Mornings are always the best. Mornings are sunrises, steaming mugs of coffee, and red carpets of infinite promise unfurled. Mornings are meditating, centering, and bulleted lists.
In the morning, it’s easy to forget that yesterday, you could hardly summon the energy to clean your apartment, to see anyone, to do anything at all.
Sometime around noon, your caffeine-induced elation dwindles. Distracted, you tab-hop between Facebook and LinkedIn and timidly check your bank account. You sigh, remembering your first five-figure month only a season ago. It feels like years. You assumed it would be your new normal, and you were flying high — so high that you upsized your apartment, got a gym membership, and bought an antique coffee table from the consignment store.
It was a tidal climax followed by a bleak come-down. Despite your many efforts, you haven’t gotten new contracts in two months and your expenses are adding up. To put it frankly, you’re bleeding from your bank account. In two months, you’ve lost the same amount of money it took you 14 months to save.
You’ve learned that this is how the cycle goes: highs and lows, highs and lows, ad infinitum. Some of your marketing attempts yield generous returns; some shout into the ether and return an empty echo. You can’t make rhyme or reason of it, these unpredictable tides of work, and every month brings with it a solemnly-written rent check and a question: “Will I make enough money this month?”
Every moment you’re not working, you feel like you should be, because the glaring red number in your budget spreadsheet reminds you that unless you work harder, you’ll be the only one to blame for your financial shortcomings. That number follows you like a specter, assailing your jogs around the park, your daily crossword puzzle, your evening baths heaped with epsom salts.
The good months feel like purpose, like pride, like actualization. They remind you that you and you alone built something where there was once nothing — that people are willing to pay hard-earned money for your services — that you have courageously bucked traditional work in favor of a passion-driven life.
The bad months feel like failure, like shame, like fear. They remind you that your groceries and electric bill depend solely on your daily productivity, on the economy not crashing, on your good health. You traded your safety net for this exhilaration, and sometimes you wonder if it was really worth it.
In the early months of self-employment, you followed entrepreneur blogs voraciously, incorporating phrases like “cash flow” and “location independence” into your vocabulary. Every page of your journal was etched with a different vision board, a different affirmation. Anything was possible.
At the bar, you nodded sanctimoniously when your fellow self-employed friend mused, “I feel sorry for Bob. He goes to the same job every day, comes home tired, does it all again tomorrow. There’s gotta be more to life, you know?”
Your role models were flashy, self-made business owners who were, as their About pages reminded you, just like you at first. They “hustled” for the seven figures, the open-air apartments, the work-remotely-from-Bali-cations plastered across their Instagram feeds.
They made it seem so easy, those self-employed moguls who promised soaring earnings and flexible schedules in their pithy, watered-down blogs. The way they told it, the risk was always worth the reward. How easy it was for a self-employed-millionaire-turned-social-media-evangelist to wax poetic on the early days, the days when she couldn’t even afford avocados at Trader Joes, and deem the rough patches “worth it.” That month you made five figures, you chuckled merrily along with her: “Oh, the good old days!”
Now, you realize it’s not so glamorous when you’re in the thick of it, putting off buying a new electric water kettle because you can’t justify the expense, so you spend five minutes twisting the kettle upon the base until you get it just right and hear that glorious beep. Who knows when your next successful month will be?
You avoid replacing the broken essential oil diffuser, repotting the plant, buying sun chairs for your empty deck.
Why didn’t anyone warn you?
Afternoon arrives and it’s nap time. You didn’t used to nap like this: three, four times a week for two or more hours at a time. You used to be able to run on coffee, smoothies, and a good attitude. You were always the student with two internships, a dense course load, and good friends to boot. You were “going places.”
Back then, you never thought of yourself as lazy — but now, when your most urgent to-dos are complete and the late-afternoon greets you like an endless stretch of desert, you’re seized with an impossible tiredness. You close your laptop, defeated.
It’s not the work itself, by the way. God, you love the work. It’s what makes you radiate, after all, and you would work 60 hour weeks if you could. It’s getting the work that eats you alive, that consumes your energy and burns you out. You spend a third of your time working and two-thirds of your time coming up with marketing strategies to get work, and you realize sadly that this is not what you signed up for.
You have a list of creative ways you could market yourself differently — launch a course, release a video series, partner with corporate sponsors, you get the gist — but the thought of starting a new project now sounds utterly impossible. When you began this journey, you worked night after inspired night deep into the witching hour. Inspiration was the fuel you burned when caffeine ran out. But years of that fiery drive have left you smoldering, charred, and new ideas don’t find the nutrients they need to grow in your soil.
You walk into your bedroom and tug down the window blinds. The colors of the walls become muted, soft, safe. You crawl under the covers, feeling heavy and empty at once.
As your eyes close, you dream of running away to a cabin in the mountains, remote and covered with snow. You dream of swaddling yourself in sweaters, wool socks, and sitting beside a roaring wood-burning stove. You imagine being unreachable, unfindable, with no place to go and nothing to do.
You realize that self-employed people don’t talk about self-employment being hard because it’s bad for business. They’re worried they’ll lose customers, lose clients, lose patients, lose gigs, if they admit: “I’m struggling. I’m depressed. I’m lonely. I don’t think I can do this forever.”
So you stay quiet for a while, biting your fingernails down past their beds, wondering — Is it just me? Is nobody struggling the way I’m struggling?
When you find the courage to quietly admit the unutterable— to express that you miss the security of a salary, the community of an office, the routine and predictability of employment — your friends look at you like you’re crazy.
“But you’re living the dream!” they exclaim, bewildered.
I thought so, too, you think.
