Tag Archives: work

Working for free

Anything up to half of my working time goes to jobs I know I will never be paid for in cash. This is important to me, because there are a lot of things that really need doing for which no budget exists. Voluntary organisations and charities are obvious examples. Struggling creative people with no money to deploy to get the things done that they really need to get done, are another. People who need tips and pointers, book reviews, etc. If I’ve got something someone else needs and can’t afford, I’ll do my best to share.

Alongside that, I’m really open to other ways of getting things done – profit share arrangements, energy exchange, gift economy… In no small part because I don’t want to live in a world where everything is about the money.

However, there’s a flip side to this. Literary festivals that make a profit but aren’t inclined to pay authors. People who want free work ‘for exposure’ when they intend to make a profit from it. This is exploitation, pure and simple. Asking for a freebie when you’re doing a charity fundraiser, or some other not-for profit activity is a different ball game. People may or may not be able to help, but there’s nothing dishonourable about asking in that situation.

Most often, if I’m going to do something for free it’s because I stepped forward to offer, not because I was asked to. Or I’ve told people they are welcome to ask.

So, what can usefully be offered if you want or need something and don’t want to pay for it? I’d advise looking hard at this, because not wanting to pay is not a source of entitlement. Consider whether you think you, or the person you are asking, is better off. If you’ve got money you aren’t inclined to spend and they’re struggling, then you aren’t playing fair, quite simply. Not wanting to pay is not the same as being unable to pay. Sometimes (often, I think) the right answer is to pay, or to at the very least offer to pay what you can afford. It’s ok to open a negotiation and see what’s acceptable.

If you’re going to offer something in exchange, make sure it has a reasonable value to the person you’re offering it to. If you’ve got thousands of followers on some platform or another, ‘exposure’ has considerably more worth. Authors always like book reviews, and if you’ve approached a person for help it should be a given that you like what they do and can give them some positive support in return. Events that can’t pay, but can do food, or accommodation, or offer a profit share are a lot more persuasive than events wanting something for nothing. People who want art for free to get a kickstarter moving but offer to pay properly if it works – just some examples to show what can be done. Asking to risk share is not asking someone to work for free.

The key here is to recognise the value of what’s not being paid for. All too often, we only value things in terms of money and de-value anything that comes without a price tag. If you need things you can’t pay for, don’t de-value the source of it. Recognise the worth, and deal with that worth with respect. It’s all too easy for people who habitually give of their time, energy and resources to forget the real value they have and to become demoralised as a consequence. People who give are the geese who lay golden eggs… killing them isn’t in anyone’s interest.

Rest Days

With ‘hard work’ held as a value and overstimulation being normal for down time, a day of rest can be a challenging thing to pull off. However, running flat out forever is not a viable option, and I’ve faced the truth repeatedly that if I don’t plan my stops, there will come a point of being forced to take them, and the timing then is often lousy.

I find physical rest days difficult in no small part because my feet are my primary form of transport. A day resting means not walking anywhere, which seriously limits my scope for being sociable. My down time has to be the sort of thing I can do in the flat. I find crafting works well for such days, although that does mean my hands are busy, if I take it gently I don’t put much extra strain on them.

Mental rest is a totally different process and I find it’s often best served by getting outside and doing something with my body. Long walks help me clear my head. Failing that, short walks are always a help.

I’m conscious that for many people, rest means flopping down in front of a screen. I’ve also noticed that for me, this isn’t always effective for brain rest, because I tend to think about what I’m watching, and it’s easy to over-stimulate my mind if I’m already overtired. Watching is an easy answer, and thus very tempting when knackered, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the effects and fettling accordingly.

I try to make sure that brain and body get sufficient rest time on a day to day basis, but even so, the whole day off needs to come round every now and then. Total rest for the brain is something I seldom want, but when I do, it’s a case of just lying in the duvet and making room for nothing to happen.

Of course it’s often possible to push through this and keep busy, putting the hard work as an imagined virtue ahead of wellness and moving myself towards physical illness and mental breakdown. It has been hard to pull away from that, to stop, to recognise that it’s not heroic to keep pushing on and it’s seldom necessary. Plus, if I rest when I need to I get more done when I’m working. While a focus on efficiency does keep me tied to the idea that work is everything, it is a way of fighting fire with fire. Should I stop now? Well, how is that going to affect my productivity tomorrow?

