Once upon a time, in my senior year in college, all of my friends were applying to jobs – and I was planning a trip to Uganda. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do post-grad, but I did know I wanted to travel, tell stories and make a difference in our world. Armed with a camera, a degree in journalism, and not much else, I jumped headfirst into a project I knew in my heart would put me on the path I wanted to be on.
In retrospect, my actions made sense for how they pushed me to where I am today. But at the time, I had no idea what I was doing. I never planned on diving into a freelance career; it happened in such an organic way. Today, I have a clear vision of my passions, what value that adds to businesses, and how I can make a living from doing what I love.
A close friend of mine recently messaged me asking for advice and insight on moving into freelancing. Below, everything I wish someone had told me as I walked into my career without knowing anything other than the fact that I wanted to chase my passions:
1. There will be tears.
If I could tell you the amount of heartache that goes into building a fulfilling freelance career… Oh my goodness, you might not want to ever get started. The truth is, these feelings aren’t something I could explain to you; it has to be experienced. Everyone knows that forging their own path is going to be a lot of work, and that the trials and tribulations in doing so will be wearing. There is no way to fully understand that fact other than experiencing it, but please know: there are going to be tears no matter what, regardless of the career path you choose, so choose what your heart tells you is right.
And when you hit hardships, take the time to cry. Then get back up. And keep going. You’ve got this.
2. Figure out what you want.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it needs to be said. If I had a dime for every freelancer I heard who talked about how they didn’t know what they were doing or how they wanted to do it, then I wouldn’t even have to be a freelancer myself. Freelancing is not just about doing the work, it’s also a lot of soul searching. You need to jump in and face fear head on. Figure out exactly what makes your heart drive you to action, what value you have for the world and how to monetize that. The quicker, the better – do not let your perfectionism stand in the way. Your vision will evolve as you do, so don’t spend all your time daydreaming. Once you know what you want, take your vision and speak it into reality.
3. Have faith in your vision.
This is the single most challenging part of being a freelancer, and sweetie, it doesn’t get easier. If you do not believe in yourself, no one else will. Trust that you are on to something, and stay true to your path – especially when you have no idea how everything will work out. Because I promise you: It will work out. It may not be in the way you imagined, or you may stumble before you succeed, but please for the love of God, trust that your heart is steering you in the right direction. You will get where you need to be. And when you struggle, that’s why you have friends to lean on, which leads me to…
4. Surround yourself with people who inspire you.
Energy is contagious. Find friends who excite and inspire you, the ones who are daring and achieving beautiful things in their own lives. Find the people who are there when you need a shoulder to lean on, and also who aren’t afraid to give you some tough love. These are the angels who will keep you going.
Please understand: You are nothing without the relationships you build. Make sure to cultivate lasting and meaningful connections with people who lift you up, and who you can lift up in return. Nurture these relationships, build opportunities for collaboration, and find ways to support one another. Creativity is contagious.
5. Set goals.
If you do nothing else, set goals, and write that shit down. I know you are reading this and saying, ‘yes I know, I’m on it, everyone says to do that.’ Do not skim over this piece of advice – it is the difference between mediocrity + burnout, and living a sustainable and fulfilling life. Wake up every damn day and write down what you’re grateful for (in detail, so you can feel it in your heart), and then chart out what you hope to achieve that day.
I’m talking about writing your tasks for the day, but also mapping out your three-month goals, and six months, and 1 year, and review that all the time. Take those goals and break them down into step-by-step action. Want to make $100k? Write it down. Over and over. And then make a plan to make it happen. How many hours does that mean? How many clients or projects does that equal? Walking through this process will allow you to break down big, scary (exciting!) ideas into concrete and actionable steps – and then track your progress as you hit these benchmarks. The universe gives you what you ask for, so if you’re aimlessly trying to make ends meet, you will never achieve greatness. Make plans.
6. Know when to say no.
As a freelancer, your knee-jerk reaction is going to be to say yes to everything. You don’t want to disappoint, you want to be sure to make rent, you are just starting out and you want to try a lot of things… I get it. But stop. Seriously. You’ll hit burnout in a matter of months, and you’ll find yourself working for on projects (or worse, at rates) that are simply uninspiring. Refer to #2 on this list, and then focus on those opportunities. Only say yes to the projects that make you feel absolutely giddy inside, because yes, this can be your real life. Find the place where your purpose meets your passion, and respect yourself enough to set your rates so you can lead a sustainable life. You do not have to be a starving artist.
