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Poo-foria: Life’s secret sauce

poop“When you get to my age you’ll realise that the most important thing in life is not money, fame or power. It is having good bowel movement.”

When a friend’s grandfather made that comment more than a decade ago, I knew I was in the presence of a seer. This man had emerged wiser through life and its struggles, with the ability to understand the root of our miseries (not shit, or the lack thereof). He was speaking not only about what a healthy body can do to our joie de vivre. He was speaking also, if you can see beyond the crap, about perspective.

What his comment really seemed to say was, life is simple girl. It appears deceptively like the toughest episode on Crystal Maze (remember that?). Instead it is as straight laced as Peter Capaldi’s abuse-spewing tongue in Thick of it. The machinations at play are only those we invent, to help make sense of all the mess. Instead, what we should be doing is eating our greens (and whole grains), having protected sex and making enough money to buy a traveling trailer.

Wait, wasn’t that what the hippies said (with some drug cocktails thrown in)?

Well, they were onto something.

An entrepreneur, who set up a successful media company more than a decade ago, mentioned encountering some young working professionals (the millennials if you will) who said a job is what they do to ‘pass time’. For someone who has built a business from scratch that is a dreadful statement to encounter. This passing time is likely to catch the young lot unawares when they turn 30 and have the universal what-am-I-doing-with-my-life crisis. For hamsters so caught up in running the wheel, it is often difficult to recognise that they’re not getting anywhere.

Instead blessed are those that have found their passion when young and understood that life is not the road to anything. It is rather the bittersweet ride where best laid plans can come to naught and victories often fly by quicker than bumps. The laughter is not in some grand culmination of events but in the smiles at silly turns.

This Poo-foria philosophy, as I have deemed fit to term it, is the recognition that beyond all our disparate dreams for love, work, family and the world, true joy lies in the simple life – in a warm embrace, a shared meal, in combining forces for good, in a stranger’s (non-creepy) smile and with regularity, in the unhindered (and mindful) release of bodily waste.

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There is no pill for this annoying thing

There is an ad on radio where a woman is asking another how she ‘gets so much done’ in just 24 hours. The super mommy who wakes early, makes food, presentations and evening park visits, credits it all to a pill (not THE PILL meant to keep aforementioned tiny park visit companions at bay).

Since she’s on radio it’s no secret that she’s lying, about three things mainly. First, no pill (or coffee) can make you fill your day with perfectly timed tasks done easy. Second, there is no such thing as perfectly timed tasks. Third, it is never easy.

All that the average lot of us manage to achieve on most days is avoiding a car crash while looking like a car crash. But there are some ‘highly efficient’ individuals, who spoil it for everyone really, because they have one (awfully boring) habit that unfortunately seems to work. It is called (don’t hold your breath) a To-Do list, named so that when it’s over you can end the day with the Ta-Da jig. In recent months I have had the undesirable pleasure of putting it to practice. Now I’m one of those people who either will not enter the rink at all or will go all Karate Kid on it (with many a bludgeoned face to show for it). So in my third decade on earth when I finally seemed to have a handle on what I wanted to do in life (write for peanuts & vino), I decided to begin ‘managing’ my time down to the minute.

Caution: it does not look pretty. It’s more kangaroo on acid on a trampoline (because she forgets she doesn’t need a trampoline). Here’s what the homo sapiens version looks like – you open a shared excel sheet (because it’s easy, accessible on multiple devices anywhere, does not waste paper), list down every darn thing that you need to do every day, decorate it with deadlines (I would curve the life out of them if they weren’t dead already), say ‘done’ on the side when you’ve got it over with and just to make it a party out there (if you’re the kangaroo like me) plugin the start and end time on the dreary bits so you’re racing to get out of there quick.

No one is going to put me on the radio to sell this pill but honey it works for this mama (so far) and it could work for you too. You don’t have to complicate your life exactly as much as I have with this attempt at becoming the boss of me. To your aid have come the good folks who make apps to glue us to our phones even more than we already are. They’ve created a few apps for the list lusters, so why not have a go at Carrot (lists turned into games) or Wunderlist (it’s pretty and allows you to share things like grocery lists with your partner, because c’mon, supermarket scuffles ARE the sex in cohabitation).

