I’m coming to you today with another guest who’s going to share her great insight into how to make freelancing work for you. She’s also going to share when to decide that maybe it’s not the right fit, and you want to scale it down or work your freelance business in a different way.
My guest today is Dani Belvin who is a New Mexican theatre artist, educator, and arts administrator driven by the desire to make a positive impact in Albuquerque. She holds an MFA in Theater and a BA in Theatre, Education, and Asian Studies.
As an educator, she’s worked with students of all ages in New Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, and China. As a performer, she’s also studied 12 different Asian theatre and dance forms. And in addition to working full time in arts administration at an art center, she teaches part time at the college level and produces and co-host of the podcast, Biracial Unicorns. It is a podcast about race, gender, and pop culture.
We’re going to be talking about things that are a little bit off the beaten path for where a lot of the traditional freelance conversations go. Which is, you’re working it as a side hustle to bring it into a full-time gig. You’re potentially using it to grow an even bigger and bigger freelance business.
My guest today is Dani. I asked her what she would say her background is with freelancing.
She shared that she was an accidental freelancer. She feels like she’s heard me say that about myself. She didn’t have the intention to freelance after she went to graduate school. She went to graduate school with the intention of becoming a college professor. And that turned out to be a lot more difficult than she first thought.
So she knew that she wanted to teach. And because her degrees happened to be in the arts… Well, there are a lot of very tangible transferable skills. But a lot of businesses don’t see it that way. So it wasn’t to fall into a traditional sort of job.
So she knew she wanted to work in the arts. And she knew she wanted to teach. So she just accidentally fell into doing contract work in that way. She was following through with any sort of opportunity and putting herself out there so that I could be in the classroom or be doing arts as a job.
So it started as kind of a way to support adjunct teaching. As far as college goes, she was teaching just a couple of classes a semester in the college setting. She started to pick up more and more other teaching jobs. Part of it was through theatre company that she was a part of. And then part of it was through just other contacts she had made in the art world.
I asked Dani, “Was most of your freelancing was in teaching positions? Or were you doing different types of services for your clients?”
For the most part, it was teaching. The nature of theatre tends to be a lot of independent contract work as well. So while most of it was teaching, some of it was actually stage managing or performing in the theater world as well.
So when you were doing a lot of this freelance work, what did you feel were the benefits of choosing that instead of something that would be like a full-time tenure track or a Professor sort of situation?
The thing that Dani loves the most about freelancing was the freedom and flexibility to choose what she was doing. And she could turn down gigs that did not align with her values, didn’t align with her schedule, or weren’t interesting to her. So she really enjoyed that aspect. And she enjoyed the aspect of creating her own schedule. All of that was, was really freeing and really
just gratifying to her.
But ultimately, it seems like that wasn’t something that Dani wanted to stick with forever. Which is kind of the nature of a lot of not just business, but life for creatives too. We often discover along the way what we do and don’t like or pick up some new passion and follow that thread.
So can you talk a little bit more about that process of maybe deciding, “Okay, I don’t want to freelance forever”, at least in this particular way, and how you made that transition?
Dani shared that for her it was a lot of burnout. So she was working a lot and in a lot of different places. That’s is part of the nature of freelancing. She felt like she was spending a lot of time driving from gig to gig. And just constantly on the go. It was exhausting.
For her, the move into a full time position meant having the stability of working in one place. It meant having the stability of having those set hours. And she thinks this is true for a lot of creatives. And for a lot of freelancers.
It’s very difficult when you’re starting out to figure out those boundaries. She shared that she was more than happy to constantly be working. And for her that just was not sustainable. She was having a hard time figuring out where she was going to draw those boundaries with things like when was she not working? When was she working?” So that was really weighing on her.
Then a lot of it was the boring life things like needing health insurance and figuring out those those steps for myself. And while it is possible through freelance work, it seemed very difficult for her. And she had to evaluate if this was the type of work that she wanted to continue doing, or if she wanted to shift into something else.
So how did you make that shift into doing something else on a full time basis? Was that something where you were very intentional in your job hunting or did a job just sort of pop up and you’re like, “Okay, this is it. This is my chance to make a move.”?
Dani shared that it was more the ladder in her case. She had reached the point where she was acknowledging her burnout and that she needed to do something else. And she was about to take some steps back. She had set aside some time and savings to kind of pull back on what she was doing come the fall of that year.
And she set that space with the intention of job hunting. Perhaps reconsidering applying for full-time professor jobs out of state. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to move away from where she was. But she set that space to search and decide.
Right before she was about to transition into that space, a job kind of popped up. It was a full-time job with an organization she had been contracting with before. So she knew that the organization matched a lot of her personal values and was a good place to work. She knew a lot of people who were already in that organization, not well, but well enough to know that it seemed like a great place to work and it was in arts education.
