• Ruth Simpson

Freelance life is often a constant tension between doing the things you know well, and taking on new challenges. This is an article I wrote for the ITI Bulletin that the editor has kindly allowed me to publish here.

‘Thanks for coming to the first of our two practices for the pop-up conference choir. Now, this year we don’t have a director, so is there anyone who might be able to wave their arms

around and keep us in time?’ My hands shake, my heart races, my stomach twists

into a knot. I know I want to do this, but I’ve never tried. A year ago I would have

been looking around waiting for the most confident person in the room to take control,

but I come to realise that, this time, that person might be me.

‘I’ll give it a try.’

Cheers and applause from everyone else… I just hope their expectations aren’t too high.

Stepping up to direct a pop-up choir at a conference for translators and editors wasn’t something I had ever dreamed of doing. But as soon as that first rehearsal got under way

I knew instantly that I wanted to do it again, and then again. I left the conference buoyed by the professional content, of course; but it was the off-conference events that really made me hurry back to my desk and start honing my website, thinking about how I could enhance

my work and be more active in the translation community.

The continual balancing act

Everywhere you look it’s about striking the right balance. Be careful not to burn out, but make sure your career is on the right track. Be there for your children, but find time for yourself. Have interests outside the home, but keep things ticking over within it. And while it can be difficult for many people, freelancers can find it even harder to lay down boundaries between home and work – especially when the office is at home and home is at the office.

There are plenty of places to find tips on striking that balance, but what I want to look at here is motivation, and how challenging yourself – or in my case stepping up to an unexpected challenge – can be beneficial in all kinds of ways.

Making the decision to do anything new can be incredibly daunting, especially when it’s a

performance of some kind. When I took the snap decision to have a go at directing the choir, impostor syndrome crept up on me the instant the adrenaline had subsided, and the fear of not delivering the goods gripped me throughout the rest of the conference, lasting right through until the Saturday evening performance. I needn’t have worried. I wasn’t alone, and my fellow translators and interpreters who sang at the METM17 dinner in Brescia gave a lively performance that was greeted with riotous – and well-deserved – applause.

Conducting the fantastic choirs at Brescia METM17 and Girona METM18.

I hadn’t set myself the challenge of directing the choir, but I enjoyed it so much I did it again at the following year’s conference, then again in 2019, and have been encouraged to do it again this year. It has motivated me to look up conducting courses and consider setting up a choir in my home town. But perhaps most importantly, it has motivated me to become a better translator and to work hard on growing my business.

Two types of reward

Freelance translators and interpreters are certainly a varied bunch, but one thing we have in common is that at some point in the past, we have had the courage to put ourselves out

there and sell our grey matter. We all know, though, that opening a project and getting down to some hard graft isn’t always easy. Finding motivation takes work, practice, and a conscious shift in attitude. It’s about changing your inner voice from ‘this is boring’ to ‘how can I make this interesting?’.

I don’t have any magic pills to sell, but here’s what I’ve found from my investigations into the topic: first of all, motivation comes in two main forms. One is intrinsic, and the other, not terribly surprisingly, is extrinsic. In lay terms, that means some things motivate you from the

inside, and some sources of motivation come from the world around you.

Intrinsic motivation is what you feel when you are moved to do something for the purposes of natural satisfaction. You love your children, so you book a doctor’s appointment for them when they are sick. You volunteer at your local soup kitchen because helping those in need brings a sense of meaning to your life.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation is what you feel when you do something for a specific external gain. The gain might be intangible (an athlete trains hard for hours so that she can perform well in a sporting event) or tangible (I translate this file in order to be paid, so that I can eat, and I can pay my rent).

Motivation beyond money

For most freelancers, that tangible gain of money isn’t negotiable. We have to work and pay our bills. But money itself isn’t actually the primary source of motivation for human activity, as American-Israeli professor and economist Dan Ariely demonstrated during a study he ran

to see how people completed tasks with varying financial rewards. Ariely is a wonderful writer, and his findings make a fascinating read.

I would definitely encourage everyone to look at his website for more insight into motivation and what he creatively calls ‘advanced hindsight’. Without going into excessive detail, his study shows that people aren’t motivated by money alone, and that higher financial rewards don’t necessarily mean increased motivation. He concluded that intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic. Our personal values are stronger than our desire to acquire more stuff. Refreshing news, isn’t it?

If you can pitch it just right, the holy grail of motivation is when intrinsic meets extrinsic. In 2018, I translated the economist Eric Singler’s Nudge Management, about tweaking environments to change behaviour. In one passage, Singler gives an example of a lowly

stonemason who is happy with his lot, chiselling stone blocks day in, day out. When an onlooker asks how he finds the motivation to get up and do the same work every day, the stonemason replies, ‘Look at the cathedral I am building.’ Being a part of something that is bigger than you is an extraordinary source of motivation.