What lists allow us to do is break down tasks into surmountable bits that aren’t half as scary when they’re written down and ticked off one by one instead of floating incessantly in our minds. It allows us to do what writer Anne Lamott mentions in her brilliant book ‘Bird by Bird’, “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

The biggest upside of the piecemeal approach to a day (other than the high of writing ‘done’ beside all tasks) is the patterns that appear over time, showing how you may be spending the majority of it in things that add little or nothing to your life (yes Facebook, I’m talking about you). More significantly, tracking your day can be the acknowledgement of one of life’s greatest truths – the only egalitarian treasure all humankind is born with and one we can enjoy until the end, is time (that is, when we can learn to hold down this Road Runner). Beep Beep.

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Lessons on Freelancing: What I learned in the first 6 months

I had dreamed about this day, not today in particular, but one day, a day, in which I would be sitting at a desk in an empty house, writing for hours. It would also involve getting up to do a little jig when the words came out all perfect, as well as moments of dread, sweaty palms and a racing heart for all the wrong reasons. In the last six months, I have seen these and more. As friends (and family) continued to jump off the corporate hamster wheel over the years, I yearned to have the guts to become my own boss. But I liked the cushion of an assured monthly paycheck, the imposed timetable of the day that involved waking up every morning no matter what, knowing well enough that left to myself I would lack the discipline to see a lone venture through.

I was wrong, as we often are, mostly about ourselves. The only thing stopping me from using all the skills I had practiced for building other people’s dreams, could just as well be used to build mine. It has now been six months since I began calling myself boss and learned to measure life’s worth in minutes. Money follows, even if it doesn’t flow, in the beginning. I learned a lot of things, about work, time and myself that I will share in the hope that it might answer questions for someone sitting on the fence. This is not all you need to read to get there, but it is one of the many conversations we will have across the table as we discuss life and all else.

Timing is Everything

Timing is everythingI became a freelance writer after eight years of working full-time in different roles. I sometimes feel I should have begun right out of grad school. I certainly could have. In terms of timing I probably got it wrong, with a move to a different country, a four year old kid and increased expenses at the time of taking the plunge. But what all this time spent elsewhere meant is that I had some savings to fall back on till things took off, plus experience from different industries, which I’m now able to write about. If you had to pick a time, it should ideally be one without liabilities (like when you can bunk with parents), therefore younger is possibly better. Or else, do it after you’ve amassed enough savings to allow for few months of slow pickings before regular income starts flowing in. Timing could save you from quitting a freelance tryout too soon just because you weren’t well prepared. It also helps to gain an understanding of what it will take before you actually give up a full time role. Moonlight on the side while working full time if you can so you can judge if you’re any good and can make a living out of a skill if you could do it all day.

Spreadsheets are Now Your Best Friends

SpreadsheetsIt doesn’t matter if you never worked on or liked spreadsheets (even going so far as to take a dig at friends who spent their work life staring at them). As a freelancer they are your new best friends. Understanding your target market (for instance list of publications in case of writers), monthly account statement, daily tasks, all appear manageable when they’re in neat boxes. Build them early to save yourself from headaches and hypertension later.

Yes You Have to Play all the Roles

all roles

The hardest part about working for yourself (other than getting out of bed) is that you cannot simply execute tasks and move on. You have to constantly be awake to ideas, stories, new business opportunities. You have to build a database of people you can potentially work for, update it regularly. You have to manage finances, market your skills, be each department in a business, at least in the beginning. Read and research as much as you can about entrepreneurship in your sector, from websites that give advice, best practices, etc. Building a pipeline of work is the only way to stabilize your income so keep researching, pitching, breaking your head over the next big idea.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