Come the revolution

You probably have one of these – the time when everything will change. Retirement is traditional and winning the lottery is popular. When the good thing happens. When there’s more money coming in than going out. It’s often a perfectly sensible imagined point when we get to start living well. Of course what some of us do is then move the goalposts quietly. We never quite get there. This is never the year to stop striving and start living. And the years go by, and sometimes we run out of time before we get round to all the things we were going to do when it was a good time to do them.

The truth is that cutting back on the striving to make room for more living only happens when a person chooses to do it. We’ll find lots of reasons why we can’t actually just go for it now – money being the main one. I think it can be about the fear of living. What if living isn’t as good as you thought it was going to be? What if it’s better to live for an imagined future rather than dealing with trying to make things good in the present?

All of this keys into our ideas about sufficiency. When will we have earned enough, bought a big enough house, saved enough money, stockpiled enough things? What do we think we need to be happy? And if we’ve been beaten about the head with work ethics then we may feel we’re not entitled to be happy unless we can somehow do that alongside working ourselves to the bone.

Last year I was obliged to slow down. To do it, I had to question my stories about money and sufficiency, entitlement and need. I had to recognise that body and mind could not take what was being asked of them. I had to keep telling myself that it was safe to slow down a bit, that I wouldn’t be leaving us wide open to financial disaster. I had to deliberately choose having more of a life with more joy in it.

It’s easy to imagine that joy will turn up naturally at the appointed, magic hour without us having to do anything else. That’s not how it goes, but as we wait for the magic hour, opportunities for happiness pass us by. The only way is to jump in and make it happen, to choose it, make time for it, and do it now, not at some never-never point in the future when it falls spontaneously into our laps, because that fairy tale keeps us where we are, and stops us from living.

Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.

Spiritual life and the working week

For the first time in a good 15 years, I’ve had a month of working five day weeks and taking the weekends off. The consequences have been numerous. When I started out as a self-employed person, I guarded my weekends. However, the person I was living with became ever less interested in doing anything with time off, and so out of boredom I started doing more work at the weekends. Increasing financial pressure kept me there. Then I married a man who was entirely settled into seven day working weeks. It’s not easy taking time off when the person you most want to take time off with is working. What started as a bad call became a habit, and something that seemed necessary – and in fairness, actually was at some points.

There’s a macho culture in comics that is all about working yourself to death. In Japanese manga it’s even worse, with creators not being able to expect enough downtime for proper sleep, even. Our wider culture is keen to link wealth with hard work, and poverty with indolence, so if you aren’t raking it in, there’s a pressure to try and make sure everyone at least knows that you’re trying very hard all the time. It’s worth noting that exhaustion does not increase productivity or creativity. Rather the opposite.

The five day working week means I can have time to rest and relax, and the energy and time to socialise and get inspired. I’ve felt much less isolated this month, and there have been a lot of joyful things. Working almost all the time and being exhausted the rest of the time is a recipe for depression, and it certainly increases anxiety. I’ve got to a point where I can afford not to be flat out all the time, and for this I am deeply grateful.

I’m perfectly happy to think of anything I do as a potential expression of my Druidry. However, this is a thing to be cautious about, because it can mean just not really doing any Druidry. The more run-ragged I am, the less room I have for gratitude – and to be honest, the less reason as well. To practice gratitude you need the time to stop and appreciate things. A person running flat out all the time can’t do this. It’s difficult to meditate when you’re fretting about deadlines. It’s difficult to celebrate when you’re anxious about money and work.

To bring your spiritual practice to all things calls for time. It’s not compatible with a never-ending workload. It’s also, I eventually came to realise, deeply inhuman and dehumanising to just be something that works until it can’t and then falls over, and then does it again.

Some of it, is about whether you have the luxury of choice. With a low paid job, the ‘choice’ is to work long hours, or struggle to pay the bills for the most basic things. When the only job you can ‘choose’ requires a long commute, when you’re expected to work unpaid overtime, when you’ve got to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, genuine choice is in short supply. Those of us who can choose, can do our bit not to support a culture of working to death. We can reject the idea that hard work is what brings money – it isn’t. Money is what brings money, and the traps that keep the poor in poverty are numerous.

