Independent Consulting: Blessing and Curse

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It has been nearly a year since the day I graduated from CSB/SJU. I may have planned to post this exactly a year out, but as it happens I’ll be in Vienna, Austria when that time comes (I’m headed there right now), so you get it ahead of that specific anniversary. Perhaps I haven’t quite found myself and my true purpose yet in this time post-Collegeville, at least in regard to how many people would look at things, but its not like I’ve been living under a rock doing nothing either. So, what have I been doing? That is no simple question, and the answer you’re presented with here is more of a chapter’s length than blog post’s length (but hey, many of my far-apart blog posts are that these months) and cannot be complete by the very nature of the question asked.

I spent some time looking for a “normal” job. But fairly quickly I ended up having my time taken over by a few independent technology consulting projects, so I stopped the job searching to focus on those and now here I am. You don’t need to know the details of these for me to continue on here, so while a few of you who’ll read this are directly involved in one or more of these consulting projects, the rest of you can suffice to know that all of these at least somewhat revolve around web development or coding of other sorts. They all also have in common, as any independent work (and ideally any “employment”) should, that I enjoy them. Is this really a good way for me to spend my time, as one of the relatively few with a bachelor’s degree? Well, that can be up for debate, and perhaps considered one of the curses of this. But societally one, because truly isn’t this also a blessing?

All throughout my time at CSB/SJU, and even at Avalon for that matter (perhaps the creation of Tenseg at the start of my senior project was also a feeling of this as a future; indeed now I think of my consulting as falling under its scope), it’s not like some level of consulting wasn’t a hope for my future; a way to have lots of control over my (professional) life, while impacting others, and oh yeah, also making money. This is because my dad has been doing purely (library) technology consulting nearly since I started high school, and some of his siblings are on close-enough professional trajectories to consulting for me to actually have a decent number of people in my wider (biological) circle to look towards. But there is still this sense of failure; a sense that while pursuing what ostensibly is also “employment” I’m not actually achieving what I should be at 23. But then “should” itself is a word laced with curses of societal expectation and, more so, using history as a guide for how to live now and into the future when each individual and their generation is a new experience that simply won’t fit existing cookie cutters.

I mentioned my dad’s (Eric Celeste’s) consulting. My work isn’t entirely independent of his. Indeed in one case I’ve taken over (and expanded on) one project that was once his and am doing about half the work he had done on another. Professionally that alone legitimizes the fact that I’m living at home, because when doing this consulting and working from home what better way to do this than if the two of us are in physically the same place lots of the time. There are perhaps more benefits to my parents and brother with that than to me, because though it can be a blessing to have me at home (even for me, largely), to me there is also the part of me that sees that as more of a curse given where most young adults “ideally” would be by now. Though, a counterpoint to that is one to have been on many people’s minds over the past few years: That quite simply from an economic standpoint for young adults it makes more sense to live at home (with your parents) if you’d be in the same municipal area anyway. But that doesn’t lessen the burden of perceived expectation, and it only minimally makes my situation more reconcilable. Of course, that need only apply if you make yourself beholden to this cursed “should”. So, maybe individually this aspect of my independent consulting is more blessing than curse. Yet it does still have some drops of poison.

Another aspect of this independent consulting that easily could be just blessing, just curse, or both, has everything to do with how my days have ended up structured. What happens when you’re doing your work independently from home? There is no set time I have to start working (unless I’ve set up a meeting of one sort or another for sometime in the morning), which leads to the reality that though I don’t (I honestly never did in Collegeville either) I could sleep in some days. Fine, I choose never to do what almost everyone who reads this now envies me for. Parts of weeks begin to blend together into one 7-day (well, maybe 6 day as Sundays still have solid differentiation due to religion and a different plan for breakfast) blur. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and so on all feel way too identical for all practical purposes. On each of them I spend some time relaxing by pursuing Facebook, reading articles in my newsreader (I still use RSS) as they arrive, maybe even playing some of this old marble game (I should get back into the habit of also reading books regularly). On each of them I (most likely) spend whole chunks of time doing tasks for my consulting projects. To the point where certain tasks I plan to do on Saturdays precisely because it isn’t a “standard” business day. The line between pleasure and consulting projects also gets blurred enough that it is sometimes hard to quantify how much time I spend on one over the other. My daily life has become more relaxed and, dare I borrow this terminology from academe, what sabbaticals were originally meant to be. Yet because weekends no longer hold the same relaxation value I’ve contorted them into two extra workdays. You see why this is both a blessing and a curse (indeed this thought was the impetus for this blog post), because while parts of 7 days out of every week are weekend, so to parts of 7 days out of every week are business day (why do we use “weekday” to refer to the 5-day week when all 7 days are week days?). For most of you this would lead to sleeping in a lot, yet I get up at or just around 8 am nearly daily, never to fully recharge my batteries so to speak (perhaps when stepping aside from all of my consulting projects, short of emergency situations as I will have the ability to do all the same work if need be, the last half of this month when I spend some time in what still is to an extent a second home along the Donau I’ll let myself fully relax in a different way).

