By Newsshooter contributor Jonah Kessel
About four months ago I stopped booking new work.
2013 was an amazing year of work for me. I shot, produced and edited over 50 videos in China, the United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, The Netherlands, Poland and Romania. When I get this busy, sometimes my Vimeo channel ends up being a better record of events than my own memory. In 2013, between pre-production, production, post production, client management, stock sales and attempting to keep up with social media, I didn’t have a single day off.
About half way through this marathon of work the stress of never having a day off began to wear on me. I never “burned out” per se, but it became clear to me that I would never have a day off unless I stopped taking on new work. So I decided to take a step back and re-evaluate how to be passionate about my trade, putting everything I have into it, without completely compromising everything else in my life.
Entering 2014 my schedule is cleared for the first time in about three years. Even though I spent so long deliberately trying to get to this point, its actually a bit scary. However, the unknown possibilities are extremely exciting.
The entire process of getting “unbusy” has gotten me thinking about just how busy a freelancer should be. Unlike people with traditional jobs our working hours are relatively indefinite and formless. Our weekdays and weekends — indistinguishable.
So how much work is healthy and how much is too much? Should I be outputting as much as a staffer does? If I had taken half as much work last year, would that work be twice as good? How much quality was sacrificed by constantly being on a deadline?
And what about the rest of life? If you work all the time there isn’t much time for anything else. How many times can you tell a friend you are too busy to come out for a beer before they stop asking? How many “work vacations” can you go on with your girlfriend, before she asks you not to bring a camera? (ok, fine — the camera isn’t a problem, but a tripod certainly makes things less vacation-y).
As I’m trying to learn how to be un-busy, apparently not an easy task, these are the questions bouncing around my head entering 2014.
But the nature of our work is such that if you don’t strive to stay ahead of the competition you can get lost in the online ocean of content. If you work in video production then also know this — there is always more work you can do on projects. You can always make sound, color or sequencing tighter. Projects can always be improved and very rarely have I ever finished something and thought ‘there’s nothing more I can do.’
But without a doubt constantly working has made me better at what I do. More precise, more toned-in and more comfortable being creative and efficient in difficult environments with up-to-date technology. Before using the Canon 5D mkII I had barely touched a video capable camera. A few years later, I have a career shooting commercials, news videos and documentaries. Even after years of dedication and passion, I don’t think my learning curve is slowing. The work I’m doing now is leaps ahead of what I was doing 12 months ago.
The video above, Promise and Peril was shot in Myanmar over three different trips over the course of one year. Its a project I’ve been blogging about on the site throughout the year, here and here. In 2013 I made ten news features produced in Burma, but the greater goal of the project was to create a 30-minute documentary painting a bigger picture of what democracy means in reform era Myanmar. Some of the news videos appear in the main doc, others don’t. Some original content only appears in the doc, and some news clips are shown in their entirety, with different creative treatments. From a news industry perspective this is actually a bit unique and interesting. Its a way to get more legs out of your content, without changing your production costs too much.
But I can look at the doc and see quality differences from scene-to-scene. Things I see from segments shot earlier in the year, that I would never do now. This to me is an indicator that all the time I spent juggling multiple projects in multiple countries for multiple clients wasn’t without big benefits.
But perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned from being too busy is how many things I want to be better at.
For me, I know I want more time to study software and setup better workflow processes. I want to improve my color grading and audio engineering skills, learn to animate and become more efficient at handling data. These type of ventures get lost quickly if every bit of your time is spoken for.
When I realized that these things were important to me — I decided to stop booking work. I decided I want to chose my projects even more carefully than I already do and to make sure I have time for other parts of life. Finding the right balance between improving myself professionally, earning money while doing interesting work and still having time to enjoy life (without carrying a tripod around), might just be the greatest challenge I’ve found as a freelancer.
Just like a busy restaurant will often stay busy simply because its full of people (the sheep mentality) — by working a lot I do believe I get more work. But by working too much I don’t have time for the other things which are so important in staying relevant in a technology-based industry as well as simply spending time with the people I care about.
These are the promises and perils of freelancing.
So looking into 2014, I’d like to wish all you readers of the blog a healthy and balanced year ahead: A year with bright ideas, powerful projects and hopefully, a little time for yourselves. I know these are my goals.
Happy New Year and thanks for reading.
— Jonah M. Kessel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning visual journalist and cinematographer based in Beijing, China. He covers China for the video desk of The New York Times and makes videos and photos for newspapers, magazines, multinationals, nonprofit and governmental organizations around the globe. He always wants to know what’s on the other side of the mountain, regardless of what side he’s on. See his site here or keep up with him on Twitter here.
Myanmar Emerges is a year-long GlobalPost investigation into challenges facing Myanmar’s nascent democracy. To learn more about this project click here.