But through the administration side. So it was something a little different than she had done previously. But because she had been doing a lot of freelance individual work she had the skills that they were looking for. She also had the practical experience of being on the ground doing the teaching, working as an artist, and having knowledge of both sides of it. So it was kind of an ideal situation that accidentally happened as well.
Well, that’s actually very interesting, because through your freelance experience, even though you realized that that wasn’t a path you wanted to continue down, you still had this introduction to this company and the people there to where you knew what some of the job would look like.
I think Dani touched on a couple of things that are really important. But the one that I want to pull out first is this idea of setting aside space.
Because one of the challenges of freelancing that I think anyone who’s done it can experience is the fact that it can overtake all day every day. And what tends to get crowded out is this idea of that intentional space setting to think about working on your business or even taking the step back to say, “Is this what I want to be doing?”
When your skills are in demand, it is very easy to fill your day with work for clients. Sometimes I’ve even seen freelancers who have waiting lists. They’re turning down other clients, because they’re so busy. And I think it was very smart that Dani’s first step was not along the lines of firing all her clients today. Nor did she have the mindset of taking whatever job pops up.
She very intentionally said, “I’m going to put some space in here to figure out what this is going to look like because I don’t necessarily know what my next step is.” And I feel that it’s so hard for a lot of freelancers to do that just because of the way we work. We tend to be thinking about other people’s businesses. Or the projects we’re working on. And not recognizing how it’s affecting us.
Prior to doing that your step, Dani recognized that she was in, at least, the beginning stages of burnout. I asked her if she could speak a little bit about that to help other freelancers who might not realize that there are some subtle signs popping up that they might be burning out.
I asked Dani, “What would you do if you could go back in time and talk to yourself at that period and raise those red flags sooner?
Dani thinks, for her, and probably for a lot of people who work in freelance, we go down that path because it’s the work that we want to do. It’s the work that we value. And it’s a passion! It’s very hard to be motivated to work for yourself or to take on different clients nad different small side jobs, unless it’s something you’re passionate about.
And so, for her, the early signs of burnout were she was unhappy. And she did not see the same level of passion and commitment to the work that she had when she was beginning. She was very unhappy and very tired. She started to dread having to work. Instead of it feeling like something that was feeding her, it felt like she was just feeding the work. So she thinks those were the early signs for me.
And then actual physical exhaustion was a part of it as well. Like she mentioned before, she thinks a lot of it, for her, was the lack of very firm boundaries. So if she could go back, she thinks that would be something that she would work on and establish early on. And she thinks with those boundaries, it helps prevent burnout. But she thinks you’re also more likely to catch the burnout before it happens.
Yes, I could not agree with you more. I think that boundaries is probably up there with imposter syndrome and and mindset work.
But it is one of the most important things that a lot of freelancers don’t realize how much they’re hurting themselves and their business by not having good boundaries. Because a lot of us come from employee-employer situations. Or we’re working with companies that don’t realize they need to or have to treat freelancers differently.
It can feel very much like a power move to put those boundaries down with a client. But it’s very, very important for your own mental health. And I love that Dani acknowledges some of the signs of what that looks like for her. Because there’s almost a sense of grief when you start to realize that this thing you built is great, but then it’s physically exhausting you. And you’re not even feeling lit up by it. Yes, it’s bringing in money. And clients are relatively happy, but it’s having these other negative impacts on me.
So can you talk about this job opportunity that came up? How did you wind down your freelance work? Did you keep it on but were just different about how you decided what to do with freelance clients?
Dani shared that it’s a little bit of both. Like she mentioned before, she had already started taking steps back when this job opportunity arose. So she had already created some space. When she started at this new job, in this new position, she as still honoring the commitments she had already made.
And she made it pretty clear when she accepted the position that it was important to her to be able to have the space to honor those commitments and follow through on the things she had already said she was going to do. Which she doesn’t know why she found it surprising, but she did find it very surprising that the company loved that about her. They told her that’s one of the reasons we hired her.
She did have a few other teaching gigs lined up, which I followed through and completed. Luckily for her, within her work, everything was very structured on a calendar and an academic calendar. So she knew when those things would end. She also knew that because it was work that she was passionate about that she wasn’t able to give it up completely.
So while she was winding down with those things, she was trying to figure out how much of it she could keep, in addition to a 40 hour a week job.
And so through conversations with the college she was contracting with and her new employers, she was able to see how much space she could have. She’s now in my third year in this position. And she has continued to do some side contract work and some teaching at the college level while she has been there. So it’s continuing to take that step back and see what the space was that allowed it.
What she also really liked about it was that she was able to build in more space for other projects that she wanted to do that weren’t necessarily completely under the umbrella of what she was doing before. So it was nice to have that security of a full time job, but be able to continue a little bit of the work that she was really passionate about, It was also nice to be able to create some space for new things. Because she thinks this is true for a lot of creatives and freelancers, we’re always wanting to learn new things to improve ourselves to find something that will satisfy us. So she loves that she has that space in my schedule now that she’s able to try new things as well.
