What are the “disciplines of top freelancers”?

I recently came across a thought-provoking article published by TopTal, a freelance marketplace aimed at software developers, designers, finance experts, product managers, and project managers.

The title, “The New Millionaires: Establishing a Lucrative Freelance Career,” is rather misleading since the article is based on conversations with “individuals who have accumulated high six-figure or million-dollar earnings over five or six years.” So, I don’t know about millionaires, but the point the article makes is that freelancing, if done right, can be extremely lucrative.

“In the newly emerged talent economy, full-time freelancing is a legitimate career with as much earning potential as traditional careers and unprecedented levels of freedom, self-direction, and opportunity,” the article states.

This is all accurate except that I’d say you may have more earning potential than in traditional careers, depending what field you freelance in. That’s particularly the case if you’re talking about software developers like those quoted in the article. But other freelance work, such as content or business writing, can also be an excellent money-maker.

The key to building a lucrative freelance career is treating the venture like the business it is. Accordingly, where I really find this article most insightful is the section that details “the four disciplines of a top freelancer.”

Here they are:

  • Passionate flexibility
  • Assertive communication
  • Self-evaluation and continuous learning
  • Mastery of productivity

I doubt I’ve ever seen a more spot-on and succinct list of what you need to succeed in freelancing.

I often talk about how the freelancers who are earning most are thinking about their freelancing as a business — cultivating a CEO mentality. And while you might think that means developing a cut-throat, “all-business” attitude, what I really mean by it is learning to take ownership of the way you’re approaching your freelancing for the long game.

That means:

  • Deciding what’s most important to you career-wise (at any given time)
  • Being honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you like/hate to do
  • Making your own decisions without extensive input or hand-holding
  • Taking initiative to figure things out when you’re unfamiliar with an element of your business
  • Learning how to communicate without stress, including about pay
  • Accounting for exactly how much you want or need to make and strategically moving toward that goal
  • Taking chances on new things to see what will happen and then learning from the results
  • Owning up to mistakes and communicating effectively to rectify them

It’s virtually impossible to do any of this effectively without a sense of passion for the work you are doing; flexibility to roll with the punches; an interest in getting better at communicating assertively; a commitment to always evaluating your progress and trying new things; and a firm determination to get things done efficiently and by deadlines.

I find the final discipline — mastery of productivity — to be most fundamentally important, since one of the major distinguishing characteristics of high-earning freelancers is an ability to execute well and on time on a large volume of work.

However, it’s hard to get in the position of having that much good work to execute on — and to do that sustainably over the long term — if you don’t have the other disciplines in place.

If I were to add a discipline to this list it would be “independent decision-making.” A freelancer who needs input to help make most decisions — from email phrasing to price quoting — will have a hard time building a powerhouse career. There’s no “right” way to do anything in freelancing, so those who experiment to find ways of working that match their proclivities and meet their needs will be the ones most likely succeed.

If you could add something to the list of essential disciplines for successful freelancing, what would it be?

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