What I learned in 2010: Everything is Generative

I know no one is probably reading this blog anymore, but I want to get this down, even if it’s only for myself. The most important lesson I learned about successful, productive freelancing in 2010 was this: everything is generative.

In plain English, that means this: Doing trumps planning. There’s no such thing as wasted work or projects. And whatever you do almost always snowballs into more of the same…whether you like it or not.

Case study: In 2010, I soft-relaunched my online-video production studio, Small Mammal, after letting it hibernate for a year following a painful (but amicable) split with my co-founder. I say “soft-relaunched” because the idea of doing a formal “Hello World” thing all over again with a new website and business plan and client-hunting strategy and all the rest literally gave me ulcers to even contemplate. I just wanted to do the work, when I had it, and continue my freelance writing when I didn’t… and not worry about the formal, outward-facing aspects of my in-name-only “company.”

So that’s what I did. A small one-off project for NPR in 2009 that I didn’t even pitch (they randomly found me from a long-defunct science series I created) snowballed into half a dozen more projects throughout ’10. Same thing with Nature.com. Same thing with Ars Technica. The less I “strategized” and the more I just did, the more work rolled in — almost of its own accord. I didn’t make a ton of money, but it was the best year I’d ever had, financially, as a freelancer. And most of it was video work “through” Small Mammal, even though my website sucked and I never established an LLC. (I’m happy to say I did redo the site, finally, but it was only at the end of the year!)

And the stuff I didn’t like doing, or even hated — it wasn’t wasted time. I gained reporting experience, producing experience, contacts… even business intelligence, even if it was just “never pitch that magazine section again.” That stuff often snowballs in unpredictable, useful, remunerative ways as well.

Everything is generative. Work begets work. Plans have their place, but we all know what Lennon said about them.

So that’s the good news. The bad news — well not really “bad,” although it could be bad if you let it — is that it works in reverse as well. That’s what I’m learning already in 2011. What you do — literally do, not say you do or wish you do — tends to create more of itself whether you want it to or not.

Case study: I’ve made a few well-regarded iPad app promos for some cool clients. Now, other people are seeing them and I end up making more. In fact, I’m doing one now with another hot on its heels. This is a good thing. But there are only so many hours in my workday — or workweek, or workyear. How do I want to spend them?

I recently had to turn down two science writing assignments that I’d have loved to do, because I simply don’t have time given my previous app-promo-video commitments. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even a “bad” thing: I know from experience that trying to stuff 10 pounds into a 5 pound bag just ends in tears. And other opportunities will come. But it made me remember/consider: just because you’re busy as a freelancer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the work you ideally want to be doing (or in my case, having the balance I want to be having). Hell, that’s usually the norm. But it doesn’t have to be.

I can interpret this little blip in several different ways, regarding my business:

  • Maybe I need to expand/hire help. But that creates administrative headaches I don’t want, and probably can’t afford anyway.
  • Maybe I need to not say “yes” to (almost) every opportunity. Hm, perhaps, but I don’t think I’m in that much demand for such a policy to make sense, especially in this economy.
  • Maybe I just need to decide to do what I want to be doing, as often as I can. That seems to make the most sense. If I want a better balance between promotional work and my science writing, I should choose to do more science writing and less promotional work. The more I mentally orient towards that “want,” the more I’ll notice appropriate opportunities and the more I will do with them, which will create more such opportunities. (Or, even better, perhaps I will notice better synergies between promotional/video and science writing that I can exploit to converge upon that desired balance.)

I also noticed that I’ve been adding to my drawerful of “dream feature” ideas for oh, about five years, but have not yet had any of them published. Maybe that’s because I rarely pull one of those ideas out and say, “Today I am going to knock this into shape as an actual pitch.” No, usually I’m too busy working on something else more important (ie: something I feel more secure about making money from). But that’s not “the world” or “the economy” making that decision, it’s me. The same me that feels disappointed that those features are still unwritten. Well, whose fault is that?

On the flip side, last fall I decided I wanted to be blogging more often… for money. I didn’t make a big honking deal out of writing out all my possible targets and devising the perfect way to pitch myself. I just paid attention to that desire and acted on it right then when I noticed opportunities. A couple months later I had two regular, paid blogging gigs. Then I had the enviable task of choosing between them.

I’m not bragging here, and I’m not getting all “The Secret” on you. Willing something to happen won’t magically make it happen. But if you look at what you spent most of your time working on in the last week, month, year, and it doesn’t seem ideal for whatever reason, the first (only?) way to change that is to stop doing that and start doing something else. Not schedule it, fantasize about it, or analyze it. Just do it. Make your own luck. There is no try. Whatever damn slogan you prefer, the bottom line is: everything is generative. But you have to do the generating.

Happy new year!


About John Pavlus

I'm a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics.
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6 Responses to What I learned in 2010: Everything is Generative

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What I learned in 2010: Everything is Generative | Freelancer Hacks -- Topsy.com

  2. Ed Yong says:

    I love this post. I perfectly captures the brilliant and frustrating nature of freelance work. There’s something truly wonderful about seeing fairly random, “I’ll give that a shot” actions snowball into things that, in hindsight, look like some sort of cohesive strategy. On the other hand, balancing all those options is really hard and like you say, it gets particularly tough when you have to start turning things down. It’s almost easier when you start out and every new opportunity is like manna from heaven. A while down the line comes the guilt of wondering if the thing you said no to was THE wasted opportunity you’ll regret later. And the only real way of handling that is to do what feels right.

    I also love the point about needing to actually do stuff. I think some people are under the impression that if they just get a foot in the door, they’ll be sorted. Really, the foot in the door is a signal to start pushing like your life depended on it. For the next several decades…

    • John Pavlus says:

      I’m glad you liked it. Another maxim that made a big impression on me: you can only make one dot at a time. (Brian Eno) And Steve Jobs saying in a commencement speech that the lines between those dots only cohere in hindsight, like when he audited a calligraphy class which later inspired him to build good fonts into the first Macintosh. Paredoilia can only take over if you give it something to work with… 🙂 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia

  3. Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

    Totally, totally true.
    I think this ties in closely with how I’ve often thought about approaching new stuff:

    “Fake it ’till you make it.” That and, “Act like you know what you’re doing long enough and eventually you do.”

    I started out in journalism feeling like I had to wait until somebody promoted me or told me I was ready to tackle something bigger. I didn’t get a career I liked until I started just thinking, “What do I want to be doing?” and then went out and started doing that. It’s always a little awkward at first. But eventually, it works. And you realize that everybody whose careers you always envied did the same thing.

    I have a business plan that I update every year, but mostly for the purpose of formally hashing out what is and isn’t important to me–what my short term and long term goals are and which are the ones I’m going to throw myself at this year. And, at the same time, I decide what I don’t want to do anymore. The doing is what is important. But this (very small) amount of planning helps me map out what I’ll do. In particular, it goes a long way towards helping me justify to myself the times that I need to say, “No.”

    • John Pavlus says:

      “I started out feeling like I had to wait until somebody promoted me or told me I was ready to tackle something bigger.”

      That’s a succinct description of basically my whole 20s.

  4. Bob Chapman says:

    “I know no one is probably reading this blog anymore,…”

    Thank you for not listening to that voice in your head. This is the same voice that most of us have in our heads that keep us from trying something new.

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