I understand and that makes a lot of sense. Because when you’re doing one particular thing or a couple of different things in your freelance skill set wheelhouse, it’s very easy for those to become the most profitable or the ones that are requested the most.
You do them over and over again. But it really can crowd out the opportunity to learn new things or even just pick something up that’s a hobby. I see a lot of people get stuck in this mindset of wondering if something is going to make them money. Not everything you do has to make you money, or has to be part of your business. It can be if you want, but you can also just pick up a hobby or follow a thread to see how much you’re interested in it. I think that that’s a really common pitfall that people fall into.
I asked Dani to walk me through how her process has changed as far as deciding whether or not to take on a freelance project. Now, knowing what she does from having done it before and balancing this full time job and some other projects.
She shared that she feels like she has drawn a much stronger line. It used to be where she would pretty much accept anything that she was remotely interested in. And now knowing that she has much more limited time to accommodate those things, she has to be a lot more intentional.
So for her that means she knows that she can only accept one or two things in a given amount of time. She still thinks very much in the semester schedule. So she can only take one or two things every semester. And having that knowledge and that line makes her evaluate what it is that she enjoys the most. Some of the things that she considers are:
- What age group is it?
- Is it that I want to work with the most?
- What are the sorts of things that I want to teach?
- Or what kind of art do I want to do that would fill me the most in this schedule?
And it’s nice because she doesn’t necessarily have to think about long term with her freelance work. Now, she only has to think about what’s going to serve her in this amount of time. And she doesn’t have to necessarily worry about building anything or expanding anything.
That’s a really great point.
One challenge that I know a lot of freelancers who are coming out, from the other direction where they have the full time job first and they’re just starting to freelance, they always want to know if they need to tell their employer. Or if they need to tell their freelance clients that they also have a full time job and these are the parameters under which it does or doesn’t affect what they are doing for them.
I asked Dani if she does that with her clients. Do they know that you have other responsibilities, and you’re not going to pick up the phone at 10 o’clock in the morning if they call out of the blue? Or is that something you just deal with on a different or case by case basis?
Dani shared that she thinks it’s a case by case. She has had semesters where she was very upfront with not only the college she was working with, or the people she was contracting with, but also with the students who she was teaching about her schedule. This is her life. And this is when she’s available and when she’s not available.
She’s also had times where she doesn’t do that. The other thing she finds that it doesn’t make a huge difference is what she communicates to other people, it’s really kind of drawing the line for herself. That makes the bigger difference. So she thinks in both cases the outcome was about the same.
She feels as though she has moved into more of not necessarily having to disclose just because she doesn’t understand necessarily what she was getting out of disclosing. She doesn’t know if she was looking for people to understand that boundary, but she feels like you can establish that boundary without having to justify why.
That’s a really good point because a lot of times there’s not a ton of overlap unless the person from your freelance gig is trying to push into your other time when you’re not available or need to be focused on something,
I really found that a lot of times when I was working full time that it just didn’t really affect it. And I didn’t see how it affected my boss at all. I didn’t see how it affected my freelance clients either. We could either do a call at noon when I was on a lunch break or after hours. We could even just discuss it over email.
So I agree with you that it’s a case by case thing. I don’t think you owe it to anyone unless there’s going to be some potential where they’re like, “Oh, we need you to be available at 3 pm every Tuesday.” That’s when you have to tell them that you might not be the person for them because you’re working at that time.
But I agree that I think a lot of times it’s about our own boundaries. You have to ask yourself, “Okay, how am I going to have firm boundaries with both these things so that I don’t get overwhelmed or don’t shortchange anyone in the process?”
Well, this has been super helpful, for me at least, to hear how you’ve made this transition and really arrived at a balance of things that work best for you.
I think that’s important for everyone listening to remember that you don’t have to apply a formula from anyone and try to force that into fitting into your life. You get to decide to what extent you’re freelancing or you’re not or you have a full time job or you work remotely or you’re volunteering. So you get to decide what that looks like.
And you can always change it too. If it’s no longer suiting you, for any reason, you can always adapt and change it. So never feel like you’re a prisoner to your circumstances. Because you always have the power to adapt.
And that’s something I think we’ve talked about a lot in this episode is tuning into those signals in yourself know this isn’t working. How do I make that decision? How do I wind things down and move forward in a step that’s positive?
I asked Dani where people could go to learn more about her and all of the great work she’s doing including her podcast.
The best place to learn about her is through her podcast, which is one of those lovely things that has been able to rise because I’ve had that extra space in my life and is able to fulfill me in a different way. So, she co hosts and produces a podcast called Biracial Unicorns. They’re available on all the podcasting platforms.
- Website: biracialunicornspodcast.co
- Instagram: @biracialunicorns
- Facebook: Biracial Unicorns
- Twitter: @biracialmagic
This was such a great episode full of useful information. For more freelance advice, get a copy of my book Start Your Own Freelance Writing Business—available now! Buy it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and more.