Why Alice Lemée Skipped the 9-5: From Music Intern to Pathless Freelance Writer
A Guest Essay by Alice Lemée on Her Own Pathless Path
March 15th, 2023: In case you missed it I interviewed Russ Roberts this week who is one of my biggest digital role models, a professor who has taken a “strange” (his words, not mine) path through Academia and recently started a new job as a President of a small university in Israel, moving across the world in his mid-60s. You can check out the full interview here.
I’m inspired by people like Alice who are betting on themselves far earlier than I had the guts to do. I sense Alice is part of a small but growing cohort of young people who will decide to head directly into self-employment (and adventure) rather than “transferring” directly into a corporation. Also from what I’m seeing, these people are having outsized opportunities (and financial success) compared to their peers because of the increased demand for freelance talent and the relative scarcity of high-skill junior talent available.
In 2019, I bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. I was 22 and had just graduated from college. I’d managed to save up $15,000 for the trip through bartending for several months, despite my mom wishing I’d “get a real job.”
Sure, bartending wasn’t the end goal. I dealt with intoxicated customers, bourbon and blood, “tips” in dimes, and busted eardrums. But it was a lifestyle I’d have chosen a million times over a 9-to-5.
I couldn’t imagine shipping myself straight from the classroom to the cubicle — at least, not yet, not at 22. There was still so much I wanted to do. I wanted to swim in the Indonesian Ocean, visit the Blue Temple in Chiang Rai, scarf down $2.00 pad thai, and try mushrooms in Pai.
So, I bought the ticket and ran away. I traveled for half a year, crossing over from Laos to Korea, from Cambodia to Indonesia, all to delay answering that dreaded question — “What are you going to do once you return?”
The idea of signing a contract for a 9-to-5 made me feel trapped. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so committing to one job felt like throwing away the key to a treasure trove of other shiny options.
I also didn’t have the best experience with previous internships and jobs. My bosses would only assign me low-duty tasks and I’d feel invisible. In one marketing internship, I showed up three hours late one morning and my bosses didn’t even notice. Those bosses then spelled my last name wrong (after I’d been there for four months).
Lastly, my parent’s working schedule, in total transparency, worried me. My dad worked at JPMorgan for over 20 years, dutifully leaving every morning around 6:30 AM to commute to the office. He wasn’t miserable (he loved his job!) but good lord — his hours scared me. Off on Saturdays and Sundays? Two weeks of vacation each year? That’s it?
My free-spirited 22-year-old self refused to accept it — and off I went.
Stuck Between A Rock and a Hard Place
I returned to my parent's place in NYC in August 2019.
The post-travel blues hit hard. While my friends were now beginning to earn promotions at their 9-to-5s, I was applying to bartend jobs on Craigslist.
Reluctantly, I also began to apply for full-time jobs and internships. I didn’t want a “real” job, but I’d caved to the internal pressure cooker of NYC where it seemed everyone was grinding 24/7 to achieve their dreams.
By January, I had three gigs; bartender, coordinator at Rumble Boxing, and global recordings intern at BMG New Music Company. This meant pulling insane days where I’d get up at 4 AM to open the gym, then go to my internship on Park Avenue, and get home at 3 AM after closing the bar.
This frenetic pace also meant I’d never had time to question the path I was on. I’d chosen a career in music simply because I figured that if I had to spend 40 years on something, music was the noblest choice.
Yet the coveted internship didn’t live up to the hype. I was either on Excel, shipping CDs to radio centers, or in meetings. There was one particular “synch” meeting on Wednesdays where 30-ish people shared the status of their projects.
Employees would scatter haphazardly around the room, slumped in chairs with the same glazed facial expression as they stared at their laptops. I attempted to write notes, but all it led to were obscure messages such as “Spotify is working for tech and music” and “synch team puts together a playlist of options.”
I remember looking down at my coffee one meeting, now stale with floating pieces of coagulated, curdled soy. I let out a sigh.
