Am I My Own Worst Boss? with Wudan Yan | Crooked Media
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December 14, 2022
Work Appropriate
Am I My Own Worst Boss? with Wudan Yan

In This Episode

There are plenty of reasons people choose to freelance– better hours, more money, freedom from all-staff emails. But then… there’s often a moment when you look around and realize that you’ve created a toxic work environment for yourself. In this episode, freelancer extraordinaire Wudan Yan joins host Anne Helen Petersen to help freelancers everywhere become better bosses to themselves.




Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen. And this is Work Appropriate. [music break] There are a lot of reasons why people become freelancers these days. Sometimes it’s because you get laid off and you have no other choice. Sometimes you realize you could make a whole lot more money doing things your way, and sometimes you don’t want to deal with toxic workplaces and awkward Slack channels and bad managers. And then you get a few weeks or months or years into freelancing and realize I am my own worst manager and I have created a toxic workplace for myself. When I became a full time freelancer, for example. I really, really struggled with saying no, say no, felt like closing a door that I would look back on with great regret when everything went to shit because I was certain everything could go to shit at any moment. But saying yes to everything also meant I was less good at pretty much everything. I was exhausted and worn thin, and I didn’t feel any more secure. I only became a better boss to myself with time and practice. But there was also the support of other freelancers. I’d send them writing or speaking offers that I’d received, and they’d help me figure out how to say no. How to ask for better pay and how to really value my own time and expertise and ensure that others did as well. I can’t have my text chain as a co-host, but I can ask the freelancer with the most freelancer wisdom, a truly great boss of herself.


Wudan Yan: My name is Wudan Yan. I am a freelance journalist and a all around podcast person, basically based in Seattle, Washington.


Anne Helen Petersen: So I did a call out on Twitter asking for examples of people who are freelancers who have really healthy boundaries. And I did this callout knowing that you would be suggested, but I just wanted to see like how many people suggested you and a lot of people like suggested you and then hearted you, that, that suggestion, the whole deal. So what would you say that your biggest challenge is as a freelancer, particularly in maintaining good boundaries, being a good boss to yourself, that sort of thing?


Wudan Yan: This always is a matter of consideration when I’m about to take on something else, because having good work life balance, and I don’t even like that term, work life integration—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.


Wudan Yan: —is, reflects just a moment in time for me and anything can come along and tip that in one direction or the other. And so I have this very underlying fear that some anything can happen at any given moment. And it’s not so much like, oh, did I build a resilient business? Do I have the social supports in my life to take time off if I need to or anything? But just the true uncertainty of life and the business of freelancing makes me concerned that at a moment’s notice, I may not be able to maintain this beautiful balance, quote unquote “balance” that I have right now, for instance.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. You know, were you always a freelancer or tell us a little bit about your your history and how you came into freelancing?


Wudan Yan: Sure. So in college, I studied biochemistry and I thought I wanted to be a career researcher in cancer biology. And so I took a year off. I applied to PhD programs. I interviewed, I got in and then I went to grad school. [laughter] It was in New York City. It’s a well-known cancer hospital, and their PhD program was relatively new and it was just not how I wanted to be spending my time, [laughter] unfortunately. And I realized this about a year and a half in, so I quit a year and a half in around the same time. I started dating somebody who, you know, one time the World Science Festival was in town. It happens once a year. It’s for kids. There are talks for adults. There was this hour long panel, I think, with a few science writers who had written books. And we went and my mind was a little blown. I think. I’ve always thought that science writing was a hobby, that people who were academics just like did on the side because they could. But it made me appreciate that science writing was a career track in and of itself. And so I was like, wow, that’s interesting. I don’t have to focus on something for six years or the rest of my career. I can bounce around—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: —and explore different topic areas. So that planted the seed of where I wanted to go after grad school. So I quit grad school and I am terrified of debt. And the nice thing about science PhD. programs is that they pay—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.


Wudan Yan: —for your stipend. We also got a very meager stipend to live on in New York City. And so at that point in my life, I was not in debt and my parents put me through college. So I had a pretty clean slate. And in terms of getting into journalism, I was like, oh, no, I cannot I cannot afford to go to school to pay for a very expensive school and possibly not have it paid back.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right.


