tumblr_ntretfYj7K1tfpvszo1_400.gifWHAT DO I KNOW? A friend recently interviewed me for his company’s blog. As a freelancer for more than a decade, surely I had some business advice to share, right? It was an odd experience being the subject for a change, and hard to find coherent lessons in a career as unplanned as mine. That feeling was heightened by a sense that great forces — generational, social, financial  — could cause my house of cards to collapse at any moment. Speaking as an expert feels like tempting the cosmos to show me how wrong I am.

Despite my superstitions, I dropped some knowledge… in the spirit of helping others embark on a career of constant, low-level worrying.

What’s great about working as an independent consultant?

For all the risk and uncertainty, freelancing is my dream job. It’s about control: choosing who I work for, the kinds of projects I take on, and how I spend my time. The freedom of freelancing is worth more to me than any promotions or bonuses I’m missing. Plus, I don’t have to deal with being laid off, commuting, or the guy who microwaves fish for lunch.

How did you get started as a freelance writer?

I knew I wanted a creative career, but it was an indirect journey. After college, I cooked hot wings, served legal documents, and made newspaper tear-sheets (a job that barely survived into the 21st century). I got my foot in the door the way a lot of people do, with an internship. I found out what I was good at, started cobbling together a portfolio, and made as many connections as I could. Early on, I saw how many interesting opportunities were out there — not just where I was working. As soon as I felt ready, I used my network to find my own clients and cut the cord with my agency. That was 11 years ago.

What’s hard? What has been different than you expected?

You learn quickly, it’s a hustle. Freelancing demands so much more than talent on the project. I am my own IT, finance department, supplies manager, and motivational guru. No one’s out there lining up my jobs, shaking the trees for payment, making sure my insurance is affordable and my retirement doesn’t evaporate. Just about the time you master all those hassles (or outsource them), something changes.

How has your career changed for you?

It never stops. One year you might have four big clients, the next you have 20 small ones. I never expected to learn so much about agriculture, theatre, or architecture — or that I would ultimately find them fascinating and important. Change either happens to you or you make it happen. The more industry white papers and direct mail catalogs you write, the more you’ll be invited to write. So you have to embrace the work you have or set a new course.

How do you find your clients?

This is a mid-sized city with a huge amount of opportunity if you get hooked in. For me the pipeline has always included creative agencies, large, boutique and virtual. But increasingly I contract directly with clients and work with them for years. People are kind in recommending me to their colleagues; this network effect is strong enough that my work has remained steady. In the last few years, I’ve been carving out a sweet spot: the arts, education and non-profits, companies most aligned with things I care about. That’s meant seeking introductions, building teams and answering RFPs. It’s a longer path to billable work, but easier to love (which is what the best work needs).

Do you ever say no to a client?

During my first few years as a freelancer, I took everything I could fit on my schedule. It was a good period for learning and earning. But I’ve grown pickier. Do I think the world needs what we’re making? Will I enjoy working with these people? Will it make the Twin Cities a better place to live? Most importantly: Will I learn something? When I can’t answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions, I decline the offer. I have a rule of thumb: If I’m not excited to share anything I’m doing with my friends (especially people outside the business), I need some new clients.

What have you learned to look for in a client that’s a good (or bad) fit?

I don’t think there are wrong fits so much as wrong expectations. If everyone agrees to the goals and the process, I’ve found that any conflicts and challenges that arise are not deal-breakers. That said, when someone tells you at the first meeting that they sued the last team they hired, that’s a red flag.

What advice do you have for other creatives who want to strike out on their own?

My spouse is an artist and also works for herself. We have something we call the “F$#k Yeah, Oh F$#k” theorem of independent work: a predictable cycle of big wins that often lead directly to situations of being overwhelmed and in crisis, followed by dry spells and worries your career is dead. Realize this is a normal part of the process and learn to ride the waves, financially and emotionally.

Also, you need a desk. After six months at your living room table, go to BluDot.

What, in your view, has been the key to sustained success?

An obsessive personality that fears failure and poverty. If you aren’t low-level worrying all the time, you may not have it in you.

What’s your all-time favorite client?

I can honestly say the best stuff I have done is not for prestige clients, cool as those are, but for the small, local group that does amazing work but isn’t on most people’s radar. I love going into an environment like that — where no one is looking for great work — and blowing it up. I’m helping launch a new company that can narrow the achievement gap in high-poverty classrooms. I recently collaborated with the counsel of U.S. chief justices on a report about transforming our civil justice system. That wall of pencils we made at Antenna is tough to top.