Rest is a virtue, not a vice. It is something we should all have the right to, it should not be a privilege for the few.

Working Sick

One of the good things about being self employed is that you do get some say (usually) over how and when you work. There are no paid sick days though, and while you can get insured against the impact of long term illness, a dose of the flu is something you just have to deal with. So, sleep deprived because I was ill in the night, and washed out for all the same reasons, and with something a long way short of perfect concentration, I rock up late to the computer.

It’s not too bad because my co-worker (husband) lives with me and is exposed to my germs anyway. If I had a ‘normal’ job, I might be hauling my sick, exhausted self into a car (I would not be a safe driver) and going to share my germs with my colleges, and possibly the public.

I know from friends who are employed, that many workplaces are intolerant of sick days. You are expected to go in, which of course means you get a culture of germ sharing where more people are working sick than could have happened. It invariably takes longer to recover from anything if you have to put extra stresses on your body. A day in the duvet can massively increase productivity for the rest of the week.

But no, what we have is a culture of macho toughing it out, drugging away the symptoms (let’s pause and ask why we may have the shits and wonder what the consequence is of not letting our bodies flush the bugs out…).

Pushing when sick or exhausted increases the risk of mental health issues. Depression is likely, so is panic, because when you push a body too far, that’s how it reacts. There is a rise in mental health difficulties that a Chief Medical Officer’s report of some years ago explicitly linked to work place stress. Everyone seems to have ignored this.

So, I managed the commute to the table, I won’t be doing much, I will likely spend a lot of the day curled up, recovering. I’m going to do the essential stuff, so that it doesn’t all build up and get more stressful. This is a luxury many people don’t have. It’s a funny thing, because work, workplaces, and working cultures are all human constructs, but they’re pretty inhuman in practice.

What’s the point?

It’s easy to fall into habits, to do what is expected or wanted by others. As a consequence it pays to stop every now and then and ask why you’re doing something. What is this for? Where am I going with it? What is it costing me (and I don’t just mean money)? What am I achieving? Is this even a good idea?

We’re taught to think about ambition in terms of worldly success, money and status. However, our hearts and minds respond to all kinds of things. Being ambitious is really, really good, but only if you’re doing it on your own terms. So, what are my terms?

I’ve spent weeks with these questions recently, needing to make some significant life decisions. I learned a lot. I will start by asking whether something is of practical or economic benefit to my household, because I have to factor that in. I will consider the environmental impact, or benefits, and think about wider social implications and who is benefiting, or paying for the idea. Beyond that, my absolute preference is to pick the jobs no one else can do, because I can take real pride in that.

Sometimes, the jobs no one else can do are all about my unique skills set and experiences. Last month I had the honour of getting to proof read the third Matlock the Hare book. Who else could edit who knows Dalespeak? Who else can make the time for some 200,000 words of fiction having read the other two books so as to be alert to continuity? It was a joy to do.

Sometimes it comes down to my unusual capacity to stay focused on long, fiddly, tedious jobs. At the community allotment, I’ve spent mornings picking stone out of the ground to make way for plants. I once spent a month painting all the exterior woodwork at my son’s school because it needed doing, and there was no money to do it, and this is not the kind of job you can usually get volunteers for. It doesn’t have to be glamorous. There are a lot of really important things that need doing, which do not confer status or wealth on the person doing it. Picking up litter, being an obvious one. I will be there for those jobs, not because I am uniquely capable, but because I am willing.

If there are lots of people who can and will do something as well, or better than I could, I’ll probably step back. Those jobs rapidly lose interest for me. I don’t want to be interchangeable. Plus there’s every chance someone else has a unique skill set that would transform the work, elevate it, bring in some new dimension. I don’t want to get in the way of that.

It’s possible to do anything well, with style, creativity and in a way that makes the task more valuable than it first seemed. For some people, the kitchen can only ever be a place of drudgery. For others, it’s the place of witchcraft, magic and delight. We are all likely to be happiest in the spaces where we find our own personal magic, where we can make contributions uniquely our own. When we put down the material-wealth-based ideas about worth and start looking at what we find intrinsically valuable, life changes.