Wudan Yan: And I understood how uncertain and tenuous this industry is. So I met with a bunch of people who were freelancing but didn’t take a conventional path to do what they do. This is a big part of my ethos as a person. It’s like, oh, I want to get to point C and I’m at point like negative 25 [laughs] who—


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] You’re like not on the same number line even. Right?


Wudan Yan: No, no, no, no, no numbers and letters, totally not parallel. But who who do I know? In my network or based on people who I admire, who took a similar path and like hacked their way? I’m really interested in those people’s stories. And the resounding advice I got from those individuals was to just apply to be an intern, do fact checking, copy editing at a magazine that I really admired pitch stories ultimately, because at the time I wanted to write and that’s what I did. I have had short internships, but I’ve never had a full time job in journalism. I kind of just took, you know, the small skills I had at every level and then built a freelance career around that. So that, in short, is how I came to journalism and how I came to working for myself is because I was terrified of debt. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, I’ve been there. And also the reason why I was laughing so much during your recounting of what grad school felt like is like, it felt so familiar. But I also was so terrified of not knowing anything else that I could possibly do, that there were different points where I should have abandoned ship that I didn’t right, [laughter] that I was just like, I’m on this path. There are no other paths visible. Got to stay on the path, even though the prospects at the end of the path were very, very slight, if not disappearing altogether. And I think one thing that I really admire about your style of freelancing and that I think a lot of people could learn from, is that sometimes they think people approach freelancing is like, okay, I have this one skill and that is the only skill that I offer. And I’m going to do that one skill.


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: Instead of thinking about all of the different skills that you have and that you can offer, and some of which are really valuable and paid really well, even if they’re not like that primary thing that you thought you would be doing. So let’s say like science writing, right? Fact checking pays a lot more [laughter] than a lot of science writing.


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: Not all science writing, but like you can have these different ways that you. Give yourself the cushion to sustain the freelancing career that aren’t necessarily that one thing. And it also, I think is really helpful with burnout to not be doing one thing all the time.


Wudan Yan: [laughs] Yeah, I agree on the burnout point. I was actually explaining to my husband that I think for the first time, again, this being a very precarious spinning top rate that could topple in a moment. I feel very not burnt out at the moment. And I think it’s because I am working on so many different things, other people’s things that they have ownership over.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: And I am a supporting actor, actress, whatever. And that gives me enough distance. I still care about it. It aligns with my values, but it’s not all consuming and it’s not all of me.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, totally. And I think that also allows you to be, you know, to the topic of this this episode, a better boss to yourself. Right. Because it’s not it’s not just you get to be a supporting actor in some of the things and you’re going to be the main actor and other things.


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: And those are different skill sets or different muscular groups. Whatever metaphor that we want to use, it just makes it easier. And what are the challenges, though, that you see happen for yourself and for other people when it comes to managing the flow of freelance work? One thing that I see a lot of is not knowing how to say no because you’re so scared. If you say no, you’ll never have an opportunity to have that income source ever again.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, that scarcity mindset is really real and it manifests in so many ways and I think just setting boundaries generally around how you work and when. One thing that a lot of my clients have gotten used to and have been, let me just say completely fine with is that I don’t work on Fridays.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.


Wudan Yan: I have not worked on Fridays for almost a year. [laughs] And so I condense everything I need to do and a four day workweek. Yes, it’s really intense. Things still get done. And I have a recurring out-of-office message on Fridays that says it’s a Friday. I don’t work on Fridays. I’ll get back to you on Monday. After work hours, I stop checking my email. I have a lot of focus filters on my phone that help me not get pinged by work when I am actively not working. So I think another really big challenge is just setting those boundaries, sticking to your guns. A client isn’t going to drop you because you’re not responding to an email at 7 p.m. local time and you’re out hanging out with your friends or going for a walk or whatever.


Anne Helen Petersen: So I want to transition here to our first question, which gets at a very common experience that I have heard with freelancing, which is the question of loneliness and how do you make friends? Here’s Dan.


Dan: For those who build or choose their own workspaces entrepreneurs, gig workers, remote workers, consultants, etc. How can you get the social benefit of an in-person team without resorting to transactional co-working spaces or being a regular at an expensive coffee shop? How can I find people that are mutually beneficially social where we learn from each other and act as a social net without risking being the free advice guy.


