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Whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever you make, create, or do, there’s very little chance you escaped the economic chaos which has rained down so hard on so many.
But in the middle of this turmoil, I’ve recently begun to notice some fresh shoots of productivity. Every browser or social media feed I have opened in the last eight weeks has pointed me in the direction of yet another online course offering everything from webinars on how to speak clearly on Zoom to courses on how to start a successful newsletter or podcast.
And there’s a big appetite for these courses, too. In April, the Guardian reported that learning platform Coursea had seen an eightfold enrolment increase in some of its online learning. Over one weekend in March, the Science of Well Being course had 500,000 new sign ups.
Jess Collins, who runs her own content agency of the same name and sells online copywriting courses, has seen a boost in her sign ups since lockdown. “I feel like more people are wanting to invest in their own business and control their future rather than waiting to see what happens with employment”, she tells me. “There’s been a real surge in people setting up their own websites and looking into turning their side project into their main focus…. I’ve had an increase in people booking coaching as well to help launch their business or get into the place where they can leave their day jobs”.
For many, lockdown has been a period to pause, reflect and try to figure out if they’re happy with the way things are. Consequently, many of the freelancers I have spoken to say they used this time to reposition or upskill, to get themselves ready to make some big changes. Jenny Stallard, a freelance journalist and the founder of Freelance Feels, is looking to “move sideways” as “journalism just isn’t paying the bills anymore” and has been seeking out copywriting and SEO webinars. Alongside this, in what feels like a similarly common response to the pandemic, lockdown has confirmed to Stallard that she and her partner want to leave London and so “need extra strings to my media bow for that reason, too”.
Taking courses to get your ducks in a row has possibly never been easier. Many are free, and for a while, one of the few limited things people were allowed to do, enhancing skills, yes, but perhaps also beating boredom, frustration and feelings of unproductivity. For one freelancer I spoke to, Michelle, they were also a route out of loneliness. “Freelancing is lonely enough”, she says “but this pandemic with no Zoom calls with colleagues and no one to bounce ideas off has compounded it. So I’ve even joined webinars aimed at baby freelancers, teaching the basics, just to be part of conversation.”
One freelancer who works in digital marketing told me she’s watched a webinar nearly everyday in lockdown. The abundance of online courses out there, coupled with all the time spent at home has meant, “rather than being motivated by fear, it’s been curiosity and trying to create something positive in a tough situation”. Freelancers tell me they’ve taken courses in languages, screenwriting, blog marketing and ceramics, finding this time to be a period of renewed creativity and learning.
Initially I had been sceptical that freelancers would want to pay for anything that wasn’t entirely essential during such uncertain times but for many it is a worthy investment. Michelle tells me the most she has paid for a course is £180, and said all money spent on courses has “been money well spent, especially as I operate as a limited company and can mark the course as training and therefore tax deductible”.
I was surprised to hear just how course-hungry freelancers across disciplines were. There has been a loud narrative online that lockdown has produced feelings of anxiety and stress and as a result, creatives (in particular) have been unable to focus, create, or be productive. Clearly this is true for some, but there’s another cohort who have taken these three months and used them to top up either existing skills or learn new ones. As futures look uncertain, one response for many freelancers has been to equip themselves as thoroughly as possible – either because this fills their day, or because they want to feel more in control of the next 6, 12, 18 months and beyond. This, to me, confirms the resilience I see in so many corners of the freelance community, and is often what persuades me to stay a part of it.
The popularity of the online webinars and courses no doubt means that they’ll be here to stay, and as we all stumble out in the light of the so-called New Normal, we might find ourselves logging on more than ever as we figure out which turn to take next. I was genuinely inspired to hear how entrepreneurial and productive so many had been.
Freelancer’s appetite for online learning to see them through life out of lockdown reminded me of something said by 83-year-old Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State in the US. I watched her speak over Zoom last week to promote her new book. Of these strange days ahead of us she said “It’s a cliche but out of crisis comes opportunity”.
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