We had the good fortune of connecting with Josh Stephens and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Josh, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
Because I work for myself, and can do 90% of my work from a laptop, I can work anywhere, and I can decide to work or not work whenever I want. That’s why I can have lunch with a friend in the middle of the day and take trips from Monday to Thursday rather than just Friday through Sunday. I love it.
What it often means, though, is that I have to do work (some, not a lot) on those trips, and I might have to check my email immediately after that lunch. This aspect of “work/life” balance often annoys people. I am quick to apologize, though, but I do have to ask for forbearance sometimes. I would far rather spent two hours with friends and take a ten-minute break for email than not see them at all.
This mode also creates the illusion that I never work. When interferes with other plans, my friends can get annoyed. I get annoyed too. The biggest danger is that I commit to too many non-work events, and then I end up over-committed. I am, I suppose, always anxious about slacking off on my work, since, as a freelancer, you never know which client is going to end up being a huge referrer. And there’s always a fear that your current gig might be your last.
Ultimately, the freedom far outweighs the annoyances. I hope!
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I work freelance and almost entirely by word-of-mouth. I do not have to advertise, and I do not have to create a “brand” for myself. I consider myself fortunate. The effort of advertising and the contrivance of a brand would weigh on me. I want to focus on my work — guiding students through the college application process; writing about urban planning — and that’s it.
Supporting myself through personal referrals is not easy, of course. I never know how many clients I will get in a given year, and I get anxious at the beginning of each year. Invariably, though,my happy clients refer people who turn into more happy clients.
The personal referrals ensure that the new clients have some sense of how I work and why I’m good at what I do. The onboarding process usually goes smoothly and the work usually goes well.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’ve written an entire book about Los Angeles — called The Urban Mystique: Notes on California, Los Angeles, and Beyond — so it’s hard to answer this question succinctly. No matter where someone goes in the LA area, I think it’s important to understand how it came to be. I would narrate the explorations from my perspective as an urban planner and scholar of LA, discussing the eras of the city’s growth and the forces that shaped it, for better or worse.
Los Angeles has plenty of high-profile tourist attractions, fancy restaurants, etc. I would ignore all of that and focus on neighborhoods and everyday places: ethnic restaurants, dive bars, coffee places, etc. To me, Los Angeles is not a great tourist city. It doesn’t have the charm of some East Coast Cities or of most European cities. But it has its moments.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
This is easy: my students. I;ve worked with brilliant high school students who have limitless potential.
It’s a cliche to say that I’ve learned more from them than they have from me, but it’s true. My students are interested in every imaginable academic discipline. They come to me with undergraduate- or even graduate-level accomplishments in hand. And those that aren’t already on their way to Ph.D.’s are great kids who have tons of drive and latent talent. They entrust a share of their college process to me, and I appreciate their trust.