Anne Helen Petersen: So do you have any luck on this front?


Wudan Yan:  I have had luck on this front, but I also want to say that community and having a community doesn’t have to come at an exorbitant cost.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: I mean, not that Twitter is a beacon of community in any way, [laughter] but Twitter is free.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes its true.


Wudan Yan: Unfortunately, unfortunately.


Anne Helen Petersen: And I do think that sometimes people discount that some of these infrastructures need money. You need to pay them in order for them to actually provide some sort of infrastructure. Right. In order for people to put on programing. Like, I mean, co-working spaces have never been my personal favorite, but I’m also not a person who like regularly every day needs to get out of the house. But I also don’t have caregiving responsibilities in my home. So I understand too why people need to get out of the house. But sometimes I think, too, there’s just this reticence to like pay to be in a space. And like sometimes you have to pay some money and you can also expense that. And how else have you made friends? How else have you created coworkers when you are your own boss?


Wudan Yan: So again, I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, which is terrifying to think of. [laughter] And like I said,, the bird app is free for better or for worse. And I’ve also found really good people online. So in a lot of online groups I can more or less tell if somebody has the same ethos to freelancing and more importantly, mutuality.


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm.


Wudan Yan: I can get a sense of what kinds of conversations they’re having. Are they always like stirring shit? Are they always screaming into the void? Do I see a balance of give and take? And then I kind of get a sense of, you know, what it might be like to be friends with them. Maybe this is not the right way to think about professional colleagues, but I. You know, not only am I colleagues with people, but I also ask myself if I want to be in community with them. Do I want to be their friend? Like, do they want to be my friend? Would we get along as just people? That part is really important to me. And I think, you know, even when it comes to doing the work, working with clients, everyone is human. We want to find other humans that jive with us. So I think using what we see on social media as a clue into what other people’s tendencies, behaviors, personalities are can be a clue as to who we might want into our communities.


Anne Helen Petersen: Can you talk a little bit about your podcast here and how that is maybe helped to create some community too?


Wudan Yan: I run the Writers’ Co-op. It’s a business podcast for freelance creatives. We right now release monthly episodes where in our sixth season, which is nuts and about a year or some change, and we realized it would be cool to take all of our membership and give them access to Slack and our Slack channel. We set up guidelines as to how we expect people to behave. We frontloaded that document by saying that we really believe in the abundance mindset that, you know, if somebody is sharing their wins, we will share it with them. Somebody else wants commiseration. We’re there with them. We’re not trying to be like the one up guy.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: That’s obnoxious. We’re not trying to say, oh, you’re suffering. Oh, like, what I’m going through is worse. That’s not the atmosphere that we’re leading with. That’s and that’s not the atmosphere that we’re creating. And I think it’s really important that we’re leading with a certain intention because by and large, everyone has followed that. And I’m really proud of that community. And I want to say it’s possible. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, you know—


Wudan Yan: And it does not, it doesn’t cost $150 a month, right? Like.


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Yeah, it reminds me actually of like my philosophy right now of like running or even hiking, which is like run your own race, hike your own hike. Every person is trying to find a different experience and there’s a lot that is lost if you turn that into a competition against one another. I have a text thread with two other Substack writers whose newsletters are pretty different than mine and who are who are doing different things with their newsletters. But part of what we share are just kind of like practical tips or, you know, various frustrations with Substack. But then it also is like a cheerleading section, right? Because we are not competing with one another. It’s much more like that is so awesome that that happened today or that you got that feedback. And to me it feels like having coworkers, even though we are our own businesses, right? We are co businesses, I guess, in a way that is really helpful to me.


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm. And the last thing I want to say on this is that freelancers are really good at building stuff already. We’ve built our own businesses. Right. And it can cost extremely little to build your own community. Put it on Slack. Yes, sure. Slack, you know, like wants you to pay, but you can have an unpaid version. And my saving grace, this pandemic was finding a very small cohort of people who I got that sense of mutualism from that nobody was really the one advice guy. Nobody was really like the one taker. And I was like, you guys do not know each other. Throw you all on an online community. There are multiple channels. It’s pretty active on a day to day basis. I am unfortunately another de facto moderator, but nobody gives me a lot of work to do as a moderator, and it has felt like a newsroom, even though I don’t want to work in a newsroom. I just want people to talk to because I am an extrovert.