Chiselling stone blocks, or building a cathedral?

Don’t give up the day job

But where can you get your hands on some of that juicy intrinsic motivation? In short, by first identifying what is important to you, and then creating a personal challenge out of it.

As I started thinking more about how personal challenges can spark intrinsic motivation, I began to notice it all around me, especially in people I admire. And while some of them have made dramatic lifestyle changes, they certainly don’t have to.

In fact your ‘day job’ can be a great place to start. Emma Goldsmith, MITI, gave a fascinating presentation at the METM19 conference in Split on how, after three decades in Madrid, she decided to ramp up her already enviable Spanish skills over an intense six months of self-learning. Nobody had asked her to improve her source language: she did it for herself. I was blown away by the list of fiction books she had devoured, and her multi-tab, multi-column spreadsheet of new vocabulary was a joy for any language nerd to behold. Emma assured us that the prospect of presenting her findings to an eager audience was pretty motivating in itself, and I bet stepping up her already impressive Spanish has done no harm at all to her performance as a translator.

Looking back over my life (so far) I can pinpoint four or five personal challenges that have required energy, certainly, but have been hugely beneficial. The first was signing up to do a wine diploma after meeting my winemaker husband and taking a personal interest in the subject 15 years ago. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually be running professional workshops for other translators in the field. Another was setting up an association for my daughter’s school when the principal decided they wouldn’t run any more family events without one. Dusting off my violin after 20 years of neglect was another, and now learning the ukulele is my most recent personal challenge. Every single one of these challenges has brought immeasurable joy to my life. Some have benefited my work, and others have simply given me a fun reason to get up in the morning.

Some sources of joy in my life!

Start from where you are

Obviously, one issue I kept coming back to time and time again when I was researching the whole issue of motivation was cost. It simply isn’t possible for everyone to take on a personal challenge just for the fun of it; you need a comfortable income and a certain amount of freedom. But intrinsic motivation really does cost nothing – look at the stonemason. Transferring your personal values to your attitude about work means looking at the bigger picture, thinking about the people who are going to read your writing, and taking pride in how your input is going to make their lives better. And that costs nothing.

My advice for taking on a personal challenge would be to look at what you love, and think how you can take that to the next level. If you’re arty why not join a class in your area or challenge yourself to enter an illustration competition? If you’re athletic why not try a new

sport or join a local team that you thought was out of your proverbial league? If you enjoy writing why not approach a publication with an idea for an article? The only way to shake

off the impostor syndrome (the feeling that someone else would be a better choice than you) is by getting out and being that person yourself. I can’t stress this enough.

Aside from boosting your overall motivation, taking on a personal challenge has plenty of benefits that can easily be applied to working as a freelancer. In a risk-free context, it

hones your ability to accept failure when things don’t work out as you’d hoped; it improves your determination to succeed; and it also opens doors to new speciality areas.

And it’s fun. Isn’t that enough?

  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

Conferences are one of my favourite things about the world of freelance translating. There are no hierarchies, no competition, and no office politics. Just pure interaction, enthusiasm and support in a world where most of us work alone. I discovered MET in 2016 and attended my first MET conference in 2017. Here's why I keep going back.

Split, packed with centuries of stories and legends

1. The great content

Last year at METM18 in Girona, I made a tentative comment at the Annual General Meeting that I would have preferred more corporate content, and was told very clearly that content is provided by members, so if I wanted it, I had to bring it. Fair enough.

This year I ran a workshop on how to translate and edit in the wine industry, one of my specialist fields, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Now not only did MET give me the chance to bring something of my own to its programme, but its council had really listened to my corporate content remark, and the keynote presentation on the Friday was given by none other than Swiss bank executive extraordinaire David Jemielity, tenured lecturer at the University of Geneva and all-round brilliant linguist, who gave a fascinating presentation on how he and his team of translators garner ever-greater respect from the Board, and have become an important cog in the BCV (Banque Cantonale Vaudoise) communication machine. His presentation was loaded with examples about how they have gone about tailoring and enhancing the bank’s message, not only in English, but in French too.

What makes effective communication? David Jemielity on asking the right questions

2. The networking

The clue is in the name; MET Meetings are a great way to share stories with others in the field, compare experiences, and simply spend time in the company of people who understand what you do, especially in a business where most of us work alone all day long. I now have a hive mind of colleagues to call upon to help me out with thorny sentences, people to refer my clients to when they are looking for other language combinations, and a huge new circle of friends.

