freelancing

Pumpkins, the Stress of Independence, and Lessons from Bon Jovi by Matthew Cook

Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame, 

Stressin’, you give independence a bad name.

Ok, I know that’s a terrible misappropriation of Bon Jovi’s song, but hopefully you see my point. Let’s be honest and open up about freelance work life a bit. You can generally categorize self employed people into two groups. The first are motivated by the fact that there is always more to be done than can be accomplished. They accept that they will never accomplish everything and cope with focus and unearthing the best possibilities. They are the Explorers and will eventually burn out on a semi-predictable cycle as they deplete their ability to see through the fog. The second can’t handle uncertainty and the volume of demands for their time. This pushes them to accomplish super-human amounts of work. Completeness is their goal, and they’ll make the hard choices to ensure it’s accomplished. They hit impossible deadlines and expect the same from others. They are Gladiators, and are prone to exhaustion, panic, and paralysis—sometimes chronic.

Explorers are stressed by their dependence on constant discovery and curation. Gladiators are stressed by the need for order, resilience, and completion.

Bon Jovi helps me make a good point: Each of these types plays the game successfully, but the impossibility of sustaining long-term gives independence a bad name. I guess you could say independence isn’t a good partner to go steady with unless you’re constantly changing your relationship boundaries. 

There are two ways that I deal with this. One is to create a remote independent team structure for work life, the other is to do things like make coffee and cook pumpkins. Let’s dig into the fun one. Maybe I’ll talk about creating water cooler moments from 2000+ miles away another day.

I discovered a few years ago that I need a generative outlet to avoid the side effect of my Explorerness. Normal work life often leaves me feeling creatively quenched; over-extended. Some things regenerate as opposed to draining me: throwing on a pottery wheel, coffee, and video games to name a few. Throwing pottery is an impossibility for me at this point in life, video games take too much mental and time investment to keep up with, and coffee is perfect. I’ve found a lot of creative satisfaction in engineering a great cup of coffee. Selecting beans, roast, age, grind, prep method, etc. there’s a huge amount of influencers for a single cup. Manipulating all of those factors to create a great cup is fun and gives a new meaning to artisan coffee for me. It’s something I do for myself, and it’s something that’s privately enriching. 

This fall, pumpkins have become my “new world” endeavor to maintain work drive. I still do the coffee thing, but I’m branching out. Every year my family goes to the Farmer’s Market an hour up the road toward Asheville, NC. We buy all sorts of fall foods, my joy is always in finding an excellent pumpkin for our fall pies and breads. I’ve gotten carried away.

image

Pumpkins can be enormously complex as an ingredient, just like coffee. The United States grows around 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin each year (over 680M kg) across a purportedly unknown number of species in the Cucurbita Genus. It’s a relatively ambiguous Genus and the different species are difficult to classify given continual intermingling and domestication—no species is separated from others. The easiest way to differentiate them is by their five main categorical species: agryrosperma, ficifolia, maxima, moschata, and pepo. 

Adding to slight confusion, pumpkins are squashes, but not all squashes are pumpkins. Since both are the same Genus and flavors are similar, it’s widely overlooked in commercial and culinary context (chances are that your canned pumpkin has a good bit of non-pumpkin squash in it). Fun fact, a pumpkin is classified by botanists as a type of berry. I’ll wait here while you Google that.

These different factors are a gold mine for creative exercise since you can’t broadly prescribe recipes or cooking techniques to the ingredient since it varies by species.

So, as part of my creatively regenerating exercise I took a few notes on my pumpkins (and squashes) and offer you my findings from this year’s harvest. I selected 7 different species of Cucurbita. Yes, I mingled my squashes and pumpkins. Some of these are native to the Carolinas, and some are more global in origin:

  • Blue Hubbard
  • Butternut
  • Jarrahdale
  • Acorn
  • Cinderella
  • Candy Roaster
  • Fairytale
  • Kabocha

I decided to break all of these pumpkins down into a puree/paste. I don’t cook whole pieces of pumpkin regularly, but I do make pies, bread, cakes, etc. My method for prepping the pumpkin was as follows:

  • Clean exterior.
  • Scrape inside.
  • Cut into steam-able chunks
  • Steam until softened. I baked a few here and there.
  • Carve out the meat from the shell.
  • Blend the meat into a desired consistency.
  • Bag in two-cup portions for storage and use.

Here were my experiences with each:

Blue Hubbard

  • Very sweet and fragrant, even before cooking. 
  • Not a lot of meat on the shell.
  • A very wet pumpkin.
  • When cooked the skin looks like a waxy green toad.
  • Baked into a pie, it’s almost too sweet, I’m having to shorten sugar in my recipes with Blue Hubbard.

