Tips For Hustling

by Joshua Michtom

The New Financial Advice is shaping up to be a real bummer: if we know anything, it is that we should expect to earn and achieve less, to be unemployed more, to carry debt always, and not to live where we want, but where we can. But beyond accommodating ourselves mentally to straitened circumstances, what shall we do? The answer, it seems, is that we shall hustle.

When I talk about hustling, I’m not talking about “a hustle here and hustle there” in the Lou Reed mode. I’m talking about what, in polite circles, is called “the freelance economy,” and what, in more straightforward language, is known as piecing together a living. Folks who tend to see things from the perspective of management will tell you that the freelance economy is a great thing because “the freelance model allows companies to harness the abilities of multiple consultants, often for the price of a single full-time hire with a more limited skill set.” That is a nice way of saying that relying on freelancers is another step in maximizing benefit and minimizing obligation for employers.

But this is not Advice For Violent Overthrow The Exploitative Capitalist System! It is The New Financial Advice! There must be some useful general tips we can distill from our experiences for a world in which life is, of necessity, constant hustle, right? I’ll start:

Most of the lessons I’ve culled from my own hustles are too specific to be of much use (if you have access to slightly damaged samples of brand name blue jeans, there’s a guy at a Kinko’s in Midtown Manhattan who will buy them). But one thing I have learned is that the real value of a given freelance job can be illusory, or at the least, easy to overestimate.

A few years back, a state budget crisis got me laid off from the public defender job that already wasn’t really covering my overextended, aspirational expenses. I managed to pick up some legal work in a variety of ways, but it was frustratingly sporadic, leaving me with unpredictable chunks of idle time that cried out for productive use. Taking stock of my marketable skills (lawyer, bilingual, fast typer), I turned to Craigslist, and quickly found a gig transcribing and translating market research interviews conducted in Spanish. It paid something like $50 per hour of interview transcribed, and I figured, “How hard can it be? I’ve done simultaneous translation before. Even if it takes me two minutes to type every minute of tape, I’ll clear $25 an hour, which is a lot of money, especially compared to zero!”

It was very very hard. The interviews mostly involved Mexican women in Southern California laughing and shooting the shit while answering questions about their grocery-shopping habits. They seemed to be having so much fun, really, that I could imagine them there, sipping on fruity drinks and slapping each other amicably on the back while they cracked wise about cooking and family life. The problem was that, based on the audio quality, these happy moments were occurring in a working airplane hangar. Over and over, I rewound and listened again as sentence fragments were swallowed up by ambient giggles and unexplained engine noises. How I wished I could be there with them! I would sit quietly with a fruity drink of my own, and be able to say, now and again, “¿Qué?”

It was excruciating. Transcribing an hour of tape took many hours. By the time I finished and submitted the first assignment, I was barely clearing minimum wage, and when the transcription service emailed that they weren’t going to pay me because there were too many lines ending in “unintelligible,” I actually cried.

Hustle Lesson: Do not hesitate to walk away from a lousy freelance job, even if it isn’t finished. You might think that this is a bad practice, because you will lose whatever accolades and referrals would surely come to you if you stuck it out. But that’s the magical secret of the freelance economy: even if you do the best job possible, you will be replaced as soon as marginally cheaper labor is available. The American Prospect succinctly summed the situation up this way, in an article about Taskrabbit, the chore-freelancing website:

What’s diabolically brilliant and emblematic about the company is that prospective errand-runners bid against one another for jobs. To get an assignment, an aspiring Rabbit offers to do the chore for less money than he or she thinks other prospective Rabbits are bidding. That’s what makes it a metaphor for the new economy, a dystopia where regular careers are vanishing, every worker is a freelancer, every labor transaction is a one-night stand, and we collude with one another to cut our wages.

So, dear readers, what helpful tips can you offer for the brave new world of one-night-stand employment?

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

Photo by the author

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