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In a “regular job,” projects come and projects go, but the job is always there. Most people realize that this is not so for the self-employed. We could try to pay ourselves a regular wage, but eventually a fight will break out between our ideal salary and the bottom of our bank account. The irregularity of paychecks, of course, is the logical extension of projects coming and projects going, but there’s something else about this set up that is tough to get used to.

As the employee of a particular business or organization, it’s easy to tell the difference between a job and a project. When you’re done mopping the floor, you’re still a maid, and you’ll continue to be a main up until and after the person who told you to mop the floor tells you to wash the windows. I know this because I was a maid once. And a reporter, a downtown development authority director, a sales clerk, a barista, a customer service rep, a veterinary assistant, and even, for a short period of time, a pet cremator. Yes, I am horrified by that as well. It’s easy to define ourselves by our jobs (one of the many reasons I was not long for cremating puppies and kitties), but we don’t think to define ourselves by our projects.

When one’s job is a series of projects, and these projects are often long-term, it’s easy for a self-employed person to feel defined by the project, or by ongoing projects from the same client. But clients, like projects, come and go. It’s not like ending a job, but it can feel like one, and when changing jobs is consistently near the top of all lists of stressful life events, learning how to differentiate between the two is important to maintaining one’s sanity.

I’ve recently come to the end of a couple of major projects, which has left me feeling,

That is a thing I did. So what now?

well, a little crazy. It’s not that I don’t have enough to do. Thankfully, I have plenty of work from ongoing clients to keep me nicely fried on any given day. But I haven’t yet psychologically readjusted to the loss of that other work. How do I define myself now that I’m not doing these things anymore? Has my job description changed? What’s next?

One of the things I’ve recently finished is a book. I started writing it three years ago. Now, I have a completed manuscript, a book proposal and query letter, and now I’m busy groveling to agents. Sending one email a week, however, hardly maintains the project’s former scope in my life. Because it was something I have been working on for so long, it’s hard to know if or how anything could take its place. I honestly feel a little lost.

Well, that’s a lie. I felt a little lost. I mourned and pouted and became overly emotional about improper dishwasher-loading methodology. And then I figured out what my next project is going to be. All it took was some yoga, refraining from Words with Friends for 24 hours and a bath-and-Coke-Zero combination, and the next large, long-term, career-defining project came to me. I knew it was the right idea when my first reaction to the idea was, “How have I not done that already? Why am I not doing this right now? I’m behind already!”

So off I go. It’s not going to feel the same overnight. It’s going to take a while to get going, and it will probably be delayed and derailed time and again by other (read: paying) projects that come along, but eventually it will be the thing that I’m doing that helps define who I am and what I do – which is an exciting thing to have the power to change and create within one’s own job, isn’t it?

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