Covid Changes Everything
Covid-19 slammed into NYC in March and massacred my three jobs. With my color-coded Google calendar days now annihilated, I had a lot of time to contemplate the path I was barreling down.
Am I happy?
Do I enjoy my job?
Could I see myself in the music industry for another couple of decades?
I’d answered each question with a “meh.” This ambivalence was both infuriating and worrisome. I’d landed an internship at a coveted company in a competitive industry – why wasn’t I over-the-moon grateful?
Although my resume had gotten an upgrade, I couldn’t forget those months abroad. I’d drift back to memories of riding motorcycles in Bali’s countryside, zipping past woven lanterns (homes for its evil spirits) and blue skies. I’d never felt more alive than I did those months, and found myself desperate for a career that offered remote flexibility so I could go back out there.
I mulled over my answer as the seasons swapped from winter to summer. Eventually, it was time to stop relying on unemployment assistance and start applying to jobs (as my mother kept dutifully reminding me). Yet the thought of returning to an office – the meetings, stale coffee, the shipping room – was dreadful.
This couldn’t be all there was to life.
A Summer of Experiments
It was a summer of experiments.
I enrolled in online classes for Adobe Illustrator, Lightroom, and Premiere Pro. I got online certificates for the “essentials” of digital marketing and Google Ad search — all to find a skill that could lead me to a different professional path.
But it wasn’t until l discovered Medium that I felt the murmur of excitement.
Medium was a mecca of self-published articles with topics ranging from freelancing to marketing, copywriting, and more. People publishing on Medium were making real money! Through writing! Online!
It seemed too good to be true. I’d always been drawn to writing, but thought the only way to earn a living as a writer was to become the next J.K Rowling or be a journalist.
I scribbled “write one article” on my to-do list, although I had zero clue how to write online or what to write about. It didn’t matter. The post-it note had now become a contract. Nothing else could be done until I figured it out.
The Start of Something New
My first article was about The Breakaway Movement, a façade for a pyramid scheme that recruits people to purchase and distribute a $5,000 Kangen alkaline water filtering machine (pure liquid malarkey).
The article was a sign of a new beginning — one where I wanted to write for a living, hopefully remotely. To get there, I assumed I needed to go the old-fashioned way, and I began applying to writing fellowships and internships at BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, and more.
It did not go over well.
My resume, peppered with hospitality and music experience, made zero sense to hiring managers. I wasn’t invited to a single interview.
“How else am I supposed to learn anything when no one will give me a chance?” As any young person will tell you, this “need experience to get experience” paradox was beyond frustrating.
Grabbing the Bull By the Horns
“If no one will hire me,” I thought, “I’ll just teach myself.”
I adopted this “screw you I’ll do it myself” mentality from my mom. Ironically, although she was the one pressuring me to get a full-time job, she was an entrepreneur herself. She had an art gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and represented dozens of artists.
I have memories of her handing out fliers on a street corner ten years ago to promote her gallery opening. She’d scour the trash cans to fetch the fliers people had thrown out (printing was expensive!). My mom was living proof you could build something from the ground up on your own.
I ramped up my production on Medium, writing roughly one article weekly. I networked with journalists on LinkedIn, one of which suggested opening a Twitter account. I read endless articles and books on copywriting and content writing.
But when I found freelance writing coach Eva Gutierrez, everything changed.
Eva taught me the fundamentals of freelance writing: pitching, communicating, and rate-setting. Eva suggested I begin with a rate of $250 an article. As someone who was earning a few bucks a month on Medium, this seemed b-a-n-a-n-a-s.
But her cold-pitching strategy worked. I began hopping on client calls – and closing deals. By October, I was earning at least $3,000 a month from retainer clients. I finally gained the confidence to confront my mom. “I'm not going to have a normal job. I hope you know that.” She looked at me inquisitively.
“Okay,” she acquiesced.
Ramping Up Production
I’ve been freelancing since October 2020 and it’s a hard career. I decided to live with my parents to reduce risk, which meant saying “yes” to every project – including those that paid little — for the sole purpose of gaining leverage and credibility.