And so I have laundry to handwash, a cake to make, and books to review. I have rubbish to upcycle and pages to colour. In knowing what I do best, and where I fit I am able to work happily, and not to feel irrelevant, or interchangeable, or insignificant. There is significance in moving the stones to make way for plants, which supposedly more glamorous jobs for which I am unsuited, would not give me.

Slowing down, a work in progress

One of the things this blog does, is to chart my relationship with the idea of slowing down. For much of my life, feeling financially pressured, and spending time on low paid work (usually writing based) has left me feeling that I have to work all the hours there are.  Slowing down in 2012 looked like trying to step away from 12 hour days and seven days weeks – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/life-in-the-slow-lane/ – I was very, very busy.

It’s only in the last few months that I’ve managed to get my week reliably down to six days or fewer. I’ve found one day off in seven has an enormous impact on my concentration, and my emotional wellbeing. Time off really contributes to not succumbing to bouts of depression. It also discernibly reduces my experiences of anxiety. I’m not tired all the time, I have something in reserve for emergencies, rather than living like I’m in a perpetual state of emergency.

I’ve learned to drop pace, to not always be working as fast as I can. I gaze out of the window more. I take time to pause, contemplate and gather my thoughts. I’ve come to think of the one afternoon a month taken for contemplative Druidry as a necessity, not a luxury I can barely justify. Time is the most precious thing we have, and we only get to use it once. I’m eliminating the rushing, the feelings of pressure and panic, ever more keen to have a working life that doesn’t make me miserable, and thinking I could manage to be much happier.

There are feelings of luxury to be found in the lie in – getting up at 8 rather than at 7 is enough to give me that. The early night can also feel luxurious and indulgent. The days spent pottering about, and how much more pleasant the domestic jobs are when there’s plenty of time to do them and I don’t start out feeling exhausted. I’ve had the time to rediscover cooking as something I can enjoy. Most days, I now work under 10 hours, sometimes only 6 or 8 – this also makes a lot of odds. The twelve hour days, and longer, leave little energy or brain for anything else. It’s important to me to have time for reading, crafting, music walking, and socialising.

The big leap forward in recent months has been around time management. I’m organising my life with a diary rather than an endless ‘to-do’ list. I start each day seeing what I’ve pencilled in, I add things as I go, and I make sure that my days do not get too full, and that the fun things are also in the diary. I’ve got into a position where I can structure my work across the month, pacing it, and knowing where it’s going – unpredictable demands on my time have been a real problem in the past, and I’ve learned to avoid that. I’ve also learned not to just do what people want from me the moment they email me – having work constantly interrupted by other work is a really inefficient way to go. Demands go in the diary, I let people know a time frame for my intended response, and I get back to what I was doing.

This Christmas just gone, I managed to take a whole week off. I want that to become more of a regular feature. I want a couple of weeks off every year, and I want more patches of two or three days of break as well. I want to achieve more and spend less time doing it, and a big part of that involves looking at who is allowed to use up my time. I want the time to support people who need supporting, but I have to watch out for people who just want to use up my time for the sake of it. Historically, other people’s less than reasonable demands have been a serious barrier to slowing down, but I’m getting better at moving away from the people who don’t respect boundaries or take no for an answer, and the impact this has on my time has been dramatic.

Who will be my leader?

As a student, I have always needed teachers. As a Druid, I want to stand independently in my own power, and take responsibility for myself. I also need the guidance and inspiration of others. I’ve run events, and I’ve taught, and I don’t want to only have access to things I am running, so I need there to be other people leading things I can be part of. Being in charge all the time is generally not good for a person. As a writer who doesn’t want to be a one person band all the time, I need editors and publishers, and to be able to accept their authority in all practical literary matters.

Being a self employed person, I have the amazing privilege of being able to pick who I work for. Being a Druid, I have the right to my own spiritual authority and am not obliged to go along with someone else’s hierarchy. Consequently I’ve given a lot of thought to the reasons for following or not following someone else. Who will I work for? Who will I not? I’ve come horribly unstuck with this several times in the past, and that’s taught me a lot.

