The struggle to define who you are as an independent and the promise of charging more for your work
Co-authored by Tom Critchlow & Toby Shorin Thanks to Toby Shorin of Subpixel Space for helping put this piece together. Toby’s comments are marked in purple throughout the piece.
The thing no one tells you when you set out on your own is that you take on the task of managing your own labels. Inventing terms to describe who you are and what you do.
This can feel like “soft” work - somehow less important than the “real” work of finding clients, setting up an LLC, etc. But the truth is that the labels you use to describe yourself are crucial to your self-identity in the world of independent work.
And, counter-intuitively, creating labels is hard not because they have to work for others (clients, friends etc) but because the label has to work for you.
Of course labels are external by design - they play a role in how you position and market yourself. But the struggle for labels happens internally - the real audience is the person looking back at you in the mirror. A label you can feel comfortable and confident with.
Do I justify this label?
Am I really good enough to be X?
Who am I to charge clients for Y?
What am I doing?
What do I want to be?
These days I call myself a consultant. But I’ve been doing this 4.5 years and it’s only recently that I feel comfortable really embracing that label. In this post I’m going to walk through how labels can help you charge more, where the angst comes from and how to deal with “the question” as an independent…
Tend to your labels as you grow
When you’re fully employed, you get a steady paycheck but you also get a stable, recognized label. You say “I’m a product manager at IBM” (for example).
Toby Shorin: This label is affirmed in speech and action by your colleagues, who interact with you through and on the terms of your role. You fit into your employer’s org chart, a map of possible role-labels which exist as constituent pieces within the whole of the business entity. “Imposter syndrome,” then, is simply the neurotic inability to accept others’ recognition and confirmation of your given label.
But when you step out on your own you suddenly remove the construct that provides this plug-and-play identity and are left to make one up on your own. When you first leap into this unknown it’s often easy to describe who you are - you’re defined by what you just left.
“I just quit Google to head out on my own.”
“Work & Co Alumni.”
This framing is easy and safe - and it’s totally ok to lean on this. While you will feel the urge to create new labels and framing for yourself it’s ok for this process to take some time and in the interim you can just tell your story.
As the days turn into weeks and months though, new language will emerge.
When I headed out on my own into the world of independent work I used the word “consulting” to describe the kind of client work I was doing, largely because I used the term ‘consulting’ when I was doing client work at the agency Distilled pre-Google.” But it didn’t feel right to call myself a “consultant” yet.
If you’ve done client work before, it might feel instinctive to use whatever word you used then. But now that you’re out on your own, and you’ll likely wrestle with the kind of language you feel is “true” or “earned”:
Self-employed? Sure. (though that implies that I’m paying the bills?)
Freelancer? Probably. (though that implies a short term version of full-time work?)
As you head into the unknown of independent work you should worry less about this label - no one will care about is as much as you do - and it’s less an absolute definition of who you are and more a process of growing into the person you want to be.
The internal angst of labels
As you journey through the independent adventure you’ll have to invent your own labels. Maybe many labels! As you try them out you’ll likely wrestle with them and lose sleep over them (I know I did!).
Again - labels have the dual property of being external and internal. They’re external in the sense that you’ll use them on your website As an independent - putting your website together is like a rite of passage. Everyone struggles with it and you will always have a vague unease with what your personal site says about yourself. , your twitter bio and in conversation. But from my own experience this external nature of labels takes a backseat to the inner hand-wringing and discomfort that comes with trying to describe who you are and what you do.
This inner angst of labels comes in three ways:
Firstly, you imagine that this label matters externally. Positioning is often discussed in the context of “market positioning” or “positioning statement” - something that helps potential clients find and engage with you. That’s true, to a degree. But for many independents the label is less important externally than it is internally. Clients tend to look for evidence, content, associations and perspective that aligns with theirs. They tend to be indifferent to the specifics of the label you use (e.g. a consultant or a freelancer).
Secondly, you imagine that you have to earn your label. That somehow others have the power to grant you use of a label. No one has that power, but a lot is riding on the shared belief that institutions can and do control this power. Part of being untethered and free-floating independent is existing outside of the gatekeeper infrastructure.
TS: In contemporary society, we are rarely given the opportunity to define for ourself who we are. Schooling and employment are at their essence a series of “gates,” an exercise in conditional label-granting. As youth we are told, with terrorizing frequency, that we cannot do things without first obtaining a title, that we are valueless without some authority giving it to us. As a result of this training, suddenly having the opportunity to define and own one’s own label can be piercingly uncomfortable. We ask “who am I?”—but there is nobody there to answer us. Faced with this profound discomfort of unboundedness, we instinctively seek limits and obstacles. We project gatekeepers in front of us, to protect us from responsibility for our own identities.
Thirdly, you have to reconcile your personal and professional identities. Choose a label too whimsical and you’ll worry that people won’t take you seriously, but choose a label too corporate or commercial and people will think you’re too boring. Striking a balance here is necessary and will vary wildly from industry to industry. Remember you can have multiple labels just like you have a multi-faceted identity. As Walt Whitman said in Song of Myself ‘I am large, I contain multitudes!’
TS: Just as becoming independent challenges the distinction between work time and personal time, it also challenges the distinction between your professional and personal self-perception. When are you acting as a “consultant” or “freelancer,” and when are you acting as “father” or “partner?” Lines between networking and making friends blur, and it becomes necessary to get comfortable with these overlapping labels.
Psychic Armor for the Arena of Capitalism
Making labels is not just aspirational and emotional - there’s one key functional benefit: helping you charge more money for your work.
I’ll tell you a secret: every time I send an invoice to a client I want to throw up File this one under ‘things people don’t tell you when you go independent’ as well .
