The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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I’m fresh out of my first talk at Leeds University on Wednesday 22nd October 2015. This one was a panel affair – a bit like Question Time, me the wild-card, non-conformist freelancer thrown in to mix-up debate, which was all about different career options for arts students.

In defiance of this crippling chest infection, I tried to make an inspiring pitch at the beginning, about how I escaped the realms of corporate mediocrity to pursue a living doing what I enjoy, and that the same possibility exists for students if they’re ready to seize it.

And some early questions addressed to me suggested I wasn’t too far off the mark.

A couple of them deserve a more considered response though, or at least a more thoughtful response than I was capable of giving whilst dosed up on pain relief with two lungs full of ectoplasm.

Here they are.

Question: “how do I find work? How do I get my name out there?”

As a new, freelancer (especially a young one), I appreciate that finding clients and getting work is your immediate problem. But it really isn’t a big one in the long run.

Trust me. Finding work is not what will hold you back. Here’s why.

Work breeds work. It only takes a handful of jobs, sometimes even just one, to spark the exponential process of gaining subsequent work, in higher volumes. Whether that’s from repeat work or from other, new clients.

Yes, it necessitates a few months of perseverance (certainly no more difficult than beginning any other new career) to find that one project which breaks the seal. Then after that, you become more attuned to new opportunities, word gets around and one thing leads to another.

Work starts to find you.

Why? Well you find yourself ‘out there’ more: on the web, at events in real life, looking busy in shared office space and talking about what you’re working on with passion and enthusiasm.

You also begin to understand how your talents and unique approach help clients. That’s a considerable leap in the direction of gradually finding your niche in the world and learning to find the people who want to join you there.

Question: “Surely you can’t suggest a 22 year old freelances because they’ve not got the connections and experience?”

Perhaps I’m not the best placed to respond to this. After all, I came to freelancing aged 28, wheeling behind me a cartload of tortuous experience at the hand of my corporate paymasters.

What I didn’t carry with me though was an extensive network of connections who now feed me work. That’s because, like most drones, I was too busy getting on with the mundanities of doing a day job to think about future opportunities.

Likewise, I began to freelance in a sector new to me (previously I’d been in IT and healthcare). All I’d done is take my talent (writing and photography) and transplanted it into a new sector. I had no big brands or high-ranking endorsements to back me up.

So in respect of connections, I was no different to a 22 year old, fresh to freelancing.

I suppose one crucial distinction was my world-view. At 28 I was a bit older, a bit wiser and more worldly. That’s not exclusive to 28 year olds though, some people have it innately, yet most acquire it at varying pace. I was probably just a late bloomer.

The only reason I can see 22 years of age being an obstacle isn’t the number of connections you have (or don’t), nor is it references or how many juicy projects there aren’t on your CV. It’s mastery of things like patience, intuition, initiative and all the other things that develop with maturity. These aren’t attributes you gain solely from a career though.

Given that people mature at their own pace, I say if freelancing feels right to you now, you should do it – whatever age that is.

Another way of looking at the questioner’s charge is to consider what kind of clients you want. If, from day one, you want to work only with clients you choose (say boutique marketing agencies for example) then life will be much more challenging for you. I wrote about this in the Human Freelancer book – at the beginning, reality is you say yes to everything to make ends meet. Later, you specialise.

Undoubtedly, an extensive network of connections and a jam-packed portfolio counts in your favour. But why let lack of that get in the way of doing what you love, on your own terms? Plus, if you begin with a ready-made freelance career you’ve already made it and where’s the fun in that?

No more questions (for now)

There are thousands of practical ways to find work. It’s almost as if you could fill an Internet with them. Similarly, I can’t teach you how to communicate with other human beings because that’s what building a network is all about. It’s just about being nice and genuine, invest a bit of yourself into everything you do.

So let’s gaze wistfully beyond the 100-metre hurdles and see meaningful, fulfilling self-employment for the long-distance marathon that it is. The subtext to almost every question I listened to on Wednesday at Leeds University was “I’m nervous about getting out there and failing. What the world will make of me?”.

That’s what really worries people and holds them back.

The real obstacle is preparing for and dealing with the emotional challenges ahead and making sure you stay focused on having a jolly good time of it along the way – becoming a better human being with every incremental advance and setback.

And there’s only one way of really knowing how you’ll get on.

May I recommend a book to read on the journey?

The Human Freelancer book

LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!

Self-help business books perpetuate the myth that success is relentless growth and more of everything means progress. They preach about bookkeeping and market research: things you might need to do of course. But let’s face it they’re fucking boring.

The Human Freelancer book is your antidote: stuffed full of emotional support and insightful advice for vulnerable newbies to self-employment like you.

Buy it now