don't sell yourself short

How does one even begin to set a rate to freelance work? While it would differ from one craft to another, there are certain rules. For instance, in writing it tends to be payment per word for journalism, project-based rates for other forms of content. Unless you’ve researched the market you will not know what you’re worth and how much you should charge. So when you’re building the market spreadsheet, get a sense of payment terms for each potential client. These are rarely heard from the horse’s mouth so check other freelance websites to see if they mention rates. You had heard time was money, and as a freelancer it is a daily lived truth. So no point wasting your precious time on going after low paying gigs that don’t even look good on your profile. Desperation will not get you far. Hence the thing about getting your timing right. If you begin by aiming low “just for now” that cycle will never end. So take time to take the plunge if you have to, but once you’re in measure your skills and aim high.

Build a Portfolio Website

Build a Portfolio Website

There has to be one place for all potential clients to see what you’re about – your past experience, skills, testimonials from previous work, et al. The earlier you build this the better. While it becomes your online resume, it even helps you keep track of things once work starts flowing in and you have to selectively present some projects for a new pitch. Plus it looks more professional than a dangling one page paper. A simple site (on wordpress for instance) takes less than four hours to put together. Then plug this in all social media links, email signature, etc. Unashamedly send it to family and friends too. They’ll know what you’re up to plus a future project could come from anywhere.

Grow a Thick Skin

Thick skin

This one is the most vital survival instincts for a freelancer. Your pitches will get rejected. Some potential clients will be great people who give you constructive feedback on why something doesn’t work. Others will be mean. Most will not reply. Sometimes it makes you want to cry or kill them, but it’s not worth it. What is worth your time is understanding how you could have presented the same idea differently or going back to the drawing board to see what really works for them. Patience and perseverance will see some of the above rejections turning to a resounding yes in due course. That thick skin you’re growing is also reserved for all the people who feel sorry for you (and many will). They will not get that you’re freelancing because that is what you want to do. To them you’re simple waiting it out till a good (full-time) opportunity comes your way. It is how you’re “keeping busy” for the time being. Again, explanations don’t matter. Why sell the prospect of being able to manage time as per your will, the joy of working on an eclectic mix of projects one never can in a full-time job, or simply being able to get to work within 2 minutes of brushing your teeth. They won’t get it and you needn’t sell it. As long as you know why you’re doing it, it’s all good.

It’s work so it’s not free

no free lunch

The most important question every freelancer battles – Should I work for free? The default answer to this should ideally be NEVER. Yes, writing (or photography/design) can be esoteric pursuits but this is not that. When you’ve decided you must earn a living through the pursuit of what is essentially your hobby and passion, then the realistic answer is, offer that service for free ONLY in two cases: 1) While you’re still working full-time and the pro-bono project gets you new experience on your profile. 2) Or you’re so passionate about the project that you want to make the time to do it even for free, but not at the cost of other assignments. Once you’ve begun your freelance career, politely decline ‘free’ contributions. It’s unprofessional to do a shoddy job on any assignment and since all of them (even free ones) will take up time to turn out good, it’s better to spend it in something that is or could become monetarily productive. The lure of free work is huge when no paid assignments are coming your way, but if you have a certain amount of experience in the chosen field, save your time for researching and working on something that will help you build a viable career. Many magazines and websites are built around unpaid contributions, offering ‘visibility’ in return. These are okay if your day job pays the bills and you write for a lark. But if you’re looking to make money as a writer, you can’t offer free anything. And usually, the ones that are worth their visibility also pay contributors.

Being Master is Good and Tough

master

As a freelancer no one will tell you what time you should be at your desk, or how long lunch break can be. You will not be stuck in traffic everyday. You will begin to appreciate the hours in a day because how productive you make them will depend only on you. Because your efforts are not tied to other people (who love long meetings that get little done, or do not understand the concept of brevity), you will suddenly free up more time in the day than you ever thought possible. That, in essence, is what will determine your success or failure, as it does of most people, though they do not often realize it. Character, they say, is what a person does when no one is watching. As a freelancer, while the final product is up for review, the process is in your hands. No one is checking in to see how or what you’re doing. It can be both liberating and scary at the same time. Some days you can sleep in till late but it can’t go on forever and you will begin to slowly love the part of you that sticks to the schedule you made. What makes it good is that it is all coming together for you and what you want to do with your life.

