I've recently looked back at my (still fairly short) career, trying to find a pattern in my decision-making and understand exactly what makes me happy.
As I thought about it, I noticed there are generally three categories of active jobs we can have. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to experience all three. All of them have their own benefits and challenges. All of them have taught me a lot about myself, how I prefer to work and what I want for my career.
The first category is classic full-time employment. I've only worked a few years in my life as a full-time employee, but I know it's the standard for a reason.
Depending on my role as a full-time employee, I enjoy a certain amount of security. Full-time means I have a boss, or multiple people within my company to lead me. I trade my 40 hours+ a week for a monthly salary and a range of benefits. Especially in larger companies, I may even get away with not giving 100%. Often 70% is enough to not get fired, and sometimes even 50% or less. I could get away with calling a few meetings a month and still look like an overachiever, even though I haven't contributed much.
I'm of course not saying everyone does that, but it's certainly a possibility as the structure and politics of a large organization cloud productivity. I know that I'm personally a horrible full-time employee who suffers from the Ringelmann Effect.
Generally, I've found working full-time the "easiest" when it comes to sustaining my own livelihood. I can get away with doing the bare minimum. If I feel a bit lazy one day, I could just follow my manager's orders and that would still make me a good employee. Self-initiative may be rewarded, but it isn't necessary for survival.
I categorize full-time as a low risk, low reward kind of setup. This makes it the most popular choice, and I mean this in the most positive way.
2. Freelance, consultant or service business owner
The second category is everyone who sells chunks of their time by providing a service to clients (B2B). Meaning you may own a company with employees, or you're a solo business owner. But what defines the second category is that instead of answering to a manager or boss, you answer to your client. When you work, you bill by the hour or day. If you want to make more money, you simply bill more hours until you have none left.
I experienced this set-up when I had my own design studio. It's slightly different to working full-time. You certainly have more responsibilities, since you're overseeing the business end of things and also producing the output. Doing work results in getting paid. There's no monthly paycheck so unless you deliver, you simply won't get paid.
In this role, I'm less likely to become lazy and I can't hide in meetings. However, I may be still able to survive by doing the bare minimum. Working for clients, I usually work for a brief. If I'm extremely motivated I may try to challenge the brief and go the extra mile, but I don't have to. I may just answer the brief, do whatever was "good enough" and hopefully get paid. If I'm out of ideas, I can always do whatever the client asks me to do. Of course the work may be not that good, it may not win awards or make me proud, but it may be enough to pay the bills.
I categorize working for clients as a medium risk, medium reward kind of set-up. The more I excel at my work, the more I get out of it. However, I may get away with mediocre work.
“While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” - Leonardo da Vinci
3. Your own business & product
What defines the third category is that you own your own business and work on your own product that you sell directly to customers. Most bootstrapped or self-financed businesses fall under this category. Even funded businesses to some extent, although you could argue there may be less skin in the game.
I personally found this path to be the most difficult so far. I have no boss or manager to guide me. I have no client with a briefing or a particular problem to solve. I'm completely on my own. No one is telling me what to do, which is a beautiful and liberating thing but also scary and lonely at times.
I wake up in the morning and have to plan my own agenda for the day. I need to find my own problems to solve, and then solve them. And if I'm lucky (or good at what I do) I may be rewarded by customers purchasing my product. If I fail, most likely no one tells me what went wrong and for sure no one will tell me how to fix it.
Working on your own product I'd categorize as high risk, high reward. The more risks I take, the higher the reward may be. I have no security nets, but also no one blocking me from receiving the highest reward if I do well.
Weighing the Pros & Cons
The grass is always greener on the other side, but all of these options have their trade-offs. Here is my personal summary:
Financial stability (at least, in theory)
Benefits (healthcare, paid vacation, etc.)
Stable work hours (at least in theory)
Stable social circle (same people you work with every day)
I can give 70% and still be fine
Clear leadership, I get told what to do (in theory)
Fear of not being in control (can get fired for little reason)
Less creative freedom, always have to answer to boss
Need to be social to some degree to fit into office culture
Most likely bound to certain work hours and location
Freelance, consultant, studio owner
Freedom to work with whomever I want (in theory)
Work from anywhere I want
Work anytime I want (may depend on clients)
I get paid by the hour, and I only have 24 hours in a day.
Unpredictable income. One month nothing, another month a lot.
Responsible for my own benefits
Lots of trial and error finding the right clients
Owning a product business (with customers)
Absolute creative freedom
Work from anywhere, whenever I want
More control overall
No regular salary (unless I've figured out a recurring revenue model)
Responsible for my own benefits
Very lonely, unless you hire some friends (co-workers)
High risk, high reward (both a pro and a con)
I've learned that all three models may be the best for me depending on my phase in life. Of course it also depends on personality and skills. I know people who thrive by working in a specific role full-time or in the service business. I also know some who thrive only if they're completely on their own.
For the most part, I fall between #2 and #3. I love working for clients because I love to serve. I thrive by simply providing value to someone, even at the expense of my own creative expression.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!