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Right. It’s like none of the the difficult things about working in a newsroom or fewer of the difficult things of working in a newsroom and much more of that like community and conviviality. Is that how you say the word? [laughs]


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: I mean, so what if you were if this this person let’s assume that he is not a journalist because we have great ideas for him if he’s a journalist. [laughs] But he is he’s just a freelancer, like a subcontractor who is trying to find this sort of situation in his life right now and also assume that he’s okay with maybe going to some public spaces, but also okay with finding places online. What would your suggestion to him be?


Wudan Yan: I think keeping an open mind, I think going into spaces, maybe, possibly he meets somebody else who knows somebody who’s a small business owner who wants community also.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: Yeah. I think also keeping an eye out on social media. There are keywords to search for on all these different platforms to find people who are either in your area or who do similar freelance work as you do.


Anne Helen Petersen: I also wouldn’t discount like this is kind of old fashioned, but I don’t know, maybe go to like a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, and maybe you don’t like anyone who’s there, [laughter] but maybe there’s one person that you’re like, this is my dude, right? Like, or this is my person that I feel like we’re on the same page. What if we try to start something online? What if we start going to this coffee shop and like we sit at this table every Tuesday? Like, I actually happened upon something like that in Bellingham a couple of weeks ago where it was just like young entrepreneurs sharing different ideas and stuff like that, and it was very much like a networking event that felt casual and not gross. And so I think that that is very possible. But sometimes you have to be the person who spearheads that effort and it goes away from you. Like it might no longer be like the thing that you are leading, but sometimes you have to create the thing that you want to exist.


Wudan Yan: Yes, it takes initiative.


Anne Helen Petersen: The other thing that we should add, you know, the fact that Dan seems to be a man and I know that a lot of women who are freelancers in their various areas, whether it’s writing, podcasting, writing a newsletter or whatever, sometimes they get emails from dudes asking to like have coffee, pick your brain, talk about the business, like whatever it is that comes across really kind of gross, right. And kind of skeevy or kind of transactional on either side of that spectrum of grossness. What is your advice on how to cold email someone if you do just actually not want to be creepy advice guy?


Wudan Yan: I think I wouldn’t frame that email with the idea that I want to ask them for advice. Hi. I really am excited about the work that you’re doing. I see we have x, y, z in common. Would you like to get a coffee sometime and meet up? I’d love to learn more about you.


Anne Helen Petersen: That that’s really good. I also think that like the other thing you can do for someone like me who is terrified of those sorts of meetings. [laughs] Not, not. Because I don’t know how to deal with skeevy guys. It’s more than I might like my natural introvert tendencies are like this is something that would sit in the pit of my stomach and I would like look at it on my calendar, be like, oh my gosh, how can I get out of this? Is also offered different ways that you would be willing to talk whether, you know, like something that I’ve done with people is say, send me some of your work and like let’s talk about it. Or like, what would you be up to like texting a little bit of something like that to me is a more casual way than the like explicit like let’s have a coffee. And some people really love having that coffee, but you know, it’s kind of like saying, how can I best you figure out how to be in conversation with you? And it makes it so that the person just doesn’t immediately delete it if it’s not the way that they want to be in conversation.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, I’m thinking about an interaction I had on Twitter a while ago that I wildly misunderstood at first [laughs] because it sounded like this person had moved to Seattle where I live, and wanted to basically like get coffee and pick my brain, for lack of a better phrase. And I am not down with that. I basically said, hey, I’m really happy to meet up. I’m so excited you moved here. I just want to be clear on this whole interaction because I don’t like these meet and greets to turn into me giving you, giving anyone free advice. So could you help clarify what you’re looking for here? And I hope I’m not being too offensive or misreading the situation. So it all worked out. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, no. Sometimes yeah—


Wudan Yan: It all worked out.


Anne Helen Petersen: Like clarify that.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, I’m a big ask for clarity person and maybe that’s too direct for some people.