It isn’t perfect so look before you leap

perfect

You will still be slaving at a desk, spending some sleepless nights and hounding people for payment. This life is far from perfect. It isn’t freedom from horrible bosses or nirvana. It is simply a different way of shaping your life. So how bad you want it is a test you should take early on. There will be very good days, when your work gets appreciated, accepted by a prestigious client or a project comes to you on it’s own. There will be normal days when you chug along, doing your bit. There will be bad days, when weeks go by before money comes in. The joy in all of it is still knowing that it’s in your control, for the most part. If you choose the right people to work with, build relationships that last (and give you continuous work), then the pains are minimized. Taking the time to understand what you’re getting into is half the battle won. Like everything else in life, being a freelancer doesn’t come easy and is actually tougher than being answerable to other people. You are your boss, critic and judge.

Be open and flexible about the future

Be Open and Flexible about the future

Planning is important but even as a business manager you can go wrong deciding for a time too far ahead. Should freelancers continue looking for full-time work? I have found that if you keep thinking you can go back to a full-time job anytime then you’re not pushing hard enough to make freelancing work for you. So stop actively searching for a job and give yourself time to build something of your own. Set a date to evaluate yourself. It could be six months to a year or more. Your circumstances in life could determine it. But in that time really, truly, push hard and do your best (no one else but you will know if you did). Then if something full-time comes along, you will not settle out of desperation. You will know what your skills are worth, what drives you and whether the new role is challenging (and engaging) enough for you. This exercise would have taught you more about yourself than a retreat in the mountains will, though do head out for those once in a while.

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The Week That Was: How I (Almost) Lost My Mojo

You know how, when your parents are doctors, they make you take an annual full-body scan (around your birthday). What? Yours don’t? (Too late in the day to call child services. Oh wait, we don’t live in Canada).

So where were we? Ah yes, body scans (that don’t involve hot Polish flight stewards). There’s this hoopla around my birthday each year (because that’s the only way I’ll remember it) involving blood letting followed by numerical shame. So far it’s been sane. But this time I flunked, miserably. Having prided myself over being a non-fainter, a fever-avenger who only discovered what a body temperature rise feels like at boarding school flu epidemic, age 10 (Oh, so that’s what a fever is), my blood count in the recent test has fallen below borderline, causing much eyeball widening action by the medicine man & woman. Truth is, I wasn’t surprised.

For the first time, perhaps ever in the history of my life, I was sapped of energy, of mental faculties, of interest in everything, for a whole week. It was like my body was begging me to stop, catch a breath, lay still. It was unpleasant. It was not me. I knew I wasn’t eating too well, working out or even breathing normal. Work, by nature, is always frantic. Toddlers are always unpredictable. And yet after going through the motions for months, I was suddenly losing steam.

And after all the promises of doing something about it, “making time for myself” was not on the to-do list. Until the numbers came.

Single digit haemoglobin counts are not my thing, me of the floating above average on the body tests. But suddenly, with the enemy being real and writ in ink, I seemed to be jolted out of running through the day on high speed rails. I was forced to acknowledge each breath, to make it count, to slow the heck down. After weeks I stopped to look at the sunset (without & through my camera lens), to flip through the bedside poetry book, to hear my heart settle, without scrambling ahead.

IMG_20150427_234313

Numbers will stay below (blood) poverty line for a while. Routines will follow the clock I often lose to. But I’m hoping I won’t forget to keep my promises, to me.

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Why you must not make life-transforming decisions on a Monday PLUS 5 Ways to Get Through It

Monday should long ago have been re-christened ‘Hang in There’ Day.

It officially marks the end of all that is glorious, sunny and well-fed. It is the enemy of life spent on roller-blades in empty parking lots, ruminations on the color purple (on your fingernails, not the book) and all categories of happy sounds that end in repetitive consonants.