“But you can reschedule meetings whenever you need. You don’t have to spend two hours in traffic every day!”
True, you think, but all that empty time is as much a curse as it is a blessing.
“But you made great money last month,” they say, confused. “Certainly you can afford to replace your kettle?”
Sure, you think, but one successful month can be whitewashed in the blink of an eye by an unsuccessful month. There’s no security. It’s never enough.
You swallow your words because you don’t want to sound ungrateful. You are privileged, after all, to have had this freedom to “go out on your own.” But it’s slowly killing you.
You used to play music, to write poetry, to manage an overflowing social calendar despite working a full-time job. You had energy, great piles of it. But now your days are long and empty, and all you can manage is a few calls, some emails, and a nap.
When you wake up, night has fallen and your body feels tired and stiff. You can’t keep doing this, but you can’t yet bring yourself to look for work elsewhere.
Self-employment has become as much your identity as your profession, a badge you wear with pride. Staying means committing to this cycle of soaring highs and excruciating lows forever. Leaving means admitting you need help — admitting you’re not as self-sufficient as you thought you were.
It takes months for you to come around. You begin to look for work, secretly, quietly. Your shoulders tense as you scroll through job postings with long commutes, evening hours, dues you once celebrated never needing to pay again.
You stare into your coffee mug, unseeing. The cafe is noisy and full, emanating aliveness, and you feel like a wallflower wilting.
You friend sits quietly across the table from you.
“How could this be positive for you?” she asks.
You glance up to meet her eyes, trying not to let the full force of your cynicism show.
“I’m not asking you to ‘look on the bright side,’” she half-smiles, reading your expression. “I’m asking, genuinely, how this transition might be a gain instead of a loss.”
You pause, letting the perspective sink in, and feel a flicker of something in your chest. Until this moment, you’d only been able to imagine the ways that seeking other work made you a failure.
“Well, the steady paycheck wouldn’t hurt,” you joke, stating the obvious. At the thought of security — of knowing money would come consistently, every month, without fail — a cinderblock lifts from your chest.
“I bet the health insurance and the 401k wouldn’t be so bad, either,” your friend winks, playing along.
You nod in agreement, wrapping your hands around your mug, entertaining the question more seriously.
“It could help me feel less… paralyzed,” you say. “My apartment used to feel like this blank canvas where anything could happen. Now, when I walk into my kitchen and see my laptop sitting there, waiting for me, it feels sinister. I’m overwhelmed just looking at it.”
She nods, encouraging you.
“Not to mention, these highs and lows kill my self-confidence,” you admit. “The good months are bliss and the bad months are hell. I never know which it’s going to be. My mind never goes quiet.”
“I can imagine,” she offers, nodding sympathetically. “That sort of unpredictability would be hard for — ”
“And god, I’m lonely!” you burst out, suddenly. “My nose is always buried in a screen. And I’m an extrovert! Folks who work in offices take it for granted, walking into a room of people who say hi, who notice if you’re not there, who ask you to drinks after work — ” you gesture broadly and knock your mug over, spilling lukewarm coffee across the table top, and dash to get a stack of napkins.
You laugh as you mop up the mess, enjoying the exercise now.
“All I’m saying is,” you conclude, “that life feels so much more connected than the life I’m living now. It feels more alive.”
“Definitely!” your friend cheers, lifting her mug in solidarity.
“Maybe this transition out of self-employment isn’t a sign of failure,” you realize. “Maybe it just means I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t.”
“Mmmm,” your friend murmurs approvingly. You sit there together, mulling over your words in silence. You feel, for the first time in months, an inner loosening. You recognize it, like a ghost from the distant past, as inspiration.
Six Months Later
You attempt to keep your eyes focused on your book as the 40 bus pops and moans down Westlake Ave. The morning sun just barely spills from the clouds, casting mottled pockets of light across Lake Union.
You dog-ear your page as the bus wheezes to your stop. Three short blocks and a two to-go coffees later, you flash your badge to the doorman and whisk silently away to the 13th floor. You like to arrive early, when the office is sleepy and still, to spend an hour focusing on your passion-work — the new name you’ve given to your old life.
You feel a small jolt of excitement as you open your laptop and see an unread email from a new prospect, inquiring about your services. You reply promptly, check your social media, and handle a brief accounting matter. It’s a series of tasks that might have taken you hours in the throes of your burnout, but now, it’s complete before the clock strikes nine.
Before, you had infinite time but limited energy. Now, you have great stores of energy but limited time. Given the choice, you’d always pick the latter. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you‘re not constantly preoccupied with paying that month’s bills.
You do your passion-work in the mornings, on lunch breaks, during evenings, some weekends. Now that you’ve liberated your passion from the shackles of money-making, you’re no longer forced to market yourself into oblivion, and so the time you spend on your passion is just that — working only on your passion. It hardly feels like work at all. It feels like a fun, lucrative hobby.
Gone are the soaring highs and shattering lows. Gone are the unpredictability and the frantic checking of the bank account. Every month is different, but also the same.
When the day is done, you unlock your apartment door, grocery bags in hand, and head straight to the bathroom. You turn the bath tap on hot, stirring rosemary and spearmint Epsom salts into the steaming water.
You dip your toes, humming, and gently lower yourself fully into the warmth and aroma.
It is silent in your apartment. It is silent in your mind.
The next morning you will wake up, well-slept, and begin again. Mornings, after all, are always the best. Mornings are sunrises, steaming mugs of coffee, and red carpets of infinite promise unfurled.
Mornings are knowing that today will be much the same as yesterday, but with new shades of color, new textures, new possibilities adorning the margins. Enough similarity to feel safe; enough newness to feel alive.