The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Entrepreneurial micro-business or ELT Deliveroo?

In my working life, I inhabit a number of different worlds.

There’s the general ELT world I mingle with at conferences, events and online that includes teachers, teacher trainers, publishing folk, academics and other freelancers. We talk about teaching, methodology, technology, language and yes, occasionally, the state of ELT.

Then there’s the ELT writing crowd, other freelance writers and editors who congregate face-to-face and online via groups like MaWSIG and ELT Freelancers, as well as through various Facebook groups. Like most colleagues, we largely enjoy a good moan … about our latest hassles and project nightmares, about the stresses of being a freelancer subject to the whims of the publishing industry and inevitably, about how things ‘ain’t like they used to be’. They are, however, also a very supportive bunch, always happy to offer encouragement, practical advice and, most importantly, a good laugh. And at times, it can be pretty inspiring to see the varied and exciting things we all get up to.

I also occasionally dip a toe into the world of local networking groups full of (largely female) entrepreneurs and small business owners who seem to spend a lot of time and energy (and money!) on branding and marketing and business plans and coaching and serious networking … the idea of an ‘elevator pitch’ or asking for ‘referrals’ at an ELT event would make most folk run a mile, but for these ladies, it’s all an essential part of the game. If that sounds a touch ‘sniffy’, it really isn’t meant to be. I don’t quite feel part of the ‘networking gang’ largely because my work doesn’t really fit their model. Most of them are customer-facing businesses (fitness instructors, therapists, consultants of some kind) who need to create a brand and market it to members of the public (and each other!). Some are small businesses with staff and premises and physical products to sell. And whilst a lot of the chat in these circles doesn’t really apply to me and my context, I do still meet some interesting people and I often pick up ideas that are tangentially useful or that I can adapt to be relevant.

How I see myself professionally varies enormously depending on who I’ve been hanging out with and how work’s going at any one time. I don’t quite feel like I’m a small business or an entrepreneur, but after a particularly inspiring networking event or talk, I err towards the idea of being a successful, funky little micro-business. After a successful talk at an ELT conference, discussing language and pedagogy with all kinds of different people, I can see myself as a budding ‘expert’ in my field with things to say and stuff to contribute. A lot of the time though, I’m just a slightly frustrated and disillusioned hack writer churning out ‘content’ in less-than-ideal conditions and barely scraping together a living (for the record, I earn considerably less than the average UK salary and my average yearly income has barely risen over 20 years of freelancing).

Earlier this week, a radio programme – the Digital Human on Radio 4 – made me stop and think again about work and my relationship with it. The programme explored how, as a society, we’ve become intent on finding ways to use technology to make our lives easier, more ‘frictionless’. It asked where all the time we’ve supposedly saved goes and it looked into how our work and home lives have increasingly merged, especially those of us involved in the gig economy. One anecdote from anthropologist, Jan English-Lueck really struck a chord with me:

“I remember talking to a woman who had a really bad problem with carpal tunnel and she’d given up camping, she’d given up reading books, she’d given up everything. And she held up her hands and said ‘I save these for my workplace’.” 

As many of you will know, I’ve been managing a chronic pain condition for nearly 20 years now. I’ve given up many things over the years, but in the past few months, my pains have been particularly troublesome and I’ve found myself giving up driving, giving up going to events that involve lots of standing around or sitting in one place (cinema, gigs, theatre) and increasingly, opting out of social events because at the end of the day, I’m so shattered, I just want to collapse into a fug of painkillers. Am I saving what strength and ability I have for work at the expense of other things in my life? Probably. Because I need to work to earn money and pay the bills, and as a freelancer, my income is unstable, I can’t afford to turn down work or miss deadlines, I don’t get sick pay or paid holidays. 

The programme got me wondering whether I’m really an entrepreneurial micro-business with the freedom to choose what I work on and to fit my working hours around other things or whether it’s all just a kind of ELT Deliveroo without the perks of the reflective jacket?

I really don’t know the answer and I’ve flipped between the two poles – and all points in-between – just in the course of writing this post.  What’s your relationship with your working life? Do you see yourself as a business, a creative entrepreneur, an expert, as a gun for hire, a hack writer or a harmless drudge?

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Graham Stanley said...

Hi Julie, I enjoyed reading your blog and understand your frustration. I am very interested in what ELT professionals think about technology and how it has improved (or not) their professional lives. I am going to publish something about this and I wondered if you would agree to be interviewed.

1:30 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

While I have a unionised-stable job (for 75% of my work week), for the other part I feel like a branding of my own to a large degree. I've spent considerable time developing and customising my website for a variety of target audiences, starting new bits on a whim (e.g. #tleap and design.ed), and reading/sharing content on social media--sometimes just for its sake, others to build audience for when I put out content myself. Networking or really building relationships with everyone online has taken up countless unpaid hours. I've always felt it was a strange line between business and pleasure though. But for technology saving time? That's absurd. It creates new types of work for me at least and I spend a considerable amount of 'free' time using it for work in one way or another.

Otherwise, I have tied work to my identity and focussed on it for several years now and in the last one, it's been starting to dawn on me whether I have to and whether I can develop other aspects of my identity as well. We shall see...

11:28 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home