Anne Helen Petersen: But if it’s too direct for that person, then you don’t want to like hang out with that person anyway. You know what I mean? Like that directness.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, totally.


Anne Helen Petersen: In some ways is like a testing grounds too.


Wudan Yan: Yeah. So, I mean, I would say we are friends, we are friendly. It’s not all about work. And I really appreciate that.


Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is from someone who is trying to think about whether she wants to be a coworker to her partner. Let’s hear from Lexi.


Lexi: My spouse’s business took off during the pandemic like he doubled his client roster and he is still growing. While I have always been very independent and reasonably successful professionally, I took on some freelance creative work for him and it’s provided us additional income and has lightened his load a bit. He’s now asking me if I would ever consider working for him full time, and I’m frankly unsure of how to respond. On one hand, we’d have complete control of our family schedule and it would likely be lucrative. On the other hand, his industry can be a bit feast or famine, and there’s something about working for my spouse that just feels weird. Is it a terrible idea to work for a spouse? Is there a way to structure it to buttress the professional and personal stuff? Thanks.


Anne Helen Petersen: So I’ll just say that I work from home with my partner, who is also a journalist and also a freelancer. [laughter] So, I, but we don’t work for each other. And that’s one thing in this question that really strikes me, as she says, is it a terrible idea to work for a spouse? What do you think? What strikes you from this question?


Wudan Yan: I think I want to frontload my first response to this by saying that we make decisions three different ways with our head. Meaning we want to find some way to rationalize what we’re about to do. Our heart, which is where basing it on the feelings that this decision or possible scenario evokes. Or our gut, which is our intuition. So without giving concrete advice, I would ask this question. Ask her to listen back to her recording and see where is this a head decision? Is this a heart? Is her gut already giving her information? Because I’m hearing some elements from the gut.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And like oftentimes the gut knows, [laughter] like there’s sometimes when like, I think the gut is like a little wary, but it’s okay. And there’s some times when it seems like there’s stuff going on here and the desire in this case for like, flexibility and profitability are in some ways, I think, eclipsing these other gut feelings. Look, I don’t think it is a terrible idea necessarily to work with a spouse. Right. If you can figure out here’s my role, here’s what we’re doing. But also, it does seem like it’s framed, like I’m helping them with the project, that this is their passion. This is the thing that they chose to do. And I am in some ways like offering support to it, right? In terms of like I’m making it work more seamlessly. I am providing like I am doing the work that an administrative assistant or if you hired on another person to do the work at the job, what they would do, especially if this person has a career outside of this other work.


Wudan Yan: That’s what I was going to go back to, is independent of this whole conundrum that she has presented us with. What are her goals and how is her business doing, and what ideal vision of her career does she have for herself without this external ask?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I think that sometimes in situations like this, if there’s a family involved and a person has taken time away from paid work for several years, and they’re struggling to find a position in their industry or any industry that is this sort of part time flexible work that they need in order to keep raising their family. Like that’s just a problem generally, is there are not enough part time jobs. People start doing part time consulting work, freelance work in order to find the flexibility that they crave. And maybe this is something that is like an easy way to to start doing that work, to start making an additional salary that doesn’t involve maybe having to work more hours than they want away from the home. So that could be a scenario. But I also, you know, not only does she say is it a terrible idea to work for a spouse, you know, she says that he asked her if she wants to work for him. And so that framing, again, like work for him instead of with him, gives me some pause.


Wudan Yan: Yeah. The other thought I had in listening to this question is, can she talk to other couples where there’s a situation where one partner works for the other person?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: I’d love for her to gather more information on what it’s actually like, even though every couple’s dynamic and business and so on and so forth can be so different. I think it’s a valuable exercise in helping this woman see her options.


Anne Helen Petersen: That’s a really good point. One thing that I know that my partner and I struggled on, we co-wrote a book together and we would like, edit each other’s work. And there was a real sensitivity [laughter] in terms of like you’re rewriting what I’m saying in your voice. I’m like, no, it sounds better this way. And we really had to move past that. And to think of it as like, I’m not precious about the way this is written. I want it to be the best version of itself. This is not a personal attack on you or your writing or indicative of anything. We’re just trying to like work with our strengths the way that coworkers would. But it took a lot of conversations in order to get to that place.


