3 lessons I wish I'd learned when I was just starting out
Some people start freelancing with a strong plan: they’ve researched their market, checked out their competition, built their skills, and cautiously, deliberately entered the field.
I was not that kind of freelancer. I fell into it, confused and half-frantic, hauling around a wheezing, ancient laptop and stabbing blindly at opportunities. Somehow, through a mixture of obstinacy, pluck, and sheer luck, I survived to become a functioning professional... but there are three big things I wish I had known along the way.
1. Be patient
When I first started freelancing, every minor setback was a calamity – a possible sign from the Universe that I Was Not Meant To Do This. I cried over every rejection, and took criticism way too personally. To be honest, I think I confused this extreme impatience and self-recrimination with ambition, or passion.
Being endlessly frustrated with myself didn’t help me achieve anything. It did, however, make me miserable.
Freelancing can be a fantastic long-term life choice, but you can only be HAPPY with that choice if you take a long-term view. Little setbacks and annoyances will always pop up (especially at the beginning of your career). Be patient with yourself. Recognise that it may take a while. You’ll save yourself a lot of needless agitation – and you won’t be nearly so much at risk for burnout.
2. Do a little every day
There’s a reason why we start teaching children daily habits when they’re very young: in the mornings we brush our teeth, wash your hands before you eat, etc. Small habits add up to big behavioural results.
If you’ve got a passion project that you’re working on, if you’ve always wanted to accomplish a big scary goal, if you want to develop a new skill... do a little to develop that project, reach that goal, or build that skillset every day. Don’t worry about if it’s any good, or if you’re any good, at first. Just build the habit.
One of the best things I ever did as a newbie writer was develop a habit of writing a couple of pages, almost every day. Sometimes they were terrible. Sometimes they were almost decent! The practice itself made me faster and better, and pretty soon I had a hefty writing portfolio to choose from. The habit itself became my strength.
This is the counterbalance to taking the long-term approach towards patience. Don’t worry too much about the “big freelance picture” when actually working – you don’t know where you’ll end up, when. Instead, focus on what’s within your control: doing a little to reach your goals, every day.
3. Build relationships
The first freelance gig I ever got was through a friend who took pity on my poor, benighted, Ramen-eating soul and recommended me to her boss. That boss recommended me to another client, who took me on part-time. I then brought another friend onboard; later, when the company folded, that friend found a new gig... and recommended me to her new employer.
Employers like to hire freelancers that they feel connected to: whether by reference or personal relationship. We all like having friends, and clients are no exception – they want to surround themselves with a social network.
When you’re starting out, it’s important to build skills and rack up experience – but make sure you’re valuing “relationship” just as much as “resume”. Be kind, courteous, and professional with every new contact. Resist backbiting and burning bridges. This does NOT mean you have to accept abuse or work with jerks; it does, however, mean that you should recognise that you will often meet and re-meet people down the road. Long-term relationships are more valuable than any temporary gig; find your allies, friends, collaborators, and dream clients, and treat them well.
If you’re just starting out, don’t be like me: that frustrated, frantic, Ramen-eating girl pounding away on her half-dead computer! Give yourself the time, build the habit, and develop relationships. You needn’t have an awkward growing phase, as I did – start out strong, and get even stronger.
Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.
Blog from Freelancers union