Make professional virtue your habit!

Guest Post by Biorn Tjallen

Make professional virtue your habit!
Perhaps it was the subtle swells of the Ionian Sea – gently rocking the ferry back from Greece – that inspired me to read about Aristotle’s disagreement with Socrates. My heartfelt accord with his point, however, was simply the result of painful personal experience. I had been unforgivably lazy, lying there in the Peleponesian sun. It had cost me a great assignment, damaged an important professional contact and broken the back of my already reeling finances. I could have screamed to the waves that Aristotle was right: The fact that you know what you ought to does not mean that you will actually do it!

freelance working ideasSocrates had felt differently, and argued that if you really understand what is right in a given situation, you will act accordingly. The week before my miserable ferry ride back to the Italian mainland, I had provided sufficient proof of the absurdity of this idea. Every Greek and sunlit morning, I got up thinking that I should send that important, but vaguely uncomfortable, mail. But every night, I crawled (literally) to bed without having done just that. Disembarking penniless in Italian Brindisi – where it suddenly felt cold – I had to face the consequences of what was, philosophically speaking, a failure to align my actions with the biddings of my reason.

Traveling freelancers are particularly vulnerable to the professional lassitude that I exemplified so well in Greece. It hits us easier and hurts us more than full time employees. We lack the structures of the nine-to-five to keep us straight when we get lazy. The set working hours, the loyal workmates or the rubbernecking boss – who keeps us from googling our own names, again – are not there to catch us when we slide. It hurts my pilgrim soul to admit this, but I must confess that constant travel makes maintenance of sound habits harder. The gym that you pass on your daily commute is easier to frequent than the one you must find anew. And the same goes for the whole-foods market. Fast food joints, however, are sure to be in sight from the moment you arrive.

FROM WIKIPEDIA: A freelancer, freelance worker, or freelance is somebody who is self-employed and is not committed to a particular employer long term. These workers are sometimes represented by a company or an agency that resells their labor and that of others to its clients with or without project management and labor contributed by its regular employees. Others are completely independent. “Independent contractor” would be the term used in a higher register of English.

In Brindisi – with money for nothing else and no better company than paperback Aristotle – I had an occasion to think things over. What do I have, to make up for the lack of those external structures and catch me when I fall short? What can help me to act as my reason tells me, when other motivation is low? The answer is habit. With cold sand between my toes and crumbles of focaccia in my paperback, I started thinking that the old philosopher was on to something. Moral perfection or virtue, he suggests, is simply dispositions to act in a certain way in a certain type of situation. It is the habit of certain behavior. So, good professional conduct – like always replying to mails and meeting deadlines – is also habit. And habits are nothing that you are born with, but something you create by exercise. You acquire them by repeated action and correction. Hard at first, but then easier.

I have often cursed my occasional lack of fiber. But I have never resigned to thinking that sloth is the unfortunate and unchangeable truth about my nature. I have had enough ups and downs to understand that professional discipline is not a magical quality that some are born with, leaving the rest of us lethargic degenerates to perish in our endless procrastination. As everything else, professional discipline is a habit. You get used to getting things done, getting up, replying to uncomfortable mails and pitching to wary editors. At a good beat, these productive habits become – as Aristotle would say – your second nature.

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