Wudan Yan: Yes. And I think that is another super important point, which is what do boundaries already look like in your relationship independent of work? Right. Like if you say I can’t do the dishes tonight or hey, I can pick the kids up Monday to Tuesday, but I can’t do it the rest of the week. Can you take this on, so on and so forth. If there’s no conversation, not enough respect, however that is perceived.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.


Wudan Yan: I think working for your partner can really raise an exacerbate a lot of those preexisting tensions.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, for sure. Especially like in this scenario, there’s going to be a lot of intermingling of billable hours, for lack of a better phrase, like work that is paid with work that is also necessary for the family that is unpaid work, but is you know, it’s equally important. So how do you underline that for both participants in this family that all of these things need to get done? How do we divide that? How do we figure that out? And the other thing, too, you know, the last part of your question is about how do you create a structure that buttresses the personal from the professional? Do you have any I mean, I know you have experience with that, but what is your advice when it comes to that?


Wudan Yan: I don’t want to give very obvious and pointed advice. I think she should talk to other couples who work together. And I say this as somebody who is married to a company founder, also an entrepreneur. He has a community of other entrepreneurs. And when I have heard stories, second hand of entrepreneurs who have hired a spouse to work for them. It has never been good. [laughter] I do want to put that out there, but I also want this person to gather her own—


Anne Helen Petersen: To talk to other people.


Wudan Yan: —information. Totally.


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. [laughter] Let’s say. Let’s say. She says, yes. Right, she’s like tempted by the flexibility and the, the money. And it’s just as miserable for the entire family like everyone is struggling. What is the exit plan?


Wudan Yan: I think this is also dependent on what her relationship is with her partner. Are they really communicative? How do they resolve conflict? To me, this isn’t really a work question. [laughter] How do you coexist already with this person who you’re building a life with?


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. So to summarize our advice, we would be we would say, okay, listen, back on your intonation when you read this question aloud and see if there’s any gut pause or how you know your heart and your mind are working too. Our other advice is to talk to other couples who are in this scenario and gather information there. And then also to think too about whether this is a relationship question or whether this is a business question. And think about how you would negotiate the dissolution of this business partnership if that were to come to pass.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, that’s a good summary. [laughter] [music break]


Anne Helen Petersen: So that last question was how to work with someone who is in your house. And our next and final question is about how much of your personal life should make its way into work? Here’s Kate.


Kate: How much should I share of my life with people that I work with as a freelancer? Should I be sending holiday cards to people I work with? Should I tell them when I have a kid home sick or even if I’m having another kid?


Anne Helen Petersen: And then I think this also dovetails nicely with a question that we got from another listener, which was about, you know, how much do I disclose to my clients about the fact that my work rhythms are really affected by chronic illness and do I invisibilize that and try to pretend that it’s not there? Or, you know, how do I communicate the realities of life? What do you think?


Wudan Yan: I think there’s already so much of us on social media. [laughter] I think a lot of people who I follow on Instagram and Twitter who are living with chronic illness or disability make that very clear. It’s a big part of their posts and their stories and the communities that they build. When all of that is public information, it’s possible that your employers, clients and so on and so forth can infer things from it. I think it kind of boils down to what impacts your life to such an extent that it will impact your work. And what I mean by that is if you’re a caretaker and your child gets sick or you’re caring for your elderly parents and there’s a medical emergency and you also have a deadline like tomorrow, I tell my client and say, this is what happened. I can’t do this by the scheduled deadline. Is there any flexibility? Again, back to my earlier point of we are working with other humans. I think it is important to connect on a personal level with people who we work with.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And I think there’s a way that you can do it to that feels like you don’t have to open your guts on the, in the email. Do you know what I mean? Like you can be like I am really dealing with some family emergency right now or some family stuff like however you want to phrase it. I think there are ways to communicate things that people understand, the things that are very legible to other people about. You know, I can’t do this. And then at the deadline in the amount of time that we discussed, what are our other options? And especially if you have a relationship with that person, that is evidence that like you do, keep to deadlines like that, you submit quality work. Then that’s just sort of the expectation that that arrives with your work. I know personally there are very, very, very, very few cases in which I would ever respond negatively to someone telling me that something has to be late. Time is flexible. There are very few things in life that cannot be moved a day, a week right, like we have to understand each other not as cogs in a capitalist freelance machine, but as people who like have lives and have responsibilities. There is a way to be vulnerable without—


Wudan Yan: Oversharing. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes, yes. Totally. You do not need to, there is no need for a paragraph right, like that’s the thing I would say you do not need to explain exactly why things are happening in the way that they’re happening, exactly why your childcare fell through. All those things just like [laugh] this is what’s happening. What are other options?


