3 key freelancing principles

Freelancing is everywhere these days.

No coffee shop is complete without a phalanx of laptop-tapping freelancers plying their trades over a latte and croissant.

Perhaps you’ve dreamed of joining them. Or maybe you’re already using your writing or photography or coding skills to make a little extra money or launch a new self-directed career.

Luckily, as the ranks of freelancers grows, so does the library of resources — like this blog — that will help you figure out how to do it.

Before you get too into the weeds, though, think about the big picture. Start with these three principles and you’ll have a better basis from which to take on the freelance world.

Principle 1: There is no “right” way; there is only your way.

Of all the things you can learn about freelancing, this is probably the most important fundamental: There’s no one right way to build a freelance career.

Sure, there’s advice everywhere about exactly what to do to make it all work. And of course some advice is better than others.

But for every expert who tells you how they went from zero to six figures using just a free WordPress site, a rubber band, and paperclip, there’s another who, like me, started randomly taking gigs for peanuts and then jumped from one thing to the next for years — sometimes stumbling — until a full-fledge freelance business took shape.

Both of these paths are valid. As are thousands of others. What’s common among them is a sense of ownership and agency; those who succeed as freelancers take control of their own direction and learn to trust their own judgements and observations about how to make progress.

People who grab freelancing by the reins are able to write their own stories. We are in charge of our own time. We decide what kind of work we want to do, who we want to work with, and how we want to grow our careers.

So if you follow no other advice, at least take this one principle to heart: Figure out what seems to work for you, jettison the rest, and be on your way.

Principle 2: Map your course from the lay of the landscape.

While it’s likely that no one map will guide you on your freelance journey, it’s essential to understand the landscape you’re traveling. The lay of the land will be different in each field, but each will have its distinctive elements specific to how freelancers interact with the clients that hire them and how money flows along various channels within the industry.

Figuring out the landscape of your particular field is the best way to put yourself in a position to be strategic in carving your path. As a freelance writer, I have assessed the freelance writing landscape and decided to pursue the kind of work that will make me more money but limit my creativity and ownership of my work. This is a choice I can make only because I know the contours of the landscape: I know which trade-offs are required for each of my options. (Read a whole post about that here.)

Start your freelance career off by getting a good sense of how things work in your field. Which types of jobs pay best? What are the drawbacks of those lucrative gigs? Is it difficult to find work or make a living doing particular kinds of work? Ask freelancers what they wish they knew when they were starting out. Ask people who hire freelancers how they make their decisions on how to hire and what they wish the freelancers they hire do better.

The types of questions you ask will vary depending on what field you’re in. If you’re a software developer, are there advantages and disadvantages to working with big tech companies versus smaller start-ups? If you’re a photographer, what are the differences between working for magazines and for companies?

Ask yourself: Which elements of your landscape do you prioritize? Creativity? Stability? Flexibility? Large projects? Meaningful work? Your name in lights?

Once you have a sense of how to navigate your field to maximize the you-ness of your freelance career, you’ll be ready to strategically enter the fray.

Principle 3: The more the more.

While freelancing is full of opportunity and excitement, it’s also hard. It’s inherently unstable, with the stress and potential for burnout that come with that. You have to drum up your own work — they use the word “hustle” for a good reason.

Which brings us to the third principle: the more the more.

Only part of its meaning is the obvious: that the more action you take the more result you’ll get. The more energy and effort you put into your work, the more success you’ll find.

The other part of its meaning is subtler but more essential: The more you do the more you will do. It’s like inertia — as you put increasing time and energy into a thing you care about, the more time and energy you somehow find to put into it. It’s like the positive outflow of your motivation balloons out and transforms everything into a more vivid and energetic version of what it was before.

Like all entrepreneurship, freelancing has its own energy — always exciting, oftentimes frantic — that you can harness and direct. If you avidly embrace your freelance business, you’ll find yourself off and running. You’ll be amazed what you can get accomplished in the time you have available.

The more the more the more the more the more.

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