Acorn

  • Soft and mild tasting/smelling. 
  • Came out so thick that I had difficulty blending it.
  • Extremely squashy smelling and tasting, not very sweet, but has a wonderful consistent creamy texture.

Butternut

  • Ridiculously easy to cook and scrape.
  • Blended really smoothly, and came out as a thick paste. Creamy and yellow.
  • Smelled of melons when fresh, dulled when cooked.
  • Gets the most inappropriate comments due to it’s shape (thanks @joshuajantz and @wtflow).
  • Baked a pie with half Hubbard and half Butternut. Perfect flavor.

Candy Roaster

  • Really wet meat.
  • Skin pulverized while steaming. If you let it into your recipe, it bakes hard and ruins pies.
  • Comes out light orange. Almost the color of Mango. 
  • Maybe I should have baked this pumpkin. I grew up eating this, so I know how difficult it is to steam.
  • Still feels turgid even when cooked because it holds so much water. The most wet pumpkin I had. It sweat water the entire process, and I had to strain it before bagging because it was still so wet. 

Fairytale

  • Smelled like cantaloupe.
  • Came out BRIGHT orange.
  • Held a large amount of water, just not quite as much as a Candy Roaster.
  • Taste when steamed is light, creamy, and sweet. Not sure what I’ll make this into yet.

Cinderella

  • The most fragrant when I opened it up–the smell, even before cooking, filled my house. Insides looked like cotton candy.
  • Completely pulverized when steamed and turned a grayish green in some spots.
  • Tasted like a pumpkin, but a little more like a yellow summer squash than any other pumpkin I’ve tasted. I’m not very impressed. This will probably be made into a bread or a soup.

Jarrahdale (Australian)

  • One of two pumpkins I’m most unfamiliar with from this year.
  • Pretty doggone heavy, and really hard skin. Don’t cut yourself trying to carve this pumpkin open. 
  • The interior is just as rock hard. Beautiful deep orange flesh though. 
  • Took much longer to cook. Probably 2x as long as any other. 
  • Just like the Hubbard, it turned out looking like a waxy green toad. 
  • Turned out to be the most…chalky of all the pumpkins. Not a great amount of confidence in this gourd.
  • Made into a bread and a pie. Really good flavor (despite my misgivings)—heavy hints of honey.

Kabocha

  • This is the other pumpkin I was completely unfamiliar with.
  • Outer shell of the pumpkin was tough and took a lot of strength to cut through. 
  • Extremely dry, but that’s probably because it didn’t sit for a few weeks after harvesting. 
  • Pleasant pasty texture with a mild sweet flavor. Most similar to a sweet potato in texture. 
  • Soft homogenized orange color. 

That’s it for my pumpkin adventures so far. The more I take on small side endeavors like this, the more I realize how helpful they can be. I exhort you, find something to invest in personally. You’ll be surprised at how it influences your work life and family life. Whether running, coffee, or pumpkins, these passions can add a level of interest and richness that bleeds across borders in life—they make me a better person to work with. 

So as you eat some pumpkin pie this season (which is actually a pudding, not a pie if you read the definition of egg coagulations through heat pretty strictly), think about how you can add richness to your life and make yourself a sharper person to work with.

As a parting shot, here’s Bon Jovi being thankful. 

You Can’t Afford to be Employed by Matthew Cook

image

I’ve been noticing recently that freelancers around me seem to be disappearing. They’re taking jobs with cool startups, getting on board with agencies, or straight up getting hired by large corporations. Let me say something clearly.

There’s nothing wrong with being employed

…but I think talented people in our industry are selling out. Given the way the web industry and the US economy are right now, I say you can’t afford to be employed.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says growth in jobs for web graphic designers will increase at four times the national average in the coming years. At the same time, the studentscholarships.org database shows only a 3% unemployment rate for designers nationwide–compared to about 8% of the US population that is either unemployed or recently dropped out of the labor pool due to chronic unemployment. Combine this with the fact that a staggering 29% of broadly termed graphic designers are self employed, and you’ll see what most of us already know, web designers work so, dang, much. They also make over $43,000/year on average, so pay isn’t too terrible.

Another interesting thing I found, taking a full-time position simply because it offers steady income and some immediate safety is counterintuitive. The U.S. workforce is expected to be 40% contractor by 2020 according to a recent article on Quartz (and many other sources). Our workforce is currently at around 30% contractor by most estimations. You can’t think that finding a job or a startup to hook your wagon to will solve your career problems indefinitely. To quote another recent article,

This [shift in perspective] is not just a recession-induced thing… It reflects a long-term change in the economy. Since the 1980s, management’s philosophy has evolved to “look at work as projects.” Instead of keeping workers on staff to perform all tasks needed, they outsource them or hire consultants. 

If our economy is shifting toward contractors and teams of freelancers, why do so many of us insist on taking a job? Knowing that jobs currently exist in great number, shouldn’t we be encouraged to reach higher? If companies are shifting to contract relationships, why not meet them where they’re heading?