Monday is the day you wish you were a Princess in a bow-tie (because you could), chewing Sour-Punk and watching The Thick of It to no end. Or atleast that your current partner was a filthy rich bugger who spoiled you silly and you were cannabis-happy to oblige, with no desires of ‘doing something with your life’.

Monday is just downright horrid when it drives in after a three-day long, festival followed weekend.

But it is on such very Mondays that one must never, ever, ever QUIT. Or tell a man (who is obviously wrong for you) that you love him. Or start a blog titled my-turquoise-shoes. (if you must, go for that last one.)

Because Mondays are slimy lizard things that way, designed to make you wonder at the joys of non-alarmy mornings, with what-ifs and the maybe-coulds and the even deadlier, Today-I-must-make-a-life-changing-(extremely stupid, that will only come to light post facto)-decision.

Monday, then, is best dealt with your armor on, your nose neck deep in the fluffy stuff that makes you tick, with no time for thoughts and what-not.

Here’s some things to try out…

1. It’s fine if neither you nor your book-holding arms have a place to stand during morning commute. Ditch the book and watch Outnumbered. Laugh out loud, even if people stare. Because let’s face it, you are a little nuts.

2. Answer ALL emails. It’s either that or editing a 1000 word article (written by someone who thinks Eats, Shoots & Leaves is the autobiography of the Panda from Kung-Fu Panda) on the weaving techniques used by Bedouin tribes, juxtaposed with those found in Romania and North-West Asia.  On Monday. So, emails it is.

3. To keep the warm glow of Sunday still shining over you, have Green Tea with a teaspoon of honey and freshly squeezed lemon. If you can’t get cannabis. Otherwise, have that.

4. Everyone around you will be sleepy, sorry, singing of drudgery. Don’t disown them, these are the blokes you’ll be hangin’ with over the wild wild weekend. Just practice the silent, smiling nod whilst imagining what the nice people in Iceland are doing right now.

5. During the last hour of the day, if you hit your elbow on the bathroom door at work (if it doesn’t happen on it’s own, just go bang it already), scream F*** as loud as you can silently. That will help release all and any forms of tension that may have built up during the day. Even as the excruciating and real pain of the injury passes through your arm and you slowly lose all feeling in a possibly fractured elbow, just don’t pass out in there because God knows no one wants to see that, on any day.

When you do get out, Monday will almost be over. Yayee-oo-aa-hmph.

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Write On

I have been away for a week. There would be punishments for this kind of thing but I’m the boss and not a keen follower of the masochism movement. Instead I can only make a note to self: Live and let write.

No revolutionary events to report but mundane thoughts on things continue. Like happiness worth 50 bucks by way of two (second hand) books I bought for 25 each. Cheap thrills aren’t easy. In the 10 minutes before the 10.30 pm movie show, you must scan piles of mindless junk to get to anything worth more than 25. And when you do, the joy lasts for days on end. If you’re turning your nose up at “second hand” stuff and think you’re cat’s whiskers, well then you better do a good job chasing the tiny rat’s ass I care about your opinion on that one. The great thing about second hand books is that there’s always a story (or more) than what exists between the covers. If you find names or personal notes, you’re lucky. Otherwise you can invent your own story and imagine it played out as the finest drama there ever was.

Talking about drama, there’s enough everyday to belittle Television soap operas. Having your zombie moment at work in the form of picking up the phone and dialing the number on the keyboard instead of the phone pad. Spilling cheese from an eat-on-the-go sandwich all over your clothes on your way to work. Paying 50 bucks and getting lost on your way to a place that’s at a five minute walking distance. Or days going downhill suddenly picking up towards the end and making you a star (at least for a while).