3. The amazing location

Split was stunning. Aside from the university being rather out of town, the Off-METM events in the old quarter were made even more enjoyable by the picturesque winding alleys and ancient stone buildings. And the teal waters of the Adriatic provided the perfect backdrop for the white stone and cloudless blue skies. The conference itself was held in the brand new university classrooms and lecture hall, all kitted out with the latest conferencing facilities. I have it on good faith that San Sebastian has all of the charm of Split, and that the university buildings themselves have the benefit of being just a short walk from the old town. The MET conference is yet to be held anywhere other than a beauty spot, so I'm optimistic that METM20 will have just as much Instagrammable charm as METM19.

Golden Gate in the old town

4. The fantastic opportunities

As the council so rightly told me last year, participants make the conference happen. So why not bring something to the table? Doing my workshop was so enjoyable and I met such wonderful people while there, that I’m already thinking about what I might be able to suggest for the programme next year.

But as personal challenges go, directing the METM pop-up choir has to be my own standout memory. I just can’t describe the rush I felt standing in front of 30 wonderful people and leading them in song, with an audience of 130 others. The joy and feeling of accomplishing something as a group sparked enough adrenaline to last me until Christmas at least. Working alongside Mladen Grgic and Marijo Krnic – local professional musicians – was a dream, and more fun than I could possibly have imagined. If you're so inclined, the whole video can be found here.

5. The discovering of talent

Maeva Cifuentes led an extremely dynamic presentation on content marketing packed with ideas about promoting yourself as a freelance professional, so much so that I started reading her excellent blog about being a content strategist.

Lloyd Bingham ran a fascinating session on pseudo-English, talking about the ways English words can crop up in other languages, but in doing so, lose their original meaning (think faire un footing rather than "going for a jog"). Lloyd is a young and dynamic translator with a knack for business and a bright future.

Lynne Murphy, not a MET conference attendee, but keynote speaker and author of The Prodigal Tongue, which is about the love-hate relationship between British and American English, has single-handedly improved my email writing by covering the overuse of exclamation points in her presentation. That’s right!

I already knew Emma Goldsmith from previous METMs, so I was eager to attend her presentation on improving a source language after years of immersion, and she didn't disappoint. After spending 30 years in Spain and reaching a plateau in her language skills, Emma decided to step up her Spanish by reading fiction (she concluded that this was the richest source of new vocabulary), studying grammar, getting people to correct her, and keeping an impressive spreadsheet up to date with all the new words she was learning, with a view to taking the highly respected European C2 exam. Her presentation was fascinating and I left full of admiration for her diligence.

On returning home to Chablis I scurried to our bookshelves, plucked out Michel Houellebecq's Les particules élémentaires and began my own language improvement project. My spreadsheet already has 10 words that I have learnt since coming back from Split, and my family are delighted that they are now allowed to correct my mistakes!

Lynne Murphy during her fascinating talk on changes in English over the decades

The MET family is large and welcoming and I can’t possibly mention everyone I had the pleasure of talking to over the three days of the conference.

I came back to work on Monday with a spring in my step and a determination to hone my writing skills. I even pitched an article to a translation and interpreting magazine! Watch this space for more...

  • Ruth Simpson

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

This post is based on an article by Valentine Poisson for the Danone EVE Programme website (https://www.eveprogramme.com/42224/meaning-quest-ce-qui-donne-du-sens-au-travail/) that I have translated into English, and it's about finding meaning at work. Credit to Chandler Bing for the Gloria Estefan comment...

Meaning: What makes work worth doing?

In a 2017 study on meaning in the workplace, Deloitte puts a number on something that might seem obvious to most people: for 87% of respondents, meaning at work is important regardless of age, status or management level. But what can really bring that meaning into the business world? At first it sounds like a philosophical issue taken from a Monty Pythonfilm... The EVE webmagazine decided to take a closer look.

Rhythm is gonna get you… Was Gloria Estefan right?

The very fact that we need to look for meaning in the workplace suggests that somewhere along the line, it has become lost. What is a job without a reason for doing it? In 1974, the American psychologist Herbert Freudenbergerwas the first to develop an understanding of what has now become a familiar concept: burnout. Burnout is what happens when workers become so exhausted by a frantic pace, in both body and mind, that they end up having a breakdown.

In 2007, the Swiss consultants Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin shed light on the opposite problem, which is a mirror image of the first concept. This time the issue wasn’t about having too much to do, but rather too little. Being underworked can be just as disastrous on employees’ health, and that idea has been developed in a concept known as bore-out, the deadly boredom caused by chronic under-activity. The symptoms are similar as burnout: demotivation, anxiety and sadness.

So before taking a look at the effects of different kinds of tasks, perhaps first we should consider the idea that how busy you are can affect the meaning you find in a job. Could meaning simply be found in the subtle balance between excessive task juggling and utter boredom?

