Hi, I’ve been reading the news way too much and social media which was once my escape is now full of stories and triggers and news and think pieces ugh. This year has been mentally exhausting and challenging for my own set of private reasons, let alone the state of the world. But here we are. Life continues to go on; things will improve (they must). But I’m going to take a moment from the day to share a story about my self-employment.
Here’s the thing. My self-employment is a total accident. I did not plan for this. I didn’t even want this. Even as a young graphic designer, my goal was never to open my own studio; I always envisaged myself working for the patriarchal and hypothetical “man” (ie, a corporation). It felt like the only way I’d have security and safety.
Boy was I wrong.
Listen, I had a perfectly fine time in the corporate world. I worked three years for one of the world’s largest corporations and largely got to do what I wanted to do, to create the way I wanted to create. I learned everything I know about design, and an awful lot about publishing from that job. I loved my coworkers—they were (and many still are) my friends and my mentors.
My exit from the corporate world wasn’t exactly an accident. I planned and saved for an escape, the urge to take a gap year and do something different. Inspired by friends, by strangers I knew from the internet, by my own family’s history, I made the conscious decision to (what I assumed would be briefly) leave my comfortable job and (relatively) easy life.
I spent a year and a half on my gap year traveling the world. It’s a story I’ve written a lot about. It wasn’t and isn’t the most profound experience of my life, but it certainly had plenty of effects on me, my life, and my career. But that awesome (literally) experience traveling wasn’t what propelled me to start my own business.
I was afraid. And I’m still afraid. In 2010, working that corporate job, I watched friends face layoffs. I had other friends just out of college who weren’t as lucky as me; it took them months to find work after graduation, or if they did, it wasn’t paid well enough, let alone—enough.
We don’t talk a lot about the 2009 economic crisis anymore, at least not on a personal level. I remember the tax relief that George W. Bush signed into law—the $600 I received to encourage me to spend on something, a way to jumpstart the economy I guess. I remember friends unemployed for months. I remember friends who moved back in with their families to save on rent. I remember friends who accepted food stamps.
It wasn’t an easy time for a lot of us. This was the same period where I was learning how to be an adult. And there was always this fear about employment, a regular pressure from my family. “How are you saving for your future? Have you opened a ROTH-IRA yet?” Reminders that I needed to start saving early because “pensions don’t exist anymore,” because “social security will be depleted by the time you retire.”
I came of age during a recession. In hindsight, the recession feels brief. It was nothing like I remember reading about in my high school history textbooks from decades past. And I feel incredibly lucky to have survived it relatively well-off. I was able to quit my job in the height of the recession and dedicate a year (and my $20,000 of savings) to traveling.
It sounds almost crazy. (It was.)
I went back briefly into the workforce when I decided to move to Berlin. I had no income and my savings were gone. The jobs I took on were…interesting. I had to do work I didn’t enjoy to just survive. And being a foreigner in a country where I felt foreign; it was scary. My situation was tenuous and it was hard to feel as if I was on solid ground.
It was then that I made a conscious decision. Just like the decision I’d made two years earlier when I quit my first corporate job. I was afraid to rely on the Berlin startup scene to provide me with financial security. I was afraid to find work in a foreign world. I was afraid. And so I did what any scrappy person would do:
I found my own way.
The real reason I’m self-employed? It’s not because of some desire to be an entrepreneur. It’s not because I feel confident that what I’m creating is worth it. It’s based on years of mistrust of the economy. I’m afraid to rely on others (especially: corporations) to live the life I want to live.
I’m not certain, but I think if you ask a lot of today’s self-made entrepreneurs, they’ll feel the same. We didn’t choose this life; we didn’t plan for it.
Today, we put our homes on Airbnb, we drive around strangers on Uber, we sell shit on Amazon and resell on eBay. We’re struggling to get by not because we all want to be self-employed, but because the security for a future we believe belongs to us seems less and less likely.
We’re a generation of scrappy fighters. We’re creators and innovators. As the world has changed and our companies and governments provide less and less, we’ve had to find our own way.
Of course I’m not saying all of this is a bad thing. Now that I know what I know, and seeing what I’ve created: I’m confident I’m on the best path. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and I have a lot more I want to do. But I didn’t plan to be here. Unlike many others, I wasn’t even forced into this position to be a full-time freelancer.
This is the world we live in. One where we’ve got to fight for what should’ve been. I didn’t want this life, but it’s the one I’ve got. And you can be damn sure I’m going to make the most of it.
Follow me on Instagram @travelsofadam because my life revolves around social proof as much as financial security. But also: please don’t just follow me and then never look at my account. You should like three photos, leave two comments, and send me a private message via Instagram telling me that “hey, it’s all going to be okay.”