Freelancing, Stress and Stoicism by Andrew Munro

The gig economy, talent economy, independent professionals, interims, locums  and freelancers – the media seems obsessed with the supposed evils and potential advantages of this brave new world. But, is it real, is it happier and what lessons could Stoicism have for adventurers in this new land?

Freelancing – The Figures

Freelancing, as a model of work, is growing. Of course, there have always been independent workers, from casual bar staff to your local, independent plumber, but a decade of empowering technology has made it much simpler for would-be independents and clients to connect.

In the US, there are now between 40 and 48 million independent workers (between 25 and 30 per cent of the US workforce, depending on the survey).

In the UK (calculated on a different basis), there are around 4 million self-employed solo workers, around 13 per cent of the workforce.

Those are substantial figures and on the increase all across the world.

Is it a happier life? For most, freelancing is a positive career choice (not employment of last resort). Research, like this recent report from FlexJobs, regularly reflects freelancers’ positive outlook.

The report found that:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

In general, then, we independents are a happy bunch.Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. There always seems to be some time-money tension; inevitably you’re worrying about one or the other.

Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work to do, but you feel guilty when your project pipeline’s a bit limp and saggy. And then there are sales calls to make, debts to manage and bills to pay. Oh, and difficult client to manage, too.

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are two of the most popular Stoic philosophers. Marcus was an emperor, Epictetus a slave. As a freelancer, you can feel like either or both … often on the same day.

What, then, can a 2,000-year old philosophy offer this new world of work?Stoicism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-discipline. In many ways, it’s perfectly aligned to those on an independent journey as “Me Inc.”

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can lighten your daily burden.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

As an independent, it’s all down to you. There’s no corporate comfort-blanket of admin, finance or marketing support; no holiday pay, sick pay or health insurance. You’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to own everything. Some things, simply, are beyond your control.

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[i]

And he warns:

If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings[ii]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases your overall stress levels. Let them go.

If you’re prone to worry, like a dog with a bone, try listing all your concerns on paper, then mark each as within or outwith your control. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

Email, phone, SMS and social media. Someone always wants an answer. And, everything is always changing. The ground moves, the unexpected happens.

Often, as a freelancer, you feel the need to respond to everything, immediately. The customer, after all, is king. You don’t want anyone to think you can’t cope or that you’re not interested.

When something happens unexpectedly, there is a tendency to respond immediately. But, the knee-jerk reaction isn’t always the right reaction. When we react instinctively, we can manufacture our own outrage and offence.

As Epictetus tell us:

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them [iii]

In other words, mind the gap between any stimulus and your response to it.

Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that the client’s slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A delayed purchase order is more often down to bureaucracy than a change of heart. After all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

Agility is valuable, but stubborn independence is not. Being freelance doesn’t need to mean being alone. You can respond with time and with help:

Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?[iv]

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

When you work on your own, wholly responsible for your success or failure, events can become magnified in your mind. Everything can seem of monumental significance. It can be difficult to keep some headspace, to keep things in their proper proportions.

But remember, even a missed deadline is seldom cataclysmic.

As the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  observed:

In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.[v]

Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

The first rule,” he writes, “is to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.[vi]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the wee, small, sleepless hours is often somewhat less significant in the cool, morning air.

Remember the Steely Dan song:

When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more.[vii]

Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight, some space and some coffee.

4.  Enjoy the moment

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. It’s much too easy to dwell on what we should have done yesterday and what we need to do tomorrow. It’s very much a human failing, as Roman philosopher Seneca observes,

Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present.[viii]

It can easily be a freelancer’s failing, too: How did I do? Did I do enough? Will they like what I sent? How do I get more business? What happens when this project is over? Planning is good, but fretting is pointless.“If you lay hands on today,” Seneca tells us, “you will find you are less dependent on tomorrow. While you delay, life speeds on by.”[ix]

Marcus agrees:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”[x]

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it is deeply pragmatic.

And, nature too

Stoics are very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. It’s a perspective that feels perfectly aligned with our current eco-aware times.

I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”[xi]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty. Don’t forget to use your freedom to enjoy your surroundings. Live the freelance dream a little.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, life’s goal is to live “in agreement with Nature”, which translates as living a virtuous life where the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  In many ways, it’s the flip-side of our first observation. You can’t control everything . . . but you can, and should, control your self: your responses, behaviours, and thoughts.

In Meditations, Marcus returns frequently to the concept of duty. That may not be surprising for a Roman emperor (and history remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of – often, the last of – the “good emperors”). His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[xii]

He also counsels himself:

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[xiii]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[xiv]

As a freelancer, reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

It’s also worth noting, in these virtue-signalling times, that “integrity” doesn’t need grim-faced declarations of self-denial. Seneca had little patience with the hair-shirt brigade.“Philosophy,” he said, “demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation – and even self-restraint can comb its hair.”

Finishing Thoughts: A Stoic Guide for the Stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.I was browsing in the beautiful, art deco, Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, when I came across a table display of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Series 1, Book 2 was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I started to flick through and I was hooked by its easily accessible, mostly “snackable” aphorisms. For an 1,800-year old text, it felt strikingly familiar and contemporary.

Meditations – which is many people’s first encounter with Stoic texts – has, for me, a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. It is intimate and applicable.

I’m no expert on Stoicism, but it’s a philosophy that sits well with me. I find it relevant and I draw on it increasingly in every day life as an independent professional. Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations ready at hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel the spider of stress crawl across your skin.


[i] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.1)

[ii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.3)

[iii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (5)

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.7)

[v] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[vi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[vii] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (1974), “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

[viii] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (5.9)

[ix] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (1.1)

[x] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[xi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[xii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[xiii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[xiv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)

Andrew Munro is a writer and independent professional. Through Burning Pine, he helps businesses to grow by telling their stories. He blogs on topics related to work and the freelance life at The Sovereign Professional.


Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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