It's a luxury to be making a living in a field you love. Not everyone has the opportunities, luck, or even talent to survive in a creative capacity today. All honeymoons must end, though, and that’s when you realize how spending so much time chasing your passion adversely affects your non-work life. As an adult with adult-sized responsibilities – and maybe even a kid or two – it can seem like a huge risk to consciously step back from your "lucky" career’s ascent in order to focus more on the people around you. But is it, really?
The Atlantic recently published an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All." While this piece has become a flashpoint for an important debate about career-minded women who don’t want to sacrifice spending meaningful time with their families, it’s also a lengthy reflection on work-life balance in a high-stakes world. Slaughter is no stranger to the stress of ambition, having served as Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and currently working as a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Clearly, in Slaughter’s case, we’re dealing with serious overachiever territory. Few people, female or male, can do what she has done so far in her career. While she's not a freelance designer hustling day-to-day to pay off a credit card ravaged by Apple products, the principle of one of her points is still worth some thought: If the labour market’s demographics, in-demand positions, and traditional vertical structures have all changed dramatically in the last 50 years, then why do we still think a proper career path should have an unerring upward curve?
Prioritize Your Life & Craft Over The Climb
For people like Slaughter, the climb up the ladder is a career-affirming fight that offers personal satisfaction – or it used to, anyway. Some parts of that ladder still exist in creative industries, but generally speaking, the drive to work hard now is less about advancement of title and more about evolution of craft. The better you are, the more you should earn working on bigger projects with higher stakes.
The crux of her article boils down to a conflict of priorities, one of which has long been undervalued in our society: the art of raising children. However, this conflict should really only exist if you value advancement above all else. For freelancers, the pressure to always be climbing, always be moving forward, is one that's self-inflicted. As someone who's committed themselves to bucking the norms of the full-time office environment, you’ve already taken a step back and made a statement that you want to shape your life in your own way. So maybe we should just acknowledge that freelancing is a move towards prioritizing personal enjoyment over professional growth.
According to Slaughter, the real problem here is the public perception of the traditional career arc:
"Slowing down the rate of promotions, taking time out periodically, pursuing an alternative path during crucial parenting or parent-care years – all have to become more visible and more noticeably accepted as a pause rather than an opt-out."
Changing this perception begins with looking inward at our own gut reactions that prevent us from chasing those risky opportunities that might allow for more time to be less obviously productive. Freelancing should, ideally, allow for a more flexible schedule, but that freedom also carries with it an innate, emotionally draining struggle to build and satisfy a roster of clients.
The World Will Not Forget You
The toughest part to reigning in your ambition is reprogramming your brain to let those chances for advancement slip by (when you've decided the time is right, of course). We've trained ourselves to always answer the door when opportunity knocks, and for the sake of self-preservation, that's not a bad thing. That special kind of guilt that comes when you're not always working to your absolute limit can be a powerful motivator and often results in some positive career moves. It's also a great way to ensure you miss out on all the barbecues, dance recitals, concerts, and heart-to-hearts that are happening all around you.
Your career doesn't have to be at odds with your personal life if you’re willing to accept that terrible sinking feeling that comes when you realize the industry is moving on without you. It is – even right now while you're reading this article. But so is everything else in your life. So accept it and move on. Be ready to jump in and out of a quickly moving current, and make allowances for re-education when necessary.
You’ll never kick yourself for saying “no, thanks” if you're standing by your choice to enjoy family and friends and put their needs on par with your career's. It takes a lot of guts, but investing in your personal world will always pay out.