Busting the bullshit 

A new concept came to light in 2018, when Dr. François Baumann coined a precise expression for the suffering felt when there is no meaning to the work a person does: brown-out! It usually refers to a drop in voltage within an electrical power supply, but this new professional pathology has now come to mean “the pain and discomfort felt by the loss of meaning in work objectives and a complete misunderstanding of your role in a business structure”.

Doctor of anthropology David Graber had already noticed the problem in 2013 when he penned an opinion piece entitled “On the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: a work rant”, which triggered huge online buzz. He expanded his ideas in 2018 when he published Bullshit jobs, a book filled with testimonials giving examples of ridiculous tasks, such as the one carried out by Betsy:

“Most of my job was to interview residents and fill out a recreation form that listed their preferences. That form was then logged on a computer and promptly forgotten about forever (...). The interviews mostly just annoyed the residents, as they knew it was just bullshit paperwork and no one was going to care about their individual preferences.”

So does experiencing a lack of meaning at work mean getting paid to be professionally committed to a task we consider absolutely useless?

Does something need to be useful for it to have meaning?

But what makes a task useful? Should it be profitable either socially and/or economically? Isn’t the idea of work needing to be profitable in order to have meaning a rather sad state of affairs? Another testimony recorded by David Graber recalls:

“I worked as a programmer for a travel company. Some poor person’s job was to receive updated plane timetables via email several times a week and copy them by hand into Excel.”

Ensuring that a plane timetable stays up to date certainly isn’t useless. But there is no meaning in the task because it could so easily be automated, and yet for some reason is not. So perhaps it is better to dig deeper into what drives us to do things, into whether or not they have a purpose. In other words, what really motivates people.

The Whys and Wherefores of the science of motivation

Why, or for what purpose, do we work one way or another? The issue of motivation isn’t limited to (aptly named) Generation Y, and several experts had already examined what triggers motivation well before the new millennium began.

In the 1970s, the professor of psychology and social sciences Edward Deci was one of the great influencers in the theory of management through motivation, and his thinking was inspired by ideas dreamed up by William James in 1890 and Henri Murray in 1937. For Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, our motivation originates from two main sources:

· Extrinsic motivation: all the external reasons an individual has to be motivated. This covers the mechanisms of rewards and punishments (the popular carrot and stick approach!), as well as practical and pragmatic reasoning: we need money to live, therefore we work.

· Intrinsic motivation is derived from within: it relates more to philosophical considerations. In this case, our actions are motivated by our values (success, well-being, balance, love, etc.), and do not require any other input.

Which type of motivation has the most meaning for people? Now there’s an interesting question. And its answer has a huge impact on how we perform a task. A team of American academics, chaired by the professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely, conducted a very simple experiment in 2002: 87 Indian people were invited to play six games. They were divided into three groups, each with a different potential prize (4, 40 or 400 rupees respectively) that could be won depending on how they performed. You’d think that the ones with the highest potential prize money would perform the best, right? Wrong! Players with the highest stakes (400 rupees) actually performed worst across the board, regardless of the type of game!

More than money: the underlying purpose of work

To understand the meaning of work beyond its most obvious outcome (being paid a salary), in 1931 the Austrian researcher Marie Jahoda went to observe a population of unemployed people to learn more about what they had lost when they no longer had their jobs. At the end of her empirical study, she highlighted the five underlying purposes of work:

· Time structure:work helps to perceive time and therefore to keep our lives organized. And that’s why when there is too much or too little work to do we have no determined routine, and we feel overwhelmed.

· Social network: work is an opportunity to socialize, it allows us to meet people and foster relationships with them. A job with no human contact (colleagues, suppliers, etc.) creates the same effect as the absence of work, and increases an individual’s feeling of isolation.

· Skills development: all professional challenges allow us to develop our skills (physical, intellectual, social, organizational, etc.). So work calls upon and values our talents, furthering our professional development.

· Identify affirmation: work provides a social existence. So it’s no accident that one of the first things we ask someone we’ve just met is usually “What do you do?”. Work is a source of personal dignity; it also creates the feeling that we’re somehow contributing to a community. The absence of work, therefore equates to a social death, an empty identity.

· Mental flexibility: when work becomes challenging and takes us out of our comfort zones, whether through a difficult task or a conflict we need to manage, we develop our agilityand our ability to adapt.

This list of purposes is very useful in pinpointing exactly what creates well-being – and meaning in particular – at work. When one or more of the underlying purposes in our work comes under threat, the meaning we find there ebbs away. But that might actually be a good thing: for companies and individuals to strike the right balance, elements of the extrinsic need to be in play, but aren’t quite enough, while elements of the intrinsic allow unique personal expression, a spirit of initiative, and the need to be recognized for our individual worth.


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