I have three rules for the choices I make everyday, and those are laid out as my desktop screen: 1) Stop taking on things you’re not completely sold on, 2) Don’t take on too much, and 3) Create criteria before taking on anything new. Done, done and done. Want to learn more? I love Peter Voogd’s course, Six Months to Six Figures. (ps: that’s an affiliate link, which is one way I make money doing what I love. I never share anything I’m not obsessed with.)
7. Arm yourself with resources to succeed.
Get obsessed with knowledge, and propel your career forward with continued education and connections. This could be anything from taking an online course to joining a networking community of fellow entrepreneurs or finding other professionals who are willing to trade services with you. Know what you’re strong at, where you need improvement, and identify ways to bridge that gap. And please remember, the Internet is a black hole of both good and bad advice, so remember to be conscious of how much you’re consuming vs. how much you’re creating.
Spend your time wisely. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a leader – which means it’s imperative to know when you should take risks, delegate or make investments. If you try to do everything on your own, you will fail. Soak up all of the knowledge you can to make wise decisions, and be bold in your vision.
8. Know that your actions set a reputation for every freelancer.
Set your standards high, if not for yourself, then for every other freelancer out there. People (clients) adopt learned habits from how they’re treated, so make sure that you’re setting the proper standard for how a freelancer should be treated. In particular, I’m talking about: 1) being enthusiastic, responsive, and a joy to work with, 2) setting the tone for how you want to be treated through a pre-agreed upon contract, and 3) establishing an industry standard for the rate you’re worth at whatever skill/experience level you have. Let’s stand together as freelancers – we can create an industry where clients know exactly what to respect from a professional contractor.
9. Put your wellbeing first.
I’m going to be honest with you: Sometimes you wake up and you just need to take a day for your own sanity. Do not be too hard on yourself. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work when you just don’t feel like it (read this), but I am saying that you need to recognize your own limits. When you’re a full-time employee, you have a boss who tells you what you can and cannot do, and that includes a certain amount of vacation or sick days. When you’re a freelancer, you’re the only one setting the rules for your day. Make sure to put your health and wellbeing first, because if you can’t work due to health issues, you literally just can’t make money.
Practice mindfulness and creating balance. When you’re starting (and hopefully even four years from now), you’ll be in a honeymoon phase and will want to work all the time. Know when to step away, set boundaries for yourself, and develop a schedule that you can abide by. I promise: You’ll be more efficient if you limit your time and are hyper-focused on the project in front of you. One of my rules is completely shutting off on Sundays – I don’t check my social media, my email or do anything work-related. Yes, it will feel like a detox, but I promise, nothing will fall apart, and you’ll walk into your Monday excited to get shit done.
10. Understand that you’re on a nonlinear path. Be open to change, surprises and growth.
Traditionally, you start at an entry-level job, and then you work your way up. You hit benchmarks and goals, and progression occurs as time goes on. When you’re a freelancer, you’re on a rollercoaster, and up feels like down and left feels like right. Sometimes, you will take two steps forward and three steps back. It’s okay – keep going. Nothing is ever going to be exactly what you expected, or exactly what you asked for. Learn to deal with the curveballs, ride the waves and push forward on your path.
11. Know what you want. Ask for it.
There’s an interesting paradox where smart or talented people often feel like they shouldn’t have to ask for something if they can somehow prove their worthiness through their actions. If you can show the world what you’re worth, we often feel that we should be able to land the clients we deserve. In other words, if your branding is effective, you shouldn’t have to directly ask for opportunities – if you are really successful and talented, you don’t have to ask; you are asked. For women especially, there’s often a roadblock in our minds for deciding what we want, and then being assertive and asking for it. Stop this right now! Successful individuals know what they want, and they ask for it, regardless of however scary the outcome or potential for failure is. You absolutely cannot get what you want if you walk around hoping that it will somehow magically fall into your lap.
And yes, it can be scary to feel like you’re going to be turned down, or you can’t achieve that big of a dream – and failure is absolutely a paralyzing fear. But failure can also be very beautiful. When you fail, learn to adopt a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one. Failure is temporary, and makes success that much sweeter when you achieve it.
12. If something doesn’t bring you joy or inspiration, let go of it.
You started a freelance career to do what you love, but far too often, freelancers end up missing the the really joyful components of their career because they’re bogged down by projects that they find uninspiring or they take because they ‘have’ to. The key to freelancing is working on the projects you’re passionate about, bringing value to the teams you’re collaborating with, and finding a way to monetize what you love at a rate you’re worth. If something does not fit this criteria, it may be fine for a while, but eventually, it wears you down. Find the clients that offer the trifecta of the three, who believe in your vision as much as you believe in their vision, and give it your all to succeed with one another.