Sometimes the biggest thing is learning how to be interested. If you can nail that, this gig is unbeatable.

 

SignsI’M OFFICIATING MY SISTER’S NUPTIALS this weekend using credentials I bought for $25 on the internet. The event is giving me overwhelming feels I don’t have words for (hopefully they’ll arrive in time for the ceremony).

I’ve gathered a set of songs for the occasion. Not anyone’s idea of a wedding mix. More a way to summon joy, tears and chills on demand, when they can be controlled.

$ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $ # $

Download UNITWEEN (6/30/2016).

01 Ramsey Lewis – Cry Baby Cry
02 Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Astonished Man
03 Shopping – In Other Words
04 Is/Is – Loose Skin
05 The Db’s – Neverland
06 Clean – Anything Can Happen
07 Lee Moses – Time and Place
08 Zombies – Maybe After He’s Gone
09 Roxy Music – The End of the Line
10 Peter Schilling – Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)
11 Stargard – Which Way Is Up
12 Beyoncé feat. Jack White – Don’t Hurt Yourself
13 Grip Grand – Holding My Breath
14 Action Bronson & Meyhem Lauren – Mr. 2 Face
15 Kendrick Lamar – untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.
16 ESG – My Love for You
17 Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – Bottled in Cork
18 Frightened Rabbit – Old Old Fashioned
19 PJ Harvey – The Community Of Hope
20 Xenia Rubinos – Lonely Lover
21 Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan – Circles
22 Quasi – Skeleton

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 8.14.28 PMTHE OTHER DAY I WAS INTERVIEWING a young person (after 40, you get to call them that) who told me, “if you’re not working to solve racial inequity, what are you doing?” She said it like we obviously agreed on everything. Her company trains teachers to double-down on their most challenged students, usually poor and black, in an effort to reduce disparities in education kid by kid. I agreed with her and said so. But it gave me pause. Whatever I tell myself I do to make a system skewed in my favor more fair, being paid handsomely to write websites about it surely isn’t enough.

Like a lot of white people in 2016, I’m struggling to get my head straight about White Supremacy and my place in it. History let me off at at the comfiest intersection of race, gender, geography and class. Now that I’m done with whatever minor struggles I had covering my own needs, I see how many chips I always had stacked in my favor. Even the narrative of “outsiderness” I toyed with growing up seems laughable now, if not offensive. Privilege is like air: unearned, little acknowledged, yet more or less responsible for everything.

From rates of incarceration to police killings to my own white-as-hell design/marketing industry, systemic racism is no more arguable than global warming. What am I doing about it?

Not much. Reading and listening, mostly. The show RadioLab, which is usually about science culture, went off topic last month with an episode called Debatable, about a team of African-American college debaters who themselves go off topic. Instead of arguing about the season’s assigned issue (like space exploration or domestic surveillance), they steer their match-ups into “debates about debate,” calling out the racism inherent in the structure of these events and society generally. The team makes it all the way to the national championship using a rap/spoken-word delivery and in every other way rejecting debate convention. You’ll never guess what happens (spoiler: they win).

The Ivy-League debate world isn’t an accidental target. While this isn’t laid out in the story, part of the genius of this strategy is that debaters see themselves as a pure meritocracy, masters of brain-to-brain combat where only the arguments matter, one of the reasons debate is a refuge for geeks and misfits (me included). By flipping the script from the assigned issue to the forum itself (with a jolting departure in style), everything debaters take for granted is undermined: rules, shared context, civility, topicality, rationality. It’s like throwing a stink bomb and pantsing everyone at once.

Thrilling as it is, the black team’s triumph isn’t as crucial to me as the institution’s disgrace. For a few tense minutes, the opposing team (who aren’t always white, it should be mentioned, though RadioLab doesn’t) is marginalized, their hard work, assumptions and sense of justice are undermined. People are refusing to play by our rules in our house! Why might that be?

For all the guilty tears the majority culture sheds over minority oppression, white people largely fail to acknowledge or reckon with injustice. When we lose at our own game, that changes.