Not that measuring success by any external ruler is a good idea, but what more prevalent such a ruler does our society have than that of how much money we’re making. Here lies another aspect of this independent consulting that could very easily be blessing and/or curse. Though, indeed is measuring ourselves by it a curse regardless if we’re broke or millionaires? Even though I don’t, strictly speaking, need to make mountains of money right now, the reality is that I feel like I’m bringing less into my bank accounts than perhaps I am supposed to be at this stage of my life. While I am getting a decent amount of money for these various projects, and in a few at a higher hourly rate than the majority of earners if I were to do the math to determine the exact amount, it is not feeling as if I am making nearly equal. There lies one cursed aspect of this. Yet, I find that at the core of what we as living beings need and truly desire hundreds of thousands of dollars at our disposal (nor is wealth in having the latest anything that it can buy) is not a piece of. Society, in an increasingly global sense, hurls that pressure at each of us. Perhaps by having found myself in this patchwork of technology consulting projects keeping me busy I am able to keep a better grasp of things more centrally important to what it means to be human than today’s society and its pressures generally allow. There are those that think that the employment landscape of the future will tend more to the sorts of things that are today labeled “consulting”. Many reasons can be attributed to this, but perhaps there is a sense of recapturing relationships and reaching a truly community-centered (family, neighborhood, etc.) rather than corporation-centered society that also drives this. Only time will tell, but as globalization changes how we’re defining what society is (and how the corporate world directs itself) it also necessitates more than ever that we hold who we really are in the front of our minds. So while (if nothing else, perceivably) making not quite as much money can be a curse, undoubtedly this healthier view of what is truly important is a blessing.

The freedom gained in doing independent consulting is one blessing of it that is a natural mode of operation for me. After all, it is that same thing that is why I could thrive at Avalon. Many of my academic projects across the last many years I’ve applied this same frame to. Even the smallest essays for courses I’ve taken immense care in choosing how to lay out and what exactly to say. This really doesn’t take any effort on my part, I just do it. Certainly across my undergraduate career I always folded academic work into daily life with different types of relaxation. This not only enhanced whatever it was I was working on, but it also has left me present in other spaces in ways that compartmentalizing work away from pleasure inherently disallows. That, too, is a blessing of how I (but not everyone) conduct what was once a mix of academic work and (starting with my high school senior project) independent consulting(-like) projects and is now this central mix of what my professional life is. But the curse lies in that not everyone can be as naturally inclined to conducting themselves this way. Indeed, if everyone could we may have a very different landscape to operate within. You must be disciplined for the freedom to not derail your life and dreams. You can control lots of your life, folding together personal with professional, but must remain clear-eyed about which is which so neither advances while leaving the other in the weeds.

It can be a blessing that much of what I’m doing, while for clients with varied missions and purposes, has a lot in common too. That is the very nature of the work for any consultant, as we tend to hone in on a few (interrelated) skills that are what we market in our consulting. In my case, web development has become that central skill set, both “basic” HTML, CSS, Javascript, and PHP work, as well as complex development of WordPress themes and plugins, and even multi-script mechanisms for integrating external systems with client websites (that are usually based on WordPress). For the record, I do also know how to write apps for both OS X and iOS in both Objective-C and, increasingly, Swift, but haven’t yet used those skills in consulting projects. A clear advantage of these projects having lots in common is that when in the middle of one puzzle for one project I may stumble on something that’d apply to another, and go to implement it there before I forget the lesson I just learned. But the dark side of this follows the same pattern, in that at times the very boundaries of one task can blur into a mist of multiple projects. That can prove to make it harder to closely track time spent on some projects where that is something I do, but is also part of why I generally prefer to estimate set costs for projects where appropriate. In general it is quite nice having projects coexist rather than being wholly compartmentalized.

Ultimately the independent technology consulting that has enveloped my time has been interesting, and definitely both sides of this scale at different moments. The past few, well, if printed, literally pages, of text lay out some of the conundrums of this mode of work I’ve found myself experiencing since commencement nearly a year ago. Nothing about it (or anything in life, for all of us if we were truly honest) is easy, but it provides a better balance in my life than perhaps is normal for young adults. I’ve been able to find some sense of thriving in it, and perhaps that is a good thing. This is the most answer to our original question as you’ll see here, at least for a while.

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