Freelancing: The art of reinvention

I have now clocked up twenty five years working for myself and if anyone asked me what has kept me afloat, I’d say it is constant reinvention.

Reinvention – taking stock

By reinvention, I don’t mean I wipe the slate and start anew. It’s more a process of ‘taking stock’ which is generally preceded by a period of feeling unsettled and mildly discontented in my work.

In these times, the textbook business response is to set about making goals – preferably SMART ones (Specific, Manageable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely). For years I bought into this idea but have only recently realised that this is not what I actually do. I do set goals but my process is not goal-oriented. For me, it is less about setting a future goal and more about letting ideas surface. Browsing the ever-wonderful Maria Popova blog , I came across this wonderful quote from Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost). :

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark.”

Wise advice for life and for work. So many changes have happened in my freelance working life and, by keeping that door open, I am able to adapt to the changes that come year by year. It is not easy though – it is dark and a little scary on the other side of that door, which is why it is so tempting to stick with what we know and to keep that door firmly closed.

This is my process of reinvention (I’ve resisted the temptation to make a new mnemonic):

1 Register how I am feeling

I become aware of being unsettled, mildly discontented, irritated or bored.

2 Interrogate those feelings

Luckily I have friends who bear with me as I ask these questions – but when I risk boring them, I write my thoughts in a diary.

  • What is missing?
  • What is good?
  • What do I need more of/less of?
  • Why am I feeling less engaged/motivated?
  • Has something changed outside work that means I need to adjust my work patterns?

Sometimes it’s as simple as needing to cut my hours and take a holiday. But on other occasions I can see that the balance of my work has skewed, for example: I’m spending too much time doing things that are less satisfying or working with people who do not share my values or commitment to quality. Or it may be that the environment I’m working in has changed and I need to upgrade my skills in new ways.

3 Reach out and engage with possibilities

It’s tempting at this time to withdraw but I try to do the opposite. When work is quiet I follow what interests me – on Twitter, on forums, in conferences. I give where I can give, by helping others or answering questions. I sow seeds by letting people know I am around, that I have these skills and would like to help. It’s not networking or marketing exactly, more a way of putting myself out there so that people can come back to me if they want to. I know I’m not the only freelancer who has this serendipity experience but I find that work tends to appear just when I need it.

4 Re-set the compass Compass set to Future

After this time of scanning what is going on in my field and reappraising how I work, I try to be more conscious in setting a new direction. This is not goal-setting in the traditional sense. I’m quite comfortable with non-specific, non-time-limited goals, provided I know I am setting off in the right direction. It’s more like setting a course on a compass than deciding on a destination.

Tactical serendipity

While I was thinking about this process, I came across a blog post by Angela Maiers where she talks about ‘tactical serendipity’ – ways in which you can increase your chances of ‘happy accidents’, those moments when you meet the right person, come across an idea or find a resource that is precisely what you need at that time. She quotes Steve Jobs:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

So now I have a name for what I have intuitively learned to do. Not goal-setting, but tactical serendipity. The process owes something to Harold Jarche’s ‘seek, sense, share’ personal knowledge model that I wrote about in a previous post. But, for me, it is a bigger process than managing knowledge – it is a whole self-reorientation that affects the work that I do and the way that I work.

Are you freelancing? Would you like support to survive and thrive?

Reflecting on what has worked for me throughout my freelance career has made me think I’d like to offer one-to-one mentoring and coaching to other freelancers. I’ve got space for one or two new clients if you would like some regular or short-term support to breathe new life into your freelancing career. Perhaps you would like to explore together how you can develop tactical serendipity in your work? Please visit the contact page if you are interested or leave me a comment if any of this rings true for you.

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