Do you value me? Do you respect me, and acknowledge what I’m doing? Do you make it easy for me to work for you, or do you set me up to fail? Do you reward me, and make sure I have what I need, or do you take me for granted? Do you recognise my individual skills and strengths, and also my personal vulnerabilities? Will you let me be a real person when I’m working for you, or will you demand the constant strain of me faking things? Will you be treating me like you’re doing me a big favour by letting me work for you? Are you paying me enough to live on? If you’re taking my time for no financial payment, are you recompensing in some other honourable way? Do I get a say in this?

There are some people who lead because they get off on having followers obeying them. There are others who lead because they want to get something done and can’t do it on their own. The ego trip leader burns out followers and discards them as soon as they can’t bear it any more. The person who wants to get things done takes care of their supporters as essential to what’s happening.

Having been burned more than once, I look for the leaders who are looking to do something, not to build a fan base. I look for leaders who don’t have a high turnover of people, and who treat their people as people, not as a resource for their personal use. I look for fair play, for respect, for realism. I can’t deal with people who want to control and micromanage me. I like clarity about who has responsibility for what, as well.

I’m going to name some names. I’ve worked for Trevor Greenfield over at Moon Books for more than a year now, and he’s everything I could possibly want in a boss. As a consequence he has my absolute loyalty, and the very best that I can give. I’m working for Mark Graham a bit, for Druid Camp, because his is a leadership that is entirely about getting things done in a fair way. I’m looking at working for Stevi Ross and her Conscious Connection Camp on much the same basis. There are, alongside them a number of people I’m working with in various capacities – James Nichol and Elaine Knight with Contemplative Druidry, John Holland with Stroud Short Stories, and those closer creative partnerships with Paul Alborough, and with my husband Tom Brown, where the balances are somewhat different, but much of the same applies.

There are people I would never work for again under any circumstances. That’s fairly visible from my actions, for anyone who is watching. I don’t accept being patronised, taken for granted, pressured into burning out for other people, I don’t work with emotional blackmail and control freakery.

Aspiring to be less hard working

Most days I start the computer after breakfast – usually by 7.30 am, and kick off the working day by writing a blog post. It serves as a warm up for my brain, and for my hands, and guarantees that I do at least some writing every day. However, for the next week or so, the posts have all been set up in advance. There’s some new poetry and some short stories in the offing. I shall mostly be offline.

I’ve been planning this for ages, and getting everything set up so that I can have some time off. I haven’t had a whole week off in nearly 6 years. It’s one of the problems with being self-employed. To have time off, I need to have earned enough to be able to afford not to work for a week. If I want to go away, I need to have earned enough to be able to afford to go away, on top of the cost of a week not working. Like most self-employed people, my earnings are erratic, which makes saying no to work when there is any feel hazardous at best.

I’ve learned, the hard way, just how essential time off is. I’ve had long stretches of 7 day weeks – not necessarily seven long days, but it’s surprising how much odds it makes. Two half days off are not the same as one whole day. Two days back to back are not the same as afternoons off scattered through a week. Without decent chunks of time off it’s difficult to slow down, get out of work mode and clear the head for a bit. Without some head clearing it’s difficult to find new energy and ideas. This is not an issue solely for creative people. I worry about the way in which people in poverty are ending up with multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, and not getting any down time. Now might be a good moment to mention the crisis in mental health that we’ve collectively worked ourselves into.

‘Hard working families’ is a political refrain I particularly detest. Now that Christmas is upon us, though, the hard working families are expected to dutifully down tools and spend money they can’t really afford on things they don’t really need. Much that has been bought for this weekend will shortly be heading to landfill. Food waste, extra rubbish, useless gifts. But it’s all good for the economy! And if you consider the work preparing for the ‘holidays’ as unpaid work, there’s a lot of work going on right now. We are to aspire to being good little producers and consumers and the only way to keep an economy endlessly growing is to keep us all buying far more than we actually need.

I’m trying to be less hard working. It’s a big part of my agenda right now. Shorter working days and shorter working weeks, and holidays should not be considered luxuries for the fortunate few, but the key to a better standard of living for all of us. This also means paying people what they’re worth, and paying people enough to live on so that they can afford to stop and draw breath once in a while.

I shall be spending next week doing very little to help GDP. Lie ins, reading, a bit of gardening at a community allotment, a walk or two, time with friends… I hope whatever you’re doing between here and the end of the calendar year, you have a fantastic time of it.