…but not any more
I had a dream recently. Those of you who have read some of my previous posts will know that I was once a journalist. And in my dream, one of my old papers, the East Anglian Daily Times, had appointed me editor. Once, that would really have been my dream. When I started in journalism I would have wanted nothing else than to be in charge of a newspaper. The idea of being responsible for the entire content and journalistic staff would have filled me with excitement and enthusiasm.
So here I was in my dream, which seemed vivid and absolutely realistic, and I was there, about to start my thrilling new job. And then I started to think: “But I’m a translator, aren’t I? And I really like what I do. Do I really want to lose all that?” As I prepared for the long hours and days I was going to have to work; as I got ready to shoulder the responsibility and take up my burden, I knew the answer. Of course I didn’t.
But in the dream there was no way back. I went into the office, which seemed simultaneously strange and familiar, with trepidation. I couldn’t believe I had so much to do and so little idea of how to do it. Feeling lost and confused, I woke up. It took me some time to realise that none of it was really happening to me, and my overwhelming sensation was one of relief. It was a short step away from being a nightmare.
Thinking about it later, I found the dream interesting in all sorts of different ways. Firstly, of course, it confirmed that I’m in the right job. Even when asleep I was aware of the huge advantages in terms of freedom and quality of life that a freelancer has over an employee, even an editor. And if you’re a freelancer who doesn’t believe in those advantages, you’re simply doing it wrong.
Then I started to wonder what had happened to me; why something I’d once dreamed of doing now seemed such an unpleasant prospect. Could I really have changed that much? The conclusion I came to was that I hadn’t. I was still more or less the same person who started work as a trainee reporter in a district office 30 years ago now. Two things had happened since then: the newspaper industry had changed unrecognisably and I had learned a great deal.
I’m not going to dwell on the changes in newspapers. It’s enough to say that papers have been unable to cope with the arrival of the Internet, failing on one hand to compete with it with the traditional printed versions while at the same time not managing to make any money with the digital versions of their products. This has led to falling staffing levels and plummeting standards. Suffice it to say I have no ambitions ever to return to journalism as a career.
What’s much more interesting to me is to realise how much I’ve learned in the 30 years since sitting in the editor’s chair really was my dream. I’ve learned, for example, that to be an editor it isn’t enough simply to be a good journalist. You need management skills, a talent for office politics and a kind of mental toughness I’m never going to possess. I’ve learned that editors are not their own bosses. They have to answer to a host of commercial considerations and often accept and take responsibility for decisions that go absolutely against their instincts. And, most of all, I’ve learned about myself: I work best independently, I don’t respond well to authority and I mistrust large organisations. I’m also organised, well-disciplined and resourceful. In short, I’m a natural freelancer.
Now, the journey that eventually brought me to translation and freelancing has been a long and interesting one, and I’m not sure I’d change any of it. But I wonder whether perhaps, instead of preparing all young people to be cogs in a machine, we ought to start helping them to improve their knowledge of themselves and of what they’re really suited for. Considering the importance of freelancers in the current and future economy, we should also surely be promoting self-employment to youngsters as a viable option and a worthwhile ambition as well. Perhaps if we did this more than one would find out a lot earlier than I did of the joys of a free, independent working life.