Why the contract job market is more exciting than the permanent job market

If you’re new to contracting, you might be feeling a little nervous. It’s daunting, to say the least, to eschew the sort of permanent position that sustained your grandparents and very likely, your parents too. It can be difficult to explain why you’ve decided to leave behind the certainty of a steady pay cheque and venture out into the world of short term contract jobs.

But the truth is that it is more exciting. And that’s part of the problem.

One of the ways we can think about excitement is as a kind of unstable joy. Its precarious nature is what makes it compelling. But this is also what makes it scary.

When people get scared, they generally adopt more conservative attitudes in the hope that they can preserve what they’ve got. The trick is unlearning some of this conditioning and teaching yourself how to embrace uncertainty and move towards the excitement of the unknown.

Unlearning fear

At some point in your life, you may have heard someone use the phrase “may you live in interesting times” and cite it as an old Chinese curse. The point that is generally being made is that while a turbulent existence might have good narrative/anecdotal value, it’s actually a pretty tough way to live.

There are some obvious counterpoints:

1) No life is uninteresting.
Even if you have a true devotion to routine, certain points of your life will throw it asunder: you’ll fall in love, you’ll get ill, and, most relevant for our purposes, you’ll change jobs. There are always moments of change that can cause us discomfort, even positive change.

2) It’s not an ancient Chinese curse, you know.
It’s not an ancient Chinese anything. Etymologists have found no sign of it in ancient writings, not a trace. In fact, the first place it crops up is in 1936, in a memoir written by the British ambassador to China.

What does this teach us? That wisdom/aphorisms/curses/whatever are just opinion, not empirical fact. This might seem obvious when you read it here, but our brains have a knack of giving easy ideas and phrases more weight than they’re due, especially if they’re dressed up as history.

But what has this got to do with contract work?

A lot of the battle of working as a contractor is learning how to acknowledge your excitement and your fear and not be ruled by either one. This is very easy for any given inspirational blog or Instagram poetry post to say, but it is the hardest lesson to learn. It is a constant act of inner negotiation, a true life project.  Here are some bullet-pointed advice nuggets that you may or may not find useful:

  • Acknowledge the freedom you have to walk away
    This is a privileged position to be in. You won’t occupy it for some portions of your career. However, if you’ve got a few contract jobs under your belt and you’ve been charging the rate that you’re worth, you’ll have the wherewithal to say no if a working situation becomes intolerable. That’s a gift.
  • It is okay to live a life other people don’t understand.
    If this means that you spend half your time working in the city and the other half pursuing performance art or raising your kids, or travelling the world, then good for you. There’s strength in finding out who you are and pursuing it with all your might.This might inspire confusion or scorn in people from all parts of your life, but that is natural when what you do cannot easily be boiled down into easily digested concepts. Try being generous if you encounter people’s negative reactions, not everybody has the training, skills or personal set-up to make the leap you get to make every day.
  • The admin is still going to be pretty hard
    Even if you have an ace accountant and good relationships with agencies, the short-term contract life is an intellectually demanding one. Not only do you have to deliver high quality work to clients, you have to manage different commutes, bookings, expectations, getting enough sleep…the list goes on. Routines and habits helps humans cope with complex cognitive loads and your contracting life will often force you into many different living patterns. Do what you can to create a small, familiar space wherever you are – this could mean a commitment to yoga every morning, no matter where you are, a regularly scheduled call with a loved one or even eating the same, comforting breakfast every day.

So, what have we learned? Well, excitement is as excitement does. As a person drawn to contracting, you know you need surprises and variation to be happy. That fear and discomfort accompanies these feelings is not something to be ignored or denied, but accepted.

But look at you. You’re doing it. You’re actually making a life that veers from tradition, something that’s entirely yours. It takes great courage to step out in this way and you’re to be applauded.

Now go eat your breakfast.