CXatw9BUAAAgKsi (1)ANOTHER LONELY YEAR BEGINS ON THE OBSOLETE INTERNET. Not even crickets to serenade us here in Blogland/ Most of our action’s happening in meatspace anyhow. This week we were gobsmacked to learn Sarah has an older brother — secretly put up for adoption in ’65, now a warm and enormous firefighter living in Provo with six kids of his own. She’s off to Portland to meet him for the first time. They know he’s the real thing because he loves bargains and can hold a practiced smile through hundreds of photos. / Meanwhile, we are maybe going to win a large grant to build a skill-sharing pavilion in Downtown Minneapolis, which is a textbook illustration of the Fuck-Yeah-Oh-Fuck theorem of creative enterprise. (UPDATE: We lost) / A sprawling manuscript for Steve Davis’s John Brown: The Fighting Farmer hit my inbox this week to be made into a book, only three years late. / I’m convinced Johanna is the 9-year-old Charlie Rose and needs her own podcast, like everyone in 2016. We’re calling it Truth or Dessert.

MuseumCAN I TALK SHOP FOR A SEC? In the toolbox of corporate communication are a couple of slippery items known as “mission” and “vision.” I wrote them off for a long time as naval-gazing or propaganda created by executives to give employees a purpose that isn’t pay. If companies were real about it, “maximize profit and cash out” would sum it up, right?

My cynicism softening in mid-life, I see now that a mission, in some form, is critical for everyone—be it a corporation, a community non-profit, or an individual. There’s so much to be done and so many ways to go about it; without parameters, every opportunity might as well be a Yes. Profit alone isn’t enough. The more businesses I get to know, the more money looks like the lowest lower rung on the ladder of value, a price of entry instead of a raison d’être (outside of finance, of course).

Feeling your purpose is easier than expressing it. Few mission or vision statements amount to more than “be the best at what we do.” So what’s a good one sound like? Google is organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. That’ll keep you busy. Sesame Street recently updated theirs, from a rather academic definition to “Sesame Street helps kids grow up smarter, stronger and kinder.” Simple. Directive. Challenging. While I didn’t write that line, it clarities the ones I do.

This month I started working with Penumbra Theatre, a beloved regional arts institution. Their example has me thinking about a mission’s role in focusing and catalyzing effort. When you put on 6 plays a year for four decades, something more than “delighting audiences” has to hold things together (if only because you fully understand what delights those audiences). Penumbra’s mission, to “create professional productions that are artistically excellent, thought provoking, and relevant and illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African American experience,” while less succinct than Sesame’s, sets a high bar. It could go further (they also want to create a just society) but defining what each and every play needs to do is enough.

All that is to say: if you’re going to do something, you should know why you’re doing it. I haven’t always, career-wise. As a freelancer, I’m at the mercy of short-term motivations and endless random opportunities. All the more reason I need guardrails. Years ago, I decided I “create foundations for good communication.” It nods to what I like (helping companies early; big, strategic contributions they can use for a long time) and what I don’t (advertising, ephemeral crap). But as a mission, it’s transactional, all What, no Why.

What gets me out of bed in the morning (when coffee isn’t enough)? Intellectual challenge. True believers. Artists. Underdogs. Finding alternatives to our unjust, oligarchic social shitstorm. After 11 years of running a business, this needs nailing down. At least I’m feeling it.

15_smm_02

++ A PROPOSAL FOR CREATIVE CITY CHALLENGE 2016 +++

SELFMADEMPLS
An artist-led architecture for urban self-reliance.

Self-reliance and connection to the land are common threads in the history of this place—from pre-settlement societies to European farmers to the early industrial era that harnessed the bounty of the soil and water.

But modern living is erasing so much land-based knowledge and skills, as well as our identity as growers, savers, and rugged survivors. We are now citizens of the corporate-retail-financial complex, more oriented to stadiums than seedbeds. Push too hard on our modern assumptions and they crumble like an interstate bridge. American cities are one major security breach or climate event away from disaster.

Renewing our self-reliance—and our relationships with each other—is increasingly a matter of self-preservation. We are (again) a diverse population of people struggling to make a home together in a challenging place, with many mouths to feed and little more than our collective wits to protect us. What actions will we take to prepare? We believe the Creative City Challenge—with its goals of promoting health, community connection, and vital exchange through art in the city’s center—is the perfect vehicle to address this question.

Artists, as usual, can show the way. Minneapolis makers, growers, architects, technologists, and other creative toilers have long been out front preserving knowledge and skills—and forging new ones—outside the mainstream cultural conversation. From urban farming and sustainable architecture to alternative transportation and homemade textiles, our artists know how to make it for themselves.

This summer in the center of the city, we want to amplify their voices and transmit their knowledge. We call it “Self-Made Mpls”: an iconic complex, part garden, part workshop, part classroom, part prototype, where citizens and visitors rediscover together what we’re capable of.

Will it happen? We’ve proposed sillier things. Never count MakeSh!t out …

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