Wudan Yan: My challenge to myself is always, how can I communicate what’s happened in an email in the fewest words possible? [laughter] Can’t do. I can’t stand long emails and I don’t think other people really have time to read long emails either. So yeah, I think that is the challenge of how can I describe what’s happened in the fewest words possible and still make it known what’s going on?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, for sure. And what about the part where this person asks, like should I send them holiday cards? What do you feel about that sort of intimacy?


Wudan Yan: I think I’m paranoid, but I don’t want people to know where I live. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: I know, right. [laughter]


Wudan Yan: I don’t have a P.O. box. Yeah, I just don’t think it’s required. Some clients have sent me cards and chocolates and stuff during the holidays, and I think that’s nice but also creepy because they have my address because I’m in their system. But, uh, I’m sorry—


Anne Helen Petersen: Well and also a holiday card, like what are they going to say in the holiday card? Like they’re so often transactional, right? It’s just like we acknowledge holidays, right? [laughter] It’s not like we value you as a worker. You know, I would feel much more valued if the person I was working with sent me an email and it’s like I was really impressed with your work instead of sending me a holiday card. I just don’t need I don’t need holiday cards from those people in my life.


Wudan Yan: Yeah. I mean, some people give me raises during the holidays for the next financial year. I’ll take that. [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: They give me. I’ll take a bonus. That would be amazing, right? [laughter] Yeah. There are different ways to show that you’re valued. And then the last thing I’d say is that for the person who’s asking about chronic illness, I’m thinking back about what you said when we were talking at the beginning of this podcast, which was that you were very clear in the way that you communicate with clients that like, I do not work on Fridays. And so I think, you know, if you set expectations when you’re working with someone early on that’s like and you said expectations with yourself, you’re honest about how long it could take to finish a project.


Wudan Yan: Mm hmm.


Anne Helen Petersen: Then you’re not disappointing anyone, right? You don’t feel like a failure as a person. And also, the client themselves does not feel like you are failing them. Does that make sense?


Wudan Yan: It does. And one line in email signatures that I’m seeing more and more goes to the effect of my workday is not your workday. Like, please be cognizant of this as it may take me up to 72 hours to respond to an email or something to that effect, right?


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, 100%.


Wudan Yan: I think that is also helpful, questionable if anyone ever reads the signature, but possible.


Anne Helen Petersen: I have that is my signature. What I took from someone who sent to me. And people always ask, can I borrow your email signature? And I’m like, there’s no proprietary—


Wudan Yan: Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: License on the email signature. I also this a couple of weeks ago I ran a marathon and I decided to put on my responder because there had just been some people in previous weeks who had been very upset that I hadn’t responded to emails right away. And sometimes in some industries there are people who need someone to say very directly, here is when I will be responding via that responder. I also said on the responder, if it’s an emergency, you will have my phone number. But if it’s something that is not important and you know me well enough to have my phone number so you can call me and we can get in touch. But if you don’t have my phone number, then clearly it’s not important enough to us that you would need to communicate that to me.


Wudan Yan: Especially working in media, I think there’s extremely few literal life or death situations.


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] No, no.


Wudan Yan: Let’s just put it that way.


Anne Helen Petersen: This is this is a totally tangential question, but I think you actually have really great insight. And actually I emailed you with this question once a long time ago, but in your fact checking work, I know that you experience lots of people who email and say, I need this massive project done very quickly for very little money. How do you respond to emails like that?


Wudan Yan: You know, so many people have asked me about book fact checking to the point where it was no longer sustainable for me to respond to all those emails.


Anne Helen Petersen: Woah.


