One of the joys of working for yourself is that you can direct the course of your own career. I think this is a combination of being willing to try new things and an ability to stay true to what keeps you motivated. I am fortunate to love the work that I do but it’s a tough market out there and there are bound to be difficult times. I’ve found that a process of reflection and re-orientation helps me to take stock and stay with what I enjoy doing most.
Here are four questions that I find useful to ask to help me reflect and re-orientate:
1 Am I happy with the work I am being offered?
All freelancers will be familiar with the need to take the work that is there but that doesn’t mean you give up all control. If you are getting projects that do not excite you or feel unmanageable it’s a sign that you are not sending out the right messages about what you do, or that you are not negotiating the boundaries well. If you are clear about the skills you offer, it’s alright to say you can’t deliver on other parts of a project. I’ve learned this the hard way – I tried to be a one-woman band because I felt I had to do everything. These days, I sub-contract or collaborate with others who have complementary skills and I’m more confident about stating what I can offer and what I can’t.
2 Am I getting work that is developing and broadening my skills and expertise?
There comes a point where you get known for doing something well. People recommend you to others and you can find that you are repeating work and that you are no longer challenged or learning anything new. There’s always a balance to be struck between challenge and routine: between the project that stretches, and adds to, your skills and the one that you can do with your eyes closed. Everyone has a different preference but it’s my guess that most freelancers like to have a fair dose of challenge in their work because that is what keeps it interesting. At different times in our lives this balance can shift: I was happy with routine work after the birth of my third child – the more routine the better! And again, later, whilst I helped care for my father with dementia. Strangely, though, during another difficult time in my personal life, I threw myself into work and study in a way I had never done before. So the work/life balance effect is complicated. The right work can be a tonic in hard times.
3 Do I need to learn, or do, something new to stay ahead of the curve?
Every freelancer needs to horizon-scan. Storms and sea-changes are always on the way and it’s best to be prepared. Your business can be washed away overnight unless you keep an eye on what is changing and keep up to date. I worked for many years as a distance learning author but I knew that the digital world would change what I did. Little did I know it would happen in one blow. I’d been on a rolling contract for years and then the organisation I worked for changed its business plan and all freelance contracts were terminated. There’s another tip in there of course – never rely on one client for your income.
4 Do I describe my work in a way that reflects what I actually do?
Being adaptable is central to the success of freelancing. My core skills and concerns remain the same as when I made the leap to becoming freelance twenty five years ago. I like to listen to people who are passionate about what they do and who know their subject inside out; then I like to write their ideas down and make them accessible for other people. And I am fascinated by what helps people to learn – and what stands in the way of learning. I’m a writer, but a writer who has described herself variously over the years as a journalist, editorial consultant, distance learning author, digital content author, learning consultant and so on…. How you describe yourself is important for how potential customers find you. Google searching has made us all aware of this – but it was ever thus. A word of caution, though. Resist the temptation to pretend to be something you are not. There’s no point in describing your work in a way that is not authentic because people see through that immediately. That’s not to say you can’t big yourself up a bit. That’s allowed!
As I was writing this post, I came across a blog https://medium.com/@stef/what-gets-done-is-what-gets-done-6d711818b86a by @stef which talks about professional tinkering. This is a great way to describe those times when I am not engaging in work that pays the bills but it’s work that helps to keep me in touch and interested in what I do. He writes:
It’s professional tinkering. It’s stuff that is connected to your work, but it’s not 9-5 work. It’s not stuff that’s going to get released as work by your team, it won’t have a knock-on effect or require support, validation, approval. Yet it’s work-related.
That stuff is okay. It’s interruptible, it’s non-essential, it’s interesting, it keeps the brain going, and it’s to be encouraged in those around you. The core hours of the business day should be on core things for what you’re working on, and spare/travel/reading time can be about your work without being your work. A crucial difference.
The only difference is I think professional tinkering is my work – it’s not something to be fitted in around my work. I don’t ask clients to pay for that time, but when they engage my services they expect someone who is professional and informed. Professional tinkering is the way I get there.