1, I’d like to start with some lessons I’ve learned over my first year as a freelance creative. Truthfully, many of these lessons came to light when I was still in IT, it seems that a fair bit of what I was observing was NOT, in fact, specific to IT customers. Rather, it seems these idiosyncrasies are more generally human in nature.
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not, ‘Eureka! I’ve found it,’ but, ‘That’s funny!'”Isaac Asimov
I find this quote more and more appropriate the more I freelance.
I watch people. OK, that makes me sound creepy. What I mean is that I tend to notice things that others miss. Whether I’m sitting at a coffee shop, or at my desk in the front room of the IT hardware team workroom. I just didn’t give the foibles I was seeing much thought until the other day when one slapped me upside the head—I opened my inbox to find that a client I had only just started working with was putting a complete freeze on new content.
Out of left field, to say the least. I mean I had only just completed a site audit and presented a rough draft of an editorial calendar for their blog. I immediately flashed back to one particular day at the healthcare consulting firm I worked for in DC. The short version for today is that a guy walked into my office and dumped the contents of his computer bag on my desk. Aside from the piece with a particular brand logo, there was nothing identifiably laptop-like about the pile of rubble I was looking at.
The jolting non-sequitur of these two situations almost caused a spit-take (ed note: ever tried to clean tea out of a keyboard? It’s not pretty).
You’re forgiven if it’s not as apparent, I mean a client canceling a work order and a customer with a destroyed laptop don’t sound related. At first glance. Here’s the thing—it wasn’t the details that were so striking.
You just never know what each day will bring
Or each minute as the case may be. That dude walking into my office with a bag full ‘o’ bits was a wake-up call. We were just finishing our Monday morning rush of “oh my god, my laptop did a thing!” visitors and I was writing up tickets for the work orders we needed to call in.
Then, suddenly, rubble.
And with the client, the request to pause all work was just as abrupt and came as just as much out of left field.
Clients are people. Customers are people, too, it turns out. No matter if they’re end-users within a large company or the CEO of a 5-person startup who wants a homepage rewrite and a blog; people will be people. And that means you need to stay on your toes. And just like you didn’t see the cross-over initially and I didn’t see the pile of laptop detritus coming—they’re a never-ending source of surprise.
Non-sequiturs are funny as hell. My favorite t-shirt ever isn’t objectively funny, yet I chortle every time I even think of it. Why? because it’s a non-sequitur.
Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense
See? Not objectively funny, but I can guarantee at least some of you laughed. We should hang out.
It never seems to be “their” fault
That dude with the bag of detritus? Deadpan, he looks at me and says he has no idea how it happened. He swears he just went to check email on Sunday morning and BAM, there was a bag full of scrap where his laptop used to be. Amazing. Actually, at the moment I was impressed with his ability to keep a straight face. And as for the client, well shockingly enough, they were freezing work because somehow they found themselves without any cash.
And despite the CEO also being the CFO nobody could seem to figure out how they came to find themselves in this situation.
Lesson Learned—Know when “go along to get along” is the right move.
With the destroyer of laptops (seriously, go read my account of this guy2, there’s so much more to his story), it wasn’t my place to call him on his lies. Company policy stated that we replace broken equipment and deal with getting it fixed (again, read the story, the manufacturer actually replaced it!)—it was up to his direct manager to dole out discipline. And as for the CEO, I may not want to work for someone who mishandles money like that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want his referrals.
Humans are intuitive creatures. Even those who don’t know it. We have an ability to “read” a room, doing a sort of temperature check on the folks there and how they’re feeling. The trick is being able to pause and make use of that reading. Most of us can’t. Or don’t. This isn’t intentional, or necessarily conscious, it’s usually simply because we’re too rushed to stop and take a deep breath as we enter the meeting room. Or the coffee shop.
My desk at that healthcare place was in the front room, between the public and our workroom (where my team sat and did their thing), so everyone who walked in for help had to pass right by me. Not only did this impact how I felt at any given time, but it worked in reverse. If I was consciously aware of the mood I was projecting, I could tell when it calmed down an irate customer. And if I was stressed, I could tell that amped up some folks as soon as they walked in.
Lesson Learned—Keep an even keel.
Lead quietly, even when you’re the only one in the room
This isn’t simply a volume request, it’s more of a leadership-style thing. The introverted among us (raises hand) have a unique leadership style that is often called quiet leadership (see the work of Susan Cain and Daniel Goleman among others). While we appear to be sitting quietly in the meeting, spacing out or otherwise not paying attention—we’re actually working out what we want to say in our heads before saying it out loud. This can lead to confusion, with bosses and coworkers seeing us as not participating when in reality we’re formulating a response that will solve all the things in one blow.
We just don’t talk through it out loud.
This translates to a need for follow-up. Be the person who sends the email after a meeting, summarizing the salient points you took away and offering your thoughts on how to move forward.
That client? I sent an email the day after our discussion with a summary of the work I had done, links to the product that was already paid for, and some ideas for how they could continue where I was leaving off. The CEO sent a lovely, apologetic message in response thanking me for being conscientious (his word). And I left the relationship secure in the knowledge that he’ll be recommending me to all his CEO buddies in the future.
If I had just sent an invoice for work completed and left it at that, the client might still have remembered me but there would be nothing remarkable about the relationship. Over time I would fade into the background as just another vendor/partner he worked with once upon a time. By following up, I made sure I stick out in his mind. He’ll remember that I went that extra step (which took all of 3 minutes). I can’t stress this enough, follow-up can mean the difference between being the person who gets the referrals and the one who’s forgotten the instant the job’s done.
Lesson Learned—Follow-up matters as much as showing up in the first place.
If you look for problems, you’ll likely find them
Back to that meeting and the reading you get when you walk in. If you enter the room with a sense of, “OK, who’s going to piss me off first?” I guarantee you’ll be pissed off real quick. The thing is, whatever that person said that set you off, probably wasn’t so bad objectively. In fact, it may have been totally innocent and it was your attitude overlayed on top that actually caused the miscommunication.
When this client signed on (I don’t use full contracts all the time, I know, I know) for this project, I admit, I had a bad feeling about it. And when that customer walked into my office, the first thing on my mind was the state of what was in the bag. Now, I’m not saying that the power of my thoughts caused the laptop to shatter (that would be kinda cool though). But my mindset did absolutely color our interaction.
Lesson Learned—Trust your gut.
Then be open to what happens. If I had followed my gut 100%, I never would have worked with this CEO. Since I moved past my initial misgivings however, I made some good money and ended up with a champion in my corner despite the seemingly negative outcome of our working relationship. I guess what I’m saying is that if you enter every working relationship skeptical of the possible outcomes you’ll just end up exhausted. So don’t ignore your gut, but work with what’s in front of you and you can turn every outcome positive in at least one way.
I hope these lessons resonate with some of you. I’ll have more to say on many of these topics in the near future, so I invite you to follow along if you like life lessons, stories, or a combination thereof. Coming up next is a rundown of the reasons I made the decision to make a midlife career jump in the first place.