Wudan Yan: And so I have all the information on my Web page that describes my fact checking services and what I expect and what time line I work with and when. And I have, people love asking, how much is it going to cost me? The answer is quite a bit of money with book fact checking in particular. And now I’m running into this with podcast fact checking. I think people just forget how long everything else takes and the fact checking is, oh, is this an afterthought? And then, oh, we don’t have enough time. And I think the thing I’m trying to impress on people is make time and every other step of the process, may be negotiable in how long something takes. Add a buffer, add buffers. That’s it. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and also understand that some things can’t be automated. They can’t be hacked, they can’t be optimized. Like, you know, you could get a really shitty graphic design, right? Like you could edit your own podcast. You could. There’s all different things that you could do on your own if you really needed to for very little money. But if you want it done right, it costs money. And that is the reality. And as freelancers, I think it is our responsibility to underline that quality takes time and also requires someone to be paid a living and standardized wage.


Wudan Yan: Definitely. And usually when clients require a project to be completed quicker in terms of, oh, I need you to kind of drop everything else you’re working on and focus on this project for the next month. There is an opportunity cost to the person that you want to hire. And so there’s this concept of a rush rate, right? So usually those rates are in place in many other businesses where people are sole proprietors or contractors, there is a rush rate and I think we need to talk about that rush rate more specifically in the media industry.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, you know, that’s this thing that like I think if you’ve worked in the industry and you’re on salary and you’re like, oh, of course we just rush at the end. That’s just what you do. You lose sleep. You, you just work constantly. Yeah, that’s part of what you are paid a salary for and you have all the benefits of the company and that sort of other, other things. When you work outside of the industry, that is not the daily expectation. That is not your daily rhythm. That is why rush rates exist. And I have only recently learned how to ask for them. And that’s just the reality. If you’re going to make me live on your like rearrange my life, not just, you know, my day, but rearrange my life the entire orbit of my life to fit your understanding of when this work should be done, which was not what we previously agreed to, [laughs] then that rearrangement costs money and you can ask for it and people will give it to you. And so that was a very clarifying experience for me of asking for the first time and being like, yes, of course, here’s the rush rate. But sometimes you got to ask. [laughter]


Wudan Yan: Yeah. Love that you got a rush rate.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughs] I think it’s like sort of a wrap up question. I think all of these questions have to do with navigating relationships within freelancing. So is there any watchword or overarching advice that you would apply to how you think about managing relationships within freelancing writ large?


Wudan Yan: Yeah, I think it is a mix of being yourself, being honest, being communicative and being professional. I think that applies to, you know, not being the free advice guy or how much do I want people to know about my life that’s impacting when I’m able to deliver work. We forget a lot about soft skills in this business, but there is a person behind that. And what kind of person are you? What kind of worker are you? How do you collaborate with others? I think these are all related things. And yeah, don’t forget to be a person like we’re not robots.


Anne Helen Petersen: There is a scenario when we can flatten ourselves as much as we can into work robots, into robot freelancers? I think that that’s worse for everyone. It’s worse for the future. It’s worse for the next generation of freelancers. So the more that we can emphasize that humanness in the way that we interact with each other, the better.


Wudan Yan: Totally.


Anne Helen Petersen: Well, this has been such a pleasure, and I love talking about how to be a better boss of yourself with you. Thank you so much. And last question. Where can people find you on the Internet?


Wudan Yan: On the bird app? I am @WudanYan. I am also on Instagram. Instagram won’t let me make my profile private anymore. So it is public and same handle in terms of how much I want people to know. Like it’s all there. It’s online.


Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you so much for coming in.


Wudan Yan: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. [music break]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks so much to Wudan Yan for joining me on today’s episode. If you enjoyed it, please send it to your favorite freelancer. Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you want help figuring out, get in touch. You can find submission guidelines at, or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Some of the episodes we’re working on involve what to do when it feels like your ambition has shriveled up and died. How to handle the people at work that make you ask, what the fuck is wrong with you? And all things union. We’d love to hear from you. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Peterson, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter at If you’ve ever had a boss comment on your weight, received an email about quote unquote “wellness programs” at work or internally screamed at all the diet talk around your office. Next week’s episode is for you. We’re talking fatphobia in the workplace. Find it here. Next Wednesday.