Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hard to say when enough is enough

I was talking earlier today with an acquaintance who is a realtor. She told me she was leaving for a weeklong vacation in Florida because she really needed some time to relax. “But of course, if anything happens with any of my listings during the week, I can work from Florida,” she said.

Of course. Although I’ve never before thought about any similarities between being a real estate agent and being a freelance writer, as she said that, I knew exactly what she meant. I’ve been the same way recently: if work comes my way, I’ll do it. Never mind relaxing or visiting Florida. Those of us not in salaried positions don’t turn work opportunities down.

I remember what it felt like to be a salaried employee with paid vacations. Yes, it’s true that we all put in a certain amount of desk time – or phone time or email time – while away from the office, but there was still always that certain smugness, that sense of “I earned this time off. I work my 49 weeks a year so that I get three weeks like this one, when I’m in effect getting paid for not working.” It was a concept that my husband could hardly fathom when we were just out of college and he started his first salaried position shortly before Labor Day weekend. “Look at me – I’m at the beach, but I’m still getting paid!” he crowed on that first-ever paid holiday. “Look at me now: I’m sitting around eating hamburgers, but I’m still getting paid ‘cause it’s Labor Day!” And so on. New to the corporate world after a young adulthood of manual labor and hourly pay, he loved the idea that the meter was running even on a holiday.

I gave up that comfort when I became a freelancer, and like my realtor friend, I’ve been finding it impossible to walk away from any kind of work opportunity lately. The fact is that right now – like as of the past two weeks or so – I have more work than I ever dreamed possible when I contemplated a freelance career. All my clients and publications seem to be coming through for me at once this week: I have assignments here and there and everywhere, far more than I ever imagined I’d have. It’s as if everyone who ever said to me “I might have some work for you in the future” sent me a contract – and a deadline – over the weekend. In some ways I’ve achieved the point in my career that I always hoped to reach: my day is full from start to finish with paid writing assignments.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that the day doesn’t really reach that finish. There’s always a little more I could get done. When I was working for a corporate employer, when the work day ended, it ended. Now it never seems to end. The sooner I file this story, the sooner I’ll get offered the next one – and paid for it. Can’t slow down now.

But at some point I can’t help wondering how I’ll know when enough is enough. There’s no way to put a number on it, to say when I’ve earned this much for the week I’ll be all set. There’s always more I could be giving to charity, more I could be saving. It’s not a matter of greed; it’s more the fact that it’s hard to declare an upper limit on the amount of money you could put to good use. Now, because the work is available, I’m writing while the kids do their afterschool activities, writing after they go to bed, writing during the late-evening hours when I used to read novels or sections of the Sunday New York Times. File one more story before going to bed? Sure – maybe that editor will be burning the midnight oil as well, and I’ll wake in the morning to an email with the always welcome news that no further revisions are needed on it.

When Tim was about five years old, he and I were walking through a small empty parking lot outside a closed car wash when we chanced across a peculiar sight: coins strewn across the pavement. It wasn’t hundreds of dollars, but it was a considerable number of nickels and dimes. Yet it wasn’t enough to seem like someone had dropped a coin bag on the way to the bank or anything like that. More just like someone had opened their car door, caused a lot of change to spill out, and not had time to pick it up. Tim asked if he could take some. I said yes. He gathered about six coins, handed them to me for safekeeping, and then said “Okay, that’s enough.”

I wondered then, and still sometimes wonder, what in him decided that was enough. There were still plenty of coins remaining. And it wasn’t like he was ethically opposed to taking any at all. Nor was he concerned about having to carry the coins: he dropped them in my purse. Something in him just said “Finding money is good, but I know how much is enough for me,” though I have no idea how he found that line.

I think of that image now: Tim finding the small amount of money and deciding he could take a little of it but not a whole lot. I wish I could draw a similar line in the sand with my work; I wish I knew what was enough, and be able to tell myself at 3:00 when the kids get home from school or even 8:00 after they’re in bed that it’s time to stop working. But for now, I’m still looking at all those silvery coins, sparkling in the sun against the dark asphalt, not sure where to begin scooping them up and even less sure of where to stop.

1 comment:

  1. I know your struggle here Nancy...oh, do I know them! In fact, I spent the better part of last year working myself to the nub trying to drum up business, or once the contracts were won, trying to fulfill my commitments to clients. As a result, I ended 2009 utterly exhausted.

    So, this year I'm doing things a bit differently. In the past, working hard in my business was a fear-based response. I constantly worried if I'd be able to make ends meet if I turned down a client, asked for a higher fee or told the client (s)he'd have to wait a week for me to begin work. So, I often said "yes" to things I might otherwise have said "no" - like the client who low-balled me for a job that was excruciating to complete.

    So this year, I'm just a bit more discerning about the jobs I take on. I'm slowing disengaging from the virtual tether that keeps me from fully enjoying my life. And most importantly, I'm realizing the value of my services more, which resulted in a fee increase that lets me work with fewer clients at once.

    It's still early, but so far so good... :)