Have you ever looked at a word for so long it doesn't look like that word any more? So long that it doesn't seem to make sense any more? The word freelance has been a little bit like that for me lately. I've been working as a 'Freelance Musician, Vocal Coach & Educator' for years now, but every now and then I analyse what it is I am doing, what I am offering, how I am going about it and perhaps most importantly, how successfully I am doing it. Freelance. Free Lance. Free-lance. What does it mean? We're all at it. Let's go back to basics. I've always had a notion in the back of my mind that the term came from a historical novel of some sort, and it turns out I was right. For all there is, apparently, written reference made to the idea of a freelance or a free agent as far back as 1713, it seems to be generally acknowledged that the word Freelance (or at least Free Lance) was coined by Walter Scott. In his 1820 novel Ivanhoe we read: "I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them - I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment'.
Of course, this reveals the Freelance (I prefer this term to 'Freelancer') to be nothing more than a mercenary. And I've met plenty professional free agents who go about their work with all the finesse of an unscrupulous medieval fighter, always for the highest bidder. But, even in just those couple of lines from Ivanhoe, I like to draw a few pointers and think of us independent workers as being rather more noble than mercenary. There's something quite pleasing about starting each day with the image of one of Ivanhoe's knights in your mind.
First, the Free Lance has a skill. An expertise. We're not just talking about someone willing and able to fight, but someone at the top of their game. Someone with experience, focus, skill and (presumably) the right weapons for the job. Fortunately, nowadays we wield smartphones, tablets and in my case fingers at the piano rather than lances and swords, but it is perhaps not a bad idea to remember that we need to be peddling something we are actually very, very good at.
In the line from Ivanhoe above, we read that Richard refused to hire the Free Lances, but that in the face of this rejection they simply changed direction and went out to find someone who would. There's a self-assured resilience to the Free Lance mind. No dumbing-down, no loss of self-confidence, just the ability to take a setback and look to a different horizon. And to make for the new destination without delay.
Talking of destinations, Ivanhoe tells us the Free Lances made for Hull, and then to Flanders. They knew their marketplace - go where the battles are - and, well, they went there. Travel is perhaps not an essential part of the Freelance life, but not limiting your market to your immediate area is something many successful independent workers have capitalised on. If they could hop across to Flanders in medieval times, it is perhaps a shame if we don't make use of travel advances and see the wider world as our marketplace. It's worth remembering that a highly skilled, itinerant and independent worker can make for quite a formidable professional force.
Ivanhoe tells us that a 'man of action will always find employment'. The key word here is action. We are lucky that action no longer needs to mean fighting to the death with weapons, but it wouldn't harm to apply an almost military strategy to the way we conduct our Freelance selves in modern times. This one line from Ivanhoe is perhaps the best take-away from the whole thing. It doesn't matter how skilled we are, how broad our marketplace, how resilient we are - if we don't act constantly, we will never truly be able to call ourselves Free Lances.
Of course, we shouldn't try to disassociate ourselves from the word 'mercenary' altogether. Mercenary has negative connotations, and the idea of selling our services to the highest bidder can, at times, bring our motivations into question. That said, a little bit of mercenary thinking can go in our favour. We work at whatever we do, we don't play at it. It is perhaps most effective to take on only those projects you believe in, can add value to, and feel comfortable working on - we're meant to be knights, right? It helps to have something of a noble code to live our professional lives by. But some of the more successful mercenaries of old were, quite simply, the elite soldiers of their day. Selling ourselves short wouldn't do at all...
It's odd that a few lines published in 1820, which in turn describe fictional events set centuries in the past, should be so relevant to us as free agents, independent workers, freelances, freelancers in 2017. But then, for all the battlefields change, the world gets smaller, and the weapons evolve, there are some things that never go out of fashion.
Excellence, resilience, determination, and hard work will always model success. I'll be making room for Ivanhoe on my bookshelf - it's perhaps all the self-help I need.