Paul Jarvis

“What do you do for a living?”

This question, “What do you do for a living?” tends to evoke either fear and stomach knots or an eagerness that borders on fanaticism in those of us who work for ourselves in creative fields.

It can be hard to describe what you do quickly and clearly both in person or on your website. You need to find a balance between clarity and curiosity. Most importantly, you need to make your answer about other people.

Your answer should be an opening volley to a conversation that the other person actually wants to have. If you describe what you do well, there’ll be more questions asked and more importantly, the other person will remember, share or even end up (further down the road) giving you money.

As an introvert (note: I was introverted and weird before it was cool… sort of like a hipster introvert), I’ve found the best way to deal with conversations is to make the conversation about the other person/people. This takes the spotlight off me, and I’ve also found that most people value conversations more when they get to share their two cents and have their specific questions/concerns answered.

If you think about it, the question “what do you do for a living?” when you’re self-employed (and therefore selling something), has almost nothing to do with you.Why you exist, why you’re important, and what your product does, are all topics that tend not to draw people in. Without context first, those points just seem like you enjoy talking about yourself.

What’s more important and interesting is how you serve your audience and what value you provide to the people you connect with.

Every business exists to serve. If your service is valued, then the right people will pay for it. A business only matters because it makes someone’s life better, less painful, or offers something else positive to the person on the receiving end.

For myself, I tend to lead with this:

“I help remarkable creative folks build websites and I show people the ropes of self-publishing and freelancing.”

I could just say that I design websites and write books. That’s both uninteresting and not entirely descriptive. The conversation would likely end there. Worse, it’s horribly egocentric. I’d rather describe the type of people I enjoy working with, and how what I do helps them.

Describe what you do in the context of the people your business serves.

This immediately transforms the conversation from a boring sales pitch into a demonstration of how helpful you could be for them, and why you’re so committed to seeing your audience succeed.

What you do for a living describes how your business serves it’s audience

Because really, that’s what you do.

When you work for yourself, your boss is probably an asshole

Bosses can suck when you’re self-employed (aka: when YOU are the boss of yourself).

It’s sort of like there’s two of you. There’s the Creator You who’s doing the actual work and then there’s the Boss You, overseeing everything, making sure deadlines are met and cash comes in the door.

The Boss You can sometimes be a real prick to the Creator You.

Always making you hustle. Working you for long hours for little to no money. Blatantly disregarding evenings and weekends.

You want benefits? You’re lucky you have a job! You’d better think about job security next time you pipe up. If you’ve got time to complain, you’ve got time to get more work done.

You were lured in with promises of spare time and money fights. There was even vague mention of travel and day-drinking as well. You didn’t believe these claims at first, but you were pointed to so many expert blog posts detailing how wonderful your new job would be. Fame! Riches! Freeeeeeeeeeeeeedom! (It helps if you say this in your best Mel Gibson, Braveheart voice).

You started out thinking this would be the best job ever. That you’d be in charge of your own destiny. You’d set the hours, work only when you felt inspired and answer only to yourself. Time off would out-weigh time spent working.

But then you started the job and things became drastically different. The opposite, in fact. Some days you can’t even claw your way out of the minutiae of administrative and operational tasks, just so you can have a second to do your actual job.

Sleep? Socializing? Television? You’ll be able pick one of those… maybe later. Heaven forbid you don’t make money for any length of time, because then you have to work even harder. Get on social media and start selling, got-dammit.

This is what happens when your boss is you. As in, you work for yourself. For most of us who do that, our bosses can be real jerks.

We start out thinking it’ll be life on easy street, full of passive income and frolicking (insert geographically-dependent daydream).

Quickly, we realize it’s far more work than being an employee at some big company. That’s because we can now only delegate in two ways. The first way is to put something further down our own to-do list and second is by paying someone else to do it (with money out of our pockets!)

We also have to come to terms with the fact that we don’t know or aren’t good at many of the things we actually need to do to run our business. Worst of all, they’re all things that have nothing to do with the sort of work we want to do. I’ve worked for myself for almost 20 years now and I still suck at: contracts, bookkeeping, remembering to send clients invoices, scheduling meetings, and working when I shouldn’t be (hell, I’m writing this at 10pm and should be sleeping).

For most of us, we also need to learn how sales and marketing work. It’s not enough that we’re good at making something, we’ve also got to connect that something with the right people. The right people being those who are willing to trade their money for our something.

It’s certainly a long and hard road, but it can be very fulfilling too. Once we “figure things out”—which I won’t even get into because it’s different for everyone—then we can actually find some freedom, more meaning, decent hours, and good pay.

But until then, when you work for yourself, your boss is probably a bit of an asshole.

The good thing is, asshole bosses don’t need to define us or our work. We don’t even need to listen to their tirades in our heads if they don’t serve us. In a culture that romanticizes entrepreneurship and paints a dream of fairy-tales and private jets for all those who try, we need to get real. It’s not for everyone, it’s a lot of damn work, and there’s no shame in having an actual boss instead of one that’s you. Doing a 9-5 job or even going back to one isn’t a failure, it’s just a single point on your own journey. Don’t force things, don’t rush things and wherever you’re at, make sure you or anyone else isn’t working yourself too hard.

A manifesto for creative professionals

We are amplifiers. Clients need to bring their skilled craft to the table for any project to succeed.

We work on trust. Clients pay us because they trust in what we do and the skills we possess.

We’d rather be challenged with innovation than model any project after one that already exists.

Every project must be useful and good for the world.

We work for our client’s clients, so we sometimes side with them.

We only work on projects where we believe our clients can succeed. Their success is our mission.

We don’t work with committees or teams; we work with leaders and decision makers. Art and creativity goes to committees to die horribly.

We go all-in on every project. Our clients must as well.

You are not a large corporation

A manifesto for the self-employed. You are a unique badass who’s thrown down the shackles of cubicle life and been liberated by your own ambition. You now have tremendous power, so use it to your own benefit.

You are not a large corporation. You do not have to act like one.

Lessons in creativity for freelancers

There’s a weird intersection of creativity, business and money, that can be hard to navigate at times.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about making a sustainable living being creative.

Few can balance creativity and business (and stay relatively sane). So if you’re doing that, congratulations — you my friend, are awesome. And if you’re still getting there — it’s worth it when you do.

The Sunday Dispatches newsletter, weekly articles since 2012—written by Paul Jarvis and read by 30k+ subscribers.