You know all that talk about being ‘authentic’?
About being genuine? About putting your real and true self out there?
It’s an enviable ideal.
But apparently I’m not doing that.
Apparently, I have never done that.
I always keep my authentic, genuine self right here, thank you. Out of harm’s way.
Years back, I was on the phone with a client when one of my daughters walked in. She was about eleven at the time.
She waited till I finished the call, then started to laugh.
“Who was that?” she said.
I shrugged it off. “Just Dave, a client.”
“No,” she said, “who were you, talking like that? All Mr. Artiste and everything.”
(Clearly not the father she saw the night before, lying on his back under the kitchen sink, with skinned knuckles, cursing the universe, trying to get the faucet back on.)
I realized that what my clients get is the ‘freelance me’ — a skillfully adept writer, insightful marketing thinker, an unflappable pro who always nails it. A clever and engaging chap, too. That is who they hire.
(Mainly because the actual, genuine me would never land any work at all: too lazy and procrastinatory, way too prickly when critiqued, prone to silly distractions, and not the least bit fascinated by cloud-based intrusion detection solutions. Try to sell that.)
When I bounced this notion around the Renegade Roundtable with some fellow freelancers, we agreed that, consciously or not, we had all adopted personas of some sort. Sometimes more than one.
These personas are like uniforms, or characters that we slip into when going out into the world.
Our personas were sort of exaggerated, or more idealized versions of ourselves, slightly taller and leaner, and smarter and more together than we really are on any given Tuesday afternoon.
In a way, your persona is actually ‘authentic’; it’s who you instinctively and naturally become when you know you need to be ‘on’. It’s part of you.
My designer friend Dave plays the flighty, slightly wacky creative, and dresses the part. He notes from his days in ad agencies, “Most clients are in dull businesses. Working with me should be a little fun.”
My longtime friend Bill peppers his casual conversations with f-bombs and references to body parts, but in the client’s office, he’s the cerebral, taciturn type, stroking his beard with furrowed brow. Clients seem to be at ease.
Illustrator Laurene tends toward melancholy and despair. But when on Skype with editors, she is so impossibly bubbly, that clients often call her for a cheering up.
Oh, and she actually uses a professional pseudonym. An alter ego.
Sure, this is part theatre, part branding (ack!), and part playing to the client’s sensibilities and expectations. It’s simply being someone clients like.
But here’s the deeper part.
Working at one remove, working sort of behind yourself is the freelancer’s equivalent of a hard hat and steel-toed shoes.
We’re in a business that can bruise the ego and shake your confidence. We need to be smart enough to stand at a safe distance from the saw blade.
When I’m screwing up, getting rejected, critiqued, and kicked off a project, it’s not me that’s taking the heat, it’s this writer guy, who, when you look at it objectively, didn’t play this one right.
The actual thin-skinned me, I’m still here, without a scratch. Ready to have a beer and try again tomorrow.
And when I’m going in circles with a project, and it sounds like crap, and the client is getting antsy, and I have no idea what to do, I can ask:
“So, what would this skillful and unflappable writer guy do here? How would he pull a rabbit out of this hat?”
Sometimes he helps me out.