6 things nobody warned me about with freelancing
Navigating the pragmatic steps of freelancing is the easiest part — it’s the emotional and mental parts that are hard.
Search and you will find tons of sensible advice regarding taking the leap into freelancing. Recommendations like saving up 3-6 months of expenses, building a network beforehand, or freelance on the side until you are confident you can earn at least 50% of your current salary.
But the hardest part of freelancing for me was by no means sorting out the practical side.
Instead, it was the little things I would have never thought of until I was in the thick of it, until I took the plunge into a sea full of firsts and uncertainties.
Here are the non-pragmatic lessons that I learned when I started freelancing; the things that you might want to consider too:
1. Creativity on demand is the hardest kind to summon
Before freelancing, I imagined that I would wake up early in the morning around 5:30 AM and bust out a solid 8 hours of writing every day. I’d have my first novel published soon, all literary publications would want to work with me in some capacity, and I’d also somehow be well on my way to learning piano and solving world hunger with all my extra free time.
This idea was perhaps not only the furthest from the truth, but it was also the most glaringly obvious mistake. Yet, it only became obvious when I reflected on my traditional full-time job that I previously held.
I realized that I only worked in high-energy spurts in my previous 9-5. I was never, ever consistent. I would do three hours of work in 45 minutes then I would walk around and drink coffee for the next hour or so. Because I was physically at work, and also couldn’t leave without answering to someone, it felt like I was always working at full-tilt for 8 hours even when I was clearly doing no such thing.
When it comes to writing, I’d have bursts of inspiration, and in those times my pen couldn’t move fast enough. Then I might be useless for the next hour or so, and would beat myself up over it.
It’s important to learn how you work – and while you naturally want to over time decrease the gaps between inspiration, it’s important to recognize your “on” time, and forgive yourself for the off time. We all have it.
2. Prepare for negativity
There will be a lot of outside influences that won’t believe in what you are doing. You need to determine where your energy is best spent. Some will have questions because they are genuinely curious and excited for you, others will have questions because they only want to poke holes in your plan.
I remember when I was mentioning the idea of freelancing, someone I didn’t even know very well said to me, “You obviously don’t care about your retirement plan then.”
I can tell you with utmost certainty, that in the roughly 3,500 days that I worked a “traditional” job, not a single person ever, EVER, asked me about how my retirement plan was going.
The point is — nobody ever cares about a decision you make until that decision is different than their own.
If freelancing calls you, go for it. Not everyone has to understand your decisions.
3. Make some new friends
Counter the negative people mentioned above with a unique group of supportive freelancer friends. Three benefits are immediately apparent:
Your work will directly improve through critiques
Even if the freelancers work in different fields, there is so much useful information that can be shared — like how to format contracts, deal with clients who aren’t paying, or ways to best manage time
And at the end of the day, it’s nice not always to have to explain yourself. Don’t underestimate the feeling of peers who understand precisely the trials and tribulations (and wins) you are experiencing
When you freelance, it’s easy to stay home where it is comfortable and safe. But eventually your skill will plateau (I know mine did), and you need to seek help from others. Don’t be afraid.
4. You’ll be doing a lot of work, but you won’t be getting paid
When I previously answered emails at my traditional job – I was getting paid. When I was sharing ideas in a meeting? Getting paid. When I was chatting aimlessly with coworkers? Yep, getting paid. Even when I was just sitting there breathing? Cha-ching.
Now I might spend 12 hours researching ideas or clients I want to work with, sending off pitches and proposals, and writing something that only 5 people end up reading. And maybe on that particular day, I don’t bring in a single penny to my name.
It was hard for me to wrap my previous work brain around this, the one where I basically felt I was exchanging my physical presence in turn for a paycheck. Whether I was drowning in work or doing little, I was there, and I was getting paid.
Not so much is the case anymore. For the new freelancer, this can be discouraging, as if you are throwing all your hard work out into this dark, endless void, hoping it gets picked up.
And it will, with consistency and hard work. Maybe 1 of those 20 emails will get answered, or 3 of those 50 pitches take root. And those little wins make all the long hours worth it.
It just helps to be reminded that you aren’t working a traditional job so the traditional route of pay won’t apply, but in time you’ll get there.
5. You need to learn when to close the laptop
As a freelancer, the work never ends—you just choose to stop for the day. There will always be more emails, more pitches and proposals to write, or a potentially better ending to your short story.
You have to learn to create boundaries for yourself and your relationships, and you need to take time to refill your creativity. Julia Cameron talks about the importance of this in The Artist’s Way, where she recommends taking yourself on an artist date every week to find inspiration.
You can’t create good work if your work is all you ever do.
Or to put it creepily in Jack Nicholson’s voice, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
6. It’s a life that is so darn good
You didn’t think this whole article was going to be negative, did you?
Sure, there are moments when I’m not sure where my next client is going to come from, and there are other times where I am riddled with imposter syndrome, or perfectionism has me anxious even to start the day’s work.
But I also see my family more, I can make more time for my relationships. I read many books for the purpose of learning but for pleasure too. I’ve taken up a pottery class that has strangely taught me even more about freelancing.
I’ve taken vacations without the guilt of the additional work strain it would put on my coworkers. I’ve attended the weddings and baby showers of my friends, without the time having to be cut short by a rigid work schedule.
And most of all, I’ve learned that while working is necessary, it is by no means the most important thing of all. And that when work is on my own terms, carved to fit into the type of life I want it to be, it doesn’t feel too much like work at all.
What about you? Did you come across some unexpected lessons when you started freelancing? Share below.