This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.
For this post I thought I would combine two ideas that seem timely. First, my list of the essential qualities or characteristics I believe every freelancer should possess to insure maximum success. Secondly, my related New Year’s resolutions – which will reflect on my own traits on that list. I’ll reference my resolutions in order to show that all of us (even me!) need to constantly guard against complacency; that all of us (especially me!) still have lessons to learn every year; and that you are not alone if you feel you need to work on any of these traits. (By reading this post I confer upon you honorary membership in the club!) I list them in no particular order.
Can there be a more invaluable quality for a freelancer? One of my failings is my need for greater persistence. I usually give something my best shot first time out and if that doesn’t work I have two or three back up shots, not quite as good as the first but good enough. If they don’t fly I get restless and generally move on. And yet I know I should persist in many cases because with each successive pitch I have usually got closer and closer to the goal line (to mix sports metaphors). I know some writers who are almost indefatigable machines when it comes to their persistence and the volume of their sold work reflects this clearly. I admire their obsessive single-mindedness. So come the new year I will try to be more consistently persistent in following up on those goals I have in mind.
I think most of us have chosen the freelance life in part because of our life long aversion to office life, to fixed and externally designated routines and to being beholden to one employer who in turn has the figurative power of life and death. Of course, this characteristic of independence can manifest itself all the way up to, say, being a foreign correspondent, living by your wits in the most inhospitable of regions of the world; or all the way down to less glamorous forms of freelancing in very hospitable parts of the world. I am comfortable with living the latter and in the new year will do my best to remember to enjoy it even more.
I can’t imagine a freelancer surviving without a well-developed sense of curiosity. Aside from the need to make a living, it is probably the single most dominant motivation for everything we do. Why else live the freelance life, which is the ideal excuse for those of us who enjoy the opportunity to always be asking, “Why”? Sometimes I can get overly aggressive in my questioning of others. But if someone is interesting, how can you resist? This can lead to suspicion of my motives until I explain simply, “I’m a writer, it’s what I do”. That satisfies most folk who are then happy to share their stories. I hope I never lose this gift. In the new year I resolve to keep it in good repair by never shying away from asking intelligent (but sometimes very obvious) questions. Why? “Because I’m a writer and it’s who I am.”
I need deadlines. I need a clock ticking. I need a wall calendar staring at me from a few inches away from my eye line as I type these very words. But I also passionately hate deadlines, clocks ticking and calendars staring at me. So I have come to an uneasy truce with punctuality which has served me well throughout my professional life. Why? Because I learned very early that if you miss deadlines you will never survive in this business. When I was in radio the only golden rule was to simply “show up”. It didn’t matter if you were sick, tired, or drunk; you showed up or else. So in the new year I will continue to be punctual but to try to make it less of an ordeal for myself.
On one hand, the ability to network can be our life line to new stories and contacts or future job opportunities. On the other hand, the very nature of our work also requires a great degree of unsociability. We work on our own, often at weird hours, on weekends and through holidays, and gleefully break many conventions that polite society dictates. Too much socializing in the name of networking can therefore amount to nothing more than displacement activity – something we do to keep us from doing our real work until deadline looms. It’s a matter of finding the right balance. In the new year I resolve to try harder to find it.
In freelancing, you often need to play the long game. (I’ve written about it.) Interview subjects need time to trust you, subjects can be complicated and the freelance life in general can require time out while things work out or come to a head. The problem: many of us are motivated by the need to find a new example, a new story, a new way of looking at things (urged on by editors and producers looking for the same things). And so the things we are waiting on can get pushed aside until later (if ever at all). In the new year I resolve to be more patient and to keep in focus more “evolving” projects even when they unravel more slowly than I would ideally like.
This time of year many freelancers face with panic the realization that they really needed to budget more carefully. With extra gifts or travel expenses coming up over the holidays one’s self-employed budget can rapidly go nuclear. The trick, as I have learned over the years, is to anticipate it every year well ahead of the season and to budget wisely throughout the entire year. Therefore, in the new year I resolve to continue to budget as wisely as I can so that by Christmas 2015 I will have some extra resources tucked away again. Then I will not be overly panicked come the inevitable onslaught of bills in 2016.
This seems obvious but without a vision, without a zest for imagining the so-far unimagined, I can’t conceive of surviving the freelance life. Not only do you need it to create the specific projects you plan to sell but you also need it in order to be able to envision your life doing what everyone else tells you is impossible. A good imagination will therefore help you figure out “how” in very practical terms. I hope to do my best in the new year to keep mine well nourished and thriving by attending workshops and lectures, reading as many new books as possible and exposing myself to as many new or controversial ideas as I can find.
This is a major prerequisite for any working freelancer. The ability (or lack thereof) to bounce back from rejection is frequently a deal breaker for most wannabes. If you’re going to freelance you are going to get rejected. How well you respond will determine your life span in this business. If it impacts you in an overly emotional way; if it shuts down (even temporarily) your imagination and creative process; if it creates personal antagonisms or resentments, then you should probably spend the new year finding non-freelancing jobs.
Rejection is never pretty or without cost, of course. I would posit that those who say they feel no pain at all are either lying or else catatonic emotionally. So you need to prepare for it. You need to view it not as an unexpected tragedy but as just one more uniqueness of the freelancing life – albeit one from which you must quickly move on. In the new year I resolve to reinforce my resiliency by (among other things) constantly reminding myself that just one sale can make up for all the previous rejections. Well, almost.
I am at the end of my allotted space with still more essential characteristics to consider. Another time.
Meanwhile, may I wish you Merry Christmas, very happy and healthy holidays, as well as all the best in the New Year. It has been a genuine privilege to share my thoughts and experiences with you again this past year. Special thanks to my editor Rachel and to all the good people who toil on behalf of us freelancers in Canada at the CMG.
I look forward to meeting up with you again here soon.
POSTED IN: Columns
TAGS: the born freelancer