Web people, you are valuable and needed

Excellence in our industry is in high demand. As overworked young professionals, the allure of a stable job that offers benefits and the ability to stop working nights at home is powerful. The funny thing is that what we can earn in traditional employment pales in comparison to what we can earn in other forms of organization (intentionally vague here, stick with me). Save specific skill sets like iOS development or web development in securities and commodities contract intermediation (whoa there!), growth in our salaries is startlingly average. Add to that, our quality of life can be much greater outside of employment. Shift gears again for a second.

It’s time to get down to business

All of us need to stop hating on business. Seriously. I work in a coworking space, and most of the time when I talk about the business of what we do my compatriots’ eyes glaze over and they say something like “I’m glad there are people like you” or, “that’s not really my thing”. I understand that sentiment completely. However, I value what you do just as much as I value what I do. I value both of our skillsets because together they can make both you and I happy, successful, fulfilled at work, and loved by our clients. Stop looking down on being a businessman or businesswoman AND a designer, developer, or whatever you are.

Accenture recently did a study on contract workers. They describe the relationships we have with each other as a “supply chain of talent”. The most successful freelancers find out where they fit in a bigger process and take advantage of the value they create in order to pay themselves, do what they love, and/or do things like work at home while the kiddos are growing up. This puts businesses who work with web freelancers in a weird position. The internet is ablaze with articles and opinions about managing people like us and successfully outsourcing deliverables. Businesses have to manage you, usually at distance, and they’re terrible at it. They’re terrible at managing your talent, they’re terrible at approaching you, they’re terrible at on-boarding you, they’re terrible at feedback, and they live in a world of analytics but don’t know how to measure your progress and success.

You must be good at managing yourself and your client

If you’re going to be the one handling solutions to your client’s weaknesses in process and approach, you need their trust. Getting back to the idea of making more money, having a better quality of life, and working with people you want on projects you want; this trust comes in part from how you approach your clients. The efficacy of freelancers compounds when we band together, and so does our ability to command respect, larger projects, and money. There’s a lot of reward in shifting the freelance perception. Clients who trust you give you the ability to do what you do best in the way you need to do it, while charging a fair price. If you put some effort into creating trust, it will pay back in spades. 

There are a lot of ways to earn trust and in turn be awarded awesome projects, but I want to highlight one–I mentioned earlier that web professionals are in high demand. One way to effectively meet that demand and blow away your client’s perceptions is to group together as freelancers. Small communities like CoWork Greenville or companies like SuperFriendly are current illustrations of that power. Not only do we receive the benefit of working around awesome people, but we also have the added credibility of the roles represented around us. Pitching as a crack team of professionals assembled specifically for the needs of a given project is an attractive proposition.

As a freelance project manager I capitalize on this increased trust all the time. Clients tend to see me, if I’m alone, as a gatekeeper to what they want. I’m in the way. Clients also tend to see designers or developers as production skill that should be compensated at an hourly rate. When we’re together, they see a team that is worthy of pitching a full scope with value pricing. By grouping up we show them right out the gate that we will only assemble (and charge them for) relevant skills, that we know the roles we need, and that we believe ourselves capable of managing what we put our names to.  We’re no longer two guys and one gal working for $125 per hour; we’re a team of specialists tackling a website redesign and CMS build at a fixed bid of $__,___.__ for a planned duration; complete with schedules and Gantt charts as needed. We have the power to manage the project in the way that our expertise and experience tells us we should, rather than struggling to conform to a client’s notion of how the second website redesign they’ve ever attempted should proceed. 

I’m not saying you have the opportunity to hose your clients and get filthy rich. What I’m saying is that you will be able to reap the reward of taking more than just an hourly contractor role with your client. Your value increases if you can manage all of the pieces and shoulder the majority of the risk of failure rather than just filling one role. There’s no doubt you can make more money as a team, but there’s more to it. You can decide your schedule, and how much you should be paid to work 60 hours a week for two months (for example). You can decide if you want to travel to the client’s office regularly, and who else you want to work with. You get to set the tone of your relationship with the client as an equal rather than a subordinate. 

Set your sights higher

Why are we happy trying to work for Facebook or a top ad agency instead of meeting the industry where it needs us, educating ourselves, and forging our own way? There are a ton of valid career reasons to get hired or stay hired as opposed to going freelance, and I’m not too blind to admit it. However, that should be an educated choice, not a default.

It’s a great day to go disrupt our industry. Get going, and name your salary while you’re at it.

image

Special thanks: A lot of my final thoughts for this article were refined at An Event Apart in Seattle. This has been on my mind for a long time, but dunking myself in the talent, personalities, and perspectives at AEA forced a lot of clarity. Kudos to a great conference.