On Choosing Abundance – Poynter
I’ve built my career on worst-case scenarios. And notoriously, I am not shy.
When I talk to people early in my career, I often say that every major change in my career has been the result of rejection: I’ve been denied raises, passed over for promotions, or fired. The doors slammed behind me, and there was nowhere to go but forward.
As someone from a flyover state with no family ties to the industry, my response in those times was to dig my heels in and figure it out. In practice, it was like loading my schedule with extra freelance work, working six days a week, and always keeping an eye out for new opportunities. It paid off – through a mix of hard work and extreme luck, I managed to land the jobs I had dreamed of earlier in my career.
So last year when I decided to quit my job and go freelance, I tapped into that old standby hustle. I made a spreadsheet calculating how much I would need to earn each month to cover my minimum living expenses. That would be my minimum income goal. Then I added $500 to that number – a modest monthly contribution to my savings account that seemed possible. This number became my high-end monthly income goal.
Then I filled out the rest of the spreadsheet: a tab for everyone I knew who might possibly offer me work and a note from the last time I spoke to them; a tab to collect pitch calls I’ve seen on Twitter; a tab for story ideas and another for long-term project ideas; and a tab for tracking invoices.
I prepared for my freshman year with two anchor gigs: developing and launching podcasts for Defector Media and writing this newsletter. Between the two jobs, I would be able to meet my monthly income goal without undertaking any additional work. If everything collapsed, I would still be able to pay the rent.
But despite my meticulous planning, something happened in that first year that I hadn’t expected: it went better than expected. One of the podcasts I developed happened to be Normal Gossip, which quickly became the most successful podcast I’ve ever produced. And even though I don’t have need to undertake additional work, I did. I’ve sold essays, written a magazine article, done sensitivity listening and editing freelance podcasts, taught college classes and workshops, and helped grow the Normal Gossip podcast business. I also said no to a lot of work and was able to pass it on to friends. Even in my leanest months, I earned more than the required minimum income plus the savings I set for myself last year.
Because I still live with a cool cocktail of mental illness and trauma, every day wasn’t perfect, but somewhere along the way I learned that my definition of success in this current version of my professional life is completely different from when I was a full-time worker.
Which brings me to today.
Last week I sat down to write the final newsletter for my contract with Poynter. The plan was for me to take a break this month and come back in September for a second year. But as I tried to write, I noticed a voice in the back of my head saying “it’s not too late to back down”.
I didn’t know where it came from. I couldn’t wait to continue! I ignored him, but he kept interrupting me. I couldn’t get past two sentences in my essay, so I decided to take a moment to journal about it.
One question I try to ask myself when making a difficult decision, especially work-related, is, “Does this decision come from a place of scarcity or abundance?” When I asked myself the question of continuing to write this newsletter, the answer was clear: the decision to continue came from a place of scarcity, from a place of fear of what the future holds and from the conviction that what comes next will be worse than what came before. The scarcity mindset comes easily to me. It’s a familiar groove my brain has formed when it comes to making a business decision.
But this year taught me that I might not need to rely on this hustle and bustle to survive in the same way. Through a combination of luck, privilege (like being married and childless, living in an affordable city, and having no student debt) and the cumulative results of my hard work, I looked up and saw that I had achieved far beyond my expectations.
In the process, I also had periods when my workload was almost unsustainable (16 podcast episodes produced and broadcast in three months while teaching and writing features and this newsletter!!) Once your basic financial needs are met, thriving often means more than doing everything humanly possible. I realized that if I wanted to thrive, I needed to be more deliberate about how and when I hit the gas.
There comes a time when over-tightening the things that got you to where you are will start hurting you. A chip on your shoulder can hinder your expansion. Living in yesterday’s survival mode can warp your present in ways that really bother you (and make you quite unpleasant to be around).
So here is my last issue of The Cohort. I’m going to spend more time concentrating on Normal Gossip, which is quickly becoming an almost full-time job. I’m also developing new podcast concepts and working on a book proposal. I won’t be far though; I hope to continue contributing to Poynter and The Cohort in the future.
The version of Alex who uses spreadsheets, a six-day work week, and always on the lookout for the next job is the one I’m grateful for; she brought me where I am. I still love spreadsheets and blueprints, but I don’t need her to be in charge all the time anymore.
It was such an honor to write The Cohort last year, and I am grateful to the Poynter team for entrusting me with this newsletter which means so much to so many people. I can’t wait to see how it evolves with its next author, and I hope you all keep in touch with me too. You can follow me on twitter @alexlaughs and you can subscribe to my personal newsletter here.