The first year was a slog. Yes, it was exciting (I was getting paid to write!) but it was a steep learning curve. There were tough (and expensive) lessons I had to learn; a “nice” client is still capable of ghosting you, and a retainer contract doesn’t guarantee you’ll get paid.
And yet, I wouldn’t trade that first year for the world. It was immeasurably valuable. Not only did it pave my path, but it restored my confidence. Interning at BMG, I was assigned grunt work because hey, that’s what interns do. But with my business, I was teaching myself everything — accounting, pitching, marketing, writing — and pulling it off.
I was capable of so much more than I’d been given credit for.
From Then to Now
My second year of freelance writing brought more challenges and more growth. At the beginning of the year, I’d been let go from one anchor client and caught COVID, leading me to earn only $2,500 that January.
But freelancing ebbs and flows. You get kicked down, and you haul yourself back up. I kept networking and marketing myself on Twitter, and by that May, I’d managed to 2.5x my income.
Freelancing is a never-ending classroom. I’m constantly learning, failing, and battling imposter syndrome and insecurity. I’m still working “for” someone (multiple bosses, in fact) and trading time for money. And I’ve spent many, many days in front of a screen, eyes fried as the words congeal into an amorphous blob.
But being a freelance writer was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
With 2.5 years of experience, I’m now able to begin molding my career so it fits my schedule, interests, and goals. I haven’t hit the coveted “$10K a month” milestone that many freelancers aspire to, yet feel satisfied because I accomplished my number one goal: have a fully remote job that allows me to be anywhere in the world.
I’ve been a digital nomad in some incredible places: Brazil, Paris, Portugal, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico. I get to write on stuff that lights me up. If it’s a sunny day and I want to enjoy it, I can step away from my laptop. If a client comes to me with an assignment that’s not a “hell yes” I can say no.
I’ve never felt such profound creativity, freedom, and control. And it’s all because I followed a path that made me come alive, instead of subscribing to a NYC lifestyle where people are busy to “stay ahead.”
My Advice to You
All around me, I see young people battling the same doubts I had when I returned from southeast asia. How could you dedicate yourself to the next 40 years in a cubicle (with only 12 vacation days a year) when there’s a whole world out there?
It can be such a heavy, isolating, and confusing feeling. But I’m here to show that another lifestyle exists, and it can be done. The key lies in treating the internet as the best school ever created to bypass traditional gatekeepers.
Had I waited for someone at Vox or BuzzFeed to offer me a fellowship, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Instead, I gave myself the “green light” to call myself a freelance writer before I was ready — diploma or job experience be damned.
Then, I used the internet to leverage my situation. I researched the best articles,
copywriters, and books to study from. I connected with a seasoned freelance writer who taught me everything she knew. I used Twitter to amass a small audience, pitch clients, and build credibility.
As David Perell notes: “The internet is the best school ever created. The best peers are on the internet. The best books are on the internet. The best teachers are on the internet.”
You can also use the internet to launch a career as a web designer, coder, graphic designer, musician, T.V show host, media personality, stand-up comedian, screenplay writer, poet, etc. Teach yourself the skill, broadcast it to the world through social media and networking, and repeat ad nauseum.
As written in The Pathless Path, “We are surprised at the moment something happens, but looking back, we realize that everything makes sense.”
Landing a “dream” internship only to feel wholly uninspired wasn’t just surprising, but crushing. If not this, then what?
Yet, in retrospect, the path that seemed to lead to nowhere now reveals itself to be the one that was always meant to be. If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember there is always a way forward — and with a bit of ingenuity and perseverance, your path will reveal itself, clear as day.
I write Internetly, a newsletter for writers on the internet who want to hone in on their craft. Join the 1,680 readers who are getting advice, inspiration, and no-BS stories on the freelance writing and digital nomad world. You can gain access and subscribe here:
Interested in finding the others on the pathless path? Consider joining the community by subscribing on substack or on Circle: