Recently I’ve been slowly making my way through Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix. I’ve never really found Jerry Seinfeld all that funny—he just seems very smug to me—but one episode really resonated with me.
In the Season 8 premiere, “Jim Gaffigan: Stick Around for the Pope,” the two comedians are cruising around in a VW camper bus when Gaffigan mentions how “insane” it is to have “the opportunity to do what you enjoy”—but Seinfeld disagrees, saying “You had a job. You left! Nobody else left. . . . So why are you so ‘lucky’? . . . What about your talent, was that just luck? What about the gift of being able to work hard, is that luck?”
Which are valid points! This debate (does success come down to luck or hard work?) isn’t new—a quick online search shows that many people have weighed in on the topic, including Richard Branson, and a book has been written on the subject. Even Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying “I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
But this subject is still relevant, especially for freelancers. If I had a nickel for every time I told someone that I’m self-employed and work from home full time and they responded, “Wow, I’d kill to be able to do that! You’re so lucky!” . . . I’d be rich in nickels. I’ve also had people smile knowingly when I sheepishly admit that I am pretty lucky and tell me that luck has nothing to do with it.
Of course, I don’t tell those who envy what I do all the gory details: how I’m always thinking about work even when I’m not working, that I spend a ton of time marketing myself and dealing with taxes, that I have to set aside money in case I get sick and can’t work because I don’t earn benefits as a freelancer. All this makes freelancing seem much less glamorous.
But if you do succeed (meaning that you’re not rich and famous, exactly, but that you earn enough to pay your bills, keep food on the table, and provide for your family), is it just hard work, then? Or luck? Or talent? Or some combination of both, perhaps? In fact, I think a person’s choices factor into this as well. You can choose to leave a job or change from one profession or another. You could choose to remain in a dead-end job even if you’re a genius, like Matt Damon’s character almost did in Good Will Hunting.
I don’t remember my parents ever telling me this explicitly, but from a young age I learned that hard work + smart decisions = good things happening. I think I owe my strong work ethic primarily to my dad, who started out as a lowly courier and worked his way up to become the vice president of a bank. Of course, that upward trajectory is less likely to happen now. It never occurred to me not to attend college, as the importance of a good education was stressed to me as well. But I’m also fortunate to have been born in the United States into a middle-class family—I didn’t grow up in a Third World country or in a poorer part of the country, where my opportunities would have been much more limited.
I’ve been fortunate in my freelance editing career to have found great clients who pay me well for work I enjoy doing. But I have worked hard to get here, and I don’t think anyone who is self-employed would say that this path is easy. I choose to believe that hard work, luck, and the choices you make all come into play at some point. It’s great to be at the right place at the right time, sure, but a lot happens behind the scenes to help you get to that point in the first place, including valuable support from friends and family.
What do you think? Do you owe your freelance success to luck or to some combination of other factors? If you don’t quite feel “successful” yet, what do you think could help you get there?