As star vices go, I have those of the restless variety. There is a need to always be doing something that amounts to more than can be summed up in a word (or sentence). There’s the urge to eat the forbidden sweet (did I say “forbidden”? Nonsense. In my world there are no forbidden sweet vices). There’s the desire to watch back-to-back episodes of the favourite show late into the night, with knowledge of how resulting lack of sleep will affect next day at work. There’s the conversation with the almighty where wishes shift priorities at the speed of light/sound, whichever you prefer.

And so the days pass, one bead on a string followed by another.

Jaded, Coloured, Crooked, Pearl white.

Good, Bad or Ugly. But none like the other.

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Weekend (J)amboree

The weekend whiff is special. It’s glorious. It’s all that it’s made out to be and more. There is hope, deliberation and the feeling that something new (and potentially exciting) is waiting in the wings. It could be the play you want to see and almost miss and then end up watching from the second row. Or your car stereo that you declare dead on arrival, suddenly coming to life.

And mingled with all that’s sweet and pure is the stench of the not-so-far-away monday morning. Bad traffic to start the day with and a string of (hyphen) days rather than (hyphen) ends to look forward to. I wonder if weekdays are getting a raw deal. More than half the world was born on a weekday and surely someone was rejoicing. But for every happy daddy in the waiting room, there is probably a doctor cursing the baby that ate his lunch time, on the nothing-to-cheer-about-weekday.

Saturday then is a godsend, Sunday is huh-what-where’d-it-go day and the remaining famous five are what novelists would not write about. Like all precious things, we arrange safe boxes and lockers for weekends-only activities…the weekend book, the weekend drive, the weekend comedy, the weekend jive.

Sometimes (strictly sometimes) it helps to give weekdays a chance. Pancakes for dinner on a Thursday, high heels and makeup on a Tuesday or embarrassing dance moves on a Wednesday.

The motto then: loathe the activity, not the day. Boycott boredom, embrace weekday stardom

And more often that not, spray on that weekend perfume on what promises to be the worst weekday. If smelling is believing, then a Monday as an aspiring Saturday is a good start.

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Nothing Fishy About it

“Among other things, he (Warren Buffet) impressed upon me that it is better to be a bad manager of a good business than be a good manager of a bad business”. – Katharine Graham, Personal History

It is certainly not my business to comment on good and bad managers. But I am often surrounded by thoughts on managing (rather than minding) my own business. There’s the old theory of which kind of fish you want to be and in which kind of pond…big in small or small in big. Depending on swimming capabilities and other relevant criteria one might choose either pond or land up in one or the other by chance. There is however a third (hidden) question that some among us dare to answer.

I can’t statistically prove it but have every reason to believe that every minute, someone somewhere is sending in a resignation and waking up to their own business idea. What makes so many people around the world stand in front of the mirror and say “I’m the boss” and literally mean it? The search for an answer to that takes me to a classroom discussion long ago…are writers born or made? The debate, as I remember, was never settled. It has since taken different forms, like one among many articles which asked, Should creative writing be taught? Entrepreneurship is no less a skill than writing, and could just as well beg the question…are you born with the guts to break away or do circumstances make a man/woman their own boss? Whether writer or entrepreneur, born with it or having acquired it, it’s your ideas laid bare with the world waiting to pronounce judgment.

That the man/woman who starts a business displays the most passion in the board room is no surprise. But it takes more than board room passion to get others behind the idea to drive it further. And this is where those desirous of playing the big-fish-in-small-pond routine come in. It also helps if these fish can bring in some dough beneath their fins.

Everything starts small but aims big. Somewhere along the way things take a turn for the better or worse. Success or failure in this respect cannot be measured by the idea or the person or the circumstance alone. No pond-creator knows for a fact how big her enterprise can be, yet she dives knee deep in mud to create what she can call her own. And it isn’t an easy task with naysayers crowding around and disrupting many a worthwhile endeavor.

As people continue to leave behind comfort zones of 9-to-5 routines and monthly pay checks, they’re certainly hoping to be good managers of good businesses. No matter what the jury rules, the entrepreneur breed all have one thing in common…they answered the right question.

‘tis no bother what sort of fish I am, but I would rather swim in my own pond.