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Hey You, Mr. Self-Employed ... Meet The New Normal

08/03/2010 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent sobering but motivational article in Crain's Chicago Business started a candid conversation among my colleagues and friends who can attest to the article's headline: "Self-employed workers live with ups and downs of freelance lifestyle."

The feature told of several challenged professionals, including a freelance copywriter and television producer, real estate agent, tax attorney, certified financial planner and a graphic designer who have been forced to live, think, work, plan and play differently as the economy remains in the toilet.

Crain's wrote: "Seasoned freelancers grow accustomed to some economic uncertainty, but lately the self-employed have found work cycles even more erratic. Peaks of productivity are sometimes followed by scary stretches of unemployment."

Self-employed folks - all 8.9 million of us according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics - need to read and re-read that accurate portrayal. Unless you've had your head in the sand or are an expert at practicing avoidance, you've already met The New Normal explained in that spot-on assessment.

As an independent consultant/small business owner with colleagues and friends who are eking out an existence, I mean working, in the fields represented in the article, the travails and advice offered by those featured resonate loud and long.

No matter where you are on the workforce's totem pole, you're likely catching hell these days in some shape, form or fashion. If somebody tells you that this recession has not touched them, ask to sample what they're smoking. Ask them if they can recall the first time being diagnosed as being delusional and/or a pathological liar.

Small business owners have a particularly tough road to hoe as the challenge to find, secure, service, maintain and grow new and existing business is more than a notion. Businesses are cutting back on orders for supplies and services. Layoffs and shift reductions abound at a nauseating pace. Budgets are being cut quick and fast and with the sharpest of swords.

Independent consultants and contractors get that. We really do. However, if we don't work, we don't eat. We're like sharks: swim or die. So when we're aggressive and persistent and full of ideas and options, it's because we have to be that -- and more. Everyone wants to grow and prosper, and not just maintain. Life's too short for mediocrity and this isn't a dress rehearsal. No one gets out of life alive so you better swing for the fences while the bat's in your hands.

Crain's told the story of Donna Bozzo, a freelance copywriter and television producer who "has learned to ride the ups and downs of an unpredictable work schedule." Bozzo had to cancel a family vacation days before it was to begin once she received two calls for work. "You just have to learn to roll with the ebb and flow," she rued.

New Normal Lesson No. 1: Your personal and leisure/recreation plans aren't final until you've actually taken them. New business trumps everything.

Then there is certified financial planner Chris Long who told of another couple's unadvisable spending habits to make clear that living on an unpredictable income means the self-employed need to embody discipline - especially when the money is flowing. Long related that the couple owned a successful real estate business that flourished back in 2007. When they were paid well, they spent big time - before losing their properties through foreclosures.

New Normal Lesson No. 2: When you get paid, it's never all your money to do whatever the hell you want. Bills, taxes and a contribution to a savings account and a retirement plan or two must get attention.

New Normal Lesson No. 2.5: Live below your freakin' means.

Now meet freelance graphic designer Emily Lozano, with whom the self-employed can empathize and sympathize. "Even though I'm busy today, with some clients taking 30 days to pay, I have no cash flow," she told Crain's. "That makes it difficult to do the work. I'll get a job, and things are going well -- I'll get paid, I'll have money, I'll relax for a week. And then because of the built-up stress, I start panicking almost seven days from the day when I get my last check."

New Normal Lesson No. 3: Don't let career highs get too high or too low. Professional equilibrium is the order of the day.

Self-employed people love what they do and how they work as much as a corporate vice president enjoys his work and an entrepreneur is committed to the business. Get a "real" job you say"? Listen to Lozano: "Even when I've been my absolute hungriest, I don't want to go back to a job."

Meanwhile a longtime friend and colleague said it's "still easier to cope with when you're self-employed voluntarily than unemployed by force and still face the same challenges."

He must be a writer embracing the new normal.