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The relentless pressure to sell yourself

The gig-economy is creating a mismatch between personal expectation and economic reality.

In Everything Is for Sale Now. Even Us., Author Ruth Whippman posits:

The constant pressure to sell ourselves on every possible platform has produced its own brand of modern anxiety.

If you’re a freelancer, self-employed, indie business owner or entrepreneur, that will ring disturbingly true. Even if you’re a natural introvert, you feel the pressure to constantly promote yourself and your work, because otherwise, where will your next clients come from?

35% of the American work force now works freelance in some shape or form, either as their primary income or a side hustle. This is increasing exponentially— 94% of the new American jobs created in the last ten years or so have been freelance or contract-based. You might be working one of those “jobs” right now.

Economists predict that in less than 10 years, contract workers of varying descriptions will make up more than half of the American work force, and the numbers from other developed countries won’t be much different. An estimated 47% of U.S. millennials already work in this way. But it’s far from only millennials. I’m 36 and I’ve been working this way for 17 years — before “millennials” or the “gig-economy” were things yet. Ruth states:

Almost everyone I know now has some kind of hustle, whether job, hobby, or side or vanity project. Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery.

So that’s where we are. The “gig-economy” is eating up our paradigm of employment. Aside form the fact that safety nets like health insurance and retirement plans — which have been traditionally provided by employers — are no longer the norm for today’s workforce, there’s a much more fundamental psychological shift going on, and it’s threatening to tear some of us apart.

Professional freelancers don’t do “gigs”

Are you expendable, temporary help, or a valuable long-term business partner?

Self-promotion and personal branding have become an economic necessity

It used to be just for the narcissistic. Regular employees had no need to shout into the interwebs to sell their goods or services to anyone and everyone that was willing to listen.

Now, as Ruth puts it, times have changed:

Like many modern workers, I find that only a small percentage of my job is now actually doing my job. The rest is performing a million acts of unpaid micro-labor that can easily add up to a full-time job in itself. Tweeting and sharing and schmoozing and blogging. Liking and commenting on others’ tweets and shares and schmoozes and blogs. Ambivalently “maintaining a presence on social media,” attempting to sell a semi-fictional, much more appealing version of myself in the vain hope that this might somehow help me sell some actual stuff at some unspecified future time.

Why do we have to do this?

Mostly out of economic necessity. Even if you’re an introvert who hates self-promotion, you still need to eat. With a collapsing middle-class and the gutting of social safety nets, personal marketing has becomes a stark requirement of business survival.

So now everyone is screaming into Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and it’s too noisy to hear much of anything.

The negative economic correlation of work and self-worth

The peculiar truth is that many people who choose the freelance lifestylewould make more money stocking shelves or serving food. But they’ve chosen this career path for other reasons. Modern workers want more from their jobs than just a steady pay-check. They want purpose, meaning, passion, and challenge. And who can blame them? We all want those things.

Should work be “fun”?

What do today’s generations really crave in a career?

In the past, most employees didn’t expect all of that from their job. Now many do. As Whippman explains:

After a couple of decades of constant advice to “follow our passions” and “live our dreams,” for a certain type of relatively privileged modern freelancer, nothing less than total self-actualization at work now seems enough. But this leaves us with an angsty mismatch between personal expectation and economic reality. So we shackle our self-worth to the success of these projects — the book or blog post or range of crocheted stuffed penguins becomes a proxy for our very soul.

This new rat-race may be causing more harm than we’d like to admit, by taking a severe and rapid toll on our psyches. A 2017 study suggests that this trend toward increasingly market-driven human interaction is making us “paranoid, jittery, self-critical and judgmental”.

It’s no wonder self-care and mental health have become such hot topics, especially in Silicon Valley and the greater tech world. Our cut-throat economy has turned every contractor into a potential mental wreck.

Is this psychological train-wreck fixable?

Can we find a way to run successful indie businesses without succumbing to this fruitless cacophony of selling ourselves ad infinitum?

I think so. I believe my business is most of the way there.

When you first start freelancing, it’s definitely a rat-race. I won’t lie and say that’s it’s all roses from day one. You do have to shout your name from the rooftops and sell yourself to friends and family, because none of your potential clients know who you are yet. It takes dedication, and mostly patience.

Eventually there comes a time when your relentless hard work and client satisfaction snowballs into a reputation that sings much louder than tweets and images.

Clients start coming to you left and right from word-of-mouth referrals, or as the fruits of networking seeds you planted years ago and forgot about. They don’t need to be “sold” to anymore, because your reputation — or the word of a trusted friend or colleague — has already extolled your virtues. You look down on that rat race you’ve left behind, and part of you feels sorry for all the folks still in it, but mostly you’re just relieved you’ve escaped, and your business success no longer feels dependent on your social media image or self-marketing prowess.

Transcending the freelance rat race

Escaping from the constant self-promotion is the byproduct of other good business practices, not the direct goal. Here’s my recipe:

Why being ultra-professional instantly makes you a top-tier freelancer

More than mastery of your craft or years of experience, being a trustworthy pro gets you a big step ahead of your competition.

If the relentless need for self-promotion is getting you down — if you feel like this isn’t what you signed up for when you wanted to be self-employed — know that there are other ways. You don’t have to play the social-influencer game to get on top. That’s one glamorous path to success that works for a lucky few.

For the rest of us — just as it’s always been since the dawn of time — good old-fashioned hard work will do just fine. Forget the polished version of your life or business you think you need to sell to the world. Instead, commit yourself to the idea that doing great work over and over again will land you the same success in a much healthier and more sustainable manner.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.