If you Google around everyone will tell you to “raise your rates” or “charge more”. They’re right. But it’s also not so easy!
Having the self-confidence and authority to command premium rates is intrinsically linked to a sense of self-worth and identity. And by extension - any doubt or wavering of self-confidence causes psychic trauma / cognitive dissonance when you attempt to attach dollars to your personal identity
How can you solve this? Through a deliberately professional label.
Once you find a label that you are not terrified of then you can use that label as psychic armor to create emotional protection from the traumas of capitalism.
One has a vague sense of what rate feels too low, but almost anything above that seems too high.
You need a construct to do the charging for you.
This quote illustrates it really well (bolding mine):
At that point, I was charging $25-30 an hour and loved what I was doing, but soon realized that in my work, I’d often create systems that erased the job I was initially hired to do. That’s when I realized I could start calling myself a consultant. Owning the title “consultant” enabled a psychological shift in the way I thought about the work I was doing. This shift led me to increase my rate again, and eventually to articulate the skills I could offer new clients in the form of a program, complete with a business name, website, and set of rates. Before I articulated this “business offering” in a clear program, my annual revenue was around $40k. After making it clear exactly what I could offer potential clients, and by shifting my offerings based on what I saw clients finding most useful, my revenue jumped to $60k, then $85k, and last year (2018) it was $110k. (Remember, these numbers are revenue, not net profit.)
This is from the excellent piece On what it takes to sustain a creative life financially by Sarah Schulweis.
This quote resonates with me because I went through the exact same journey - struggling to charge well for my time when I viewed myself as a freelancer or self-employed. Once I started using the word consultant (and started to actually believe it!) I felt more comfortable charging more for my work.
For me personally I think not in terms of Tom Critchlow sending you this invoice, but in terms of my consulting business sending you this invoice I wrestled with a professional identity a while back in this post Why I’ve decided not to launch a brand for my consulting work. While I decided not to create a website and ‘branding’ for this agency called Yes, and… I did end up forming an LLC and use that construct on all my invoices. .
How do you develop your own capitalist construct? It will vary from industry to industry. For me, it’s as simple as leaning on the word “consultant”. For others, creating a “studio” branding might be the construct needed to charge well.
The worst thing to do is to let your personal identity be the thing that does the billing (regardless of whether it comes from “your name LLC” or not, don’t let your personal identity be the construct you use) Interestingly, studies have shown that trading your time for money leads to taking less pleasure in leisure activity. I think a professional label and construct can help alleviate this problem slightly. Also a good reminder to not charge hourly! Day rates are better. .
TS: Note that even within our professional construct, different situations call for different behaviors. It can be helpful to think of each of these as a micro-label: the me who deals with difficult client stakeholders; the me who can ask to raise my rates; the me who is good at networking; the me who can give a great sales pitch.
“The Question” & the identity crisis
Sooner or later when you’re independent a client will offer you a full time role.
Do you want to join the team full time?
I’ve been faced with this question no fewer than 5 times in my consulting life and every single time it throws me for an emotional rollercoaster.
Talking to others I get the same sense - that even when it’s a company, a role or a salary that is unattractive full-time your mind can’t stop thinking about taking the role To be clear not all full-time roles are bad! And there are legitimate reasons you might want or need to take the role (security, salary, health insurance etc. .
The reason this question is able to throw you for a loop is because it challenges your self-made identity. It directly confronts and questions your ability to stand behind the labels you’ve chosen - by placing them in contrast to the “authoritative” and “well-understood” and “recognizable” label that they’re offering you.
TS: The company has pierced directly through the psychic armour of your professional construct, and made a claim on your identity—they are offering a direct challenge to your label structure, your perception of who you are.
There’s two ways to protect yourself from this emotional rollercoaster.
Firstly, Don’t let their label over-rule your label. You have a seat at the table - and they can’t take that away from you.
TS: The client is offering to change its relationship with you, but don’t forget they still perceive you as a consultant to them. What you have is valuable enough for them to pay the premium rate of an independent consultant. Except for in senior executive roles, joining full time can in fact devalue your work as it becomes more accessible.
Secondly, remember that you can retain your identity as a consultant and take a full-time role. Offer to take the role but still bill through your LLC. While this option isn’t exactly viable for many situations it can help your perspective by thinking through this lens.
I remember a few years ago when my consulting work slowed down slightly and I took a job interview via a friend. I ended up with a job offer to become Creative Director Notice how I’m still using the label here! I’m using the story and their perceived authority to help position myself as part Creative Director. This emotional journey never ends…. at a digital innovation studio. Despite the fact that the salary they offered me was half what I earned that year, I almost took the job! I think it would have been a huge mistake but wow do those identity questions make you lose some sleep.
Poetry over Power
Many times titles and labels are a show of power. Some display of strength over others. I have this label is the same as saying I have this power.
I’d encourage you to think of poetry instead of power. No one has claims on anyone else and part of the freedom of being independent is breaking free from some of those traditional power structures.
Use language and labels as a texture to provide as much psychological safety and identity as you need. If you feel less secure - choose labels that are well-understood. If you need to feel like an outsider - choose labels that are unique and unusual A few labels I love: Alphabet Artist, Media Inventor! Also see this wonderful talk from Sara Hendren on Design for Know-Nothings, Dilettantes, and Melancholy Interlopers. . If you want to be weird, be weird. You can hold a poetry over your own identity this way. Bewitching yourself is completely allowed.
From the book Finite & Infinite Games:
“Therefore, poets do not ‘fit’ into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their ‘places’ seriously. They openly see its roles as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed and its metaphysics ideological.”
So play with labels, understand their power not over others but over ourselves. Understand their ability to provide an inner confidence and provide shelter in the capitalist storm.
This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.