I’ve done many different things as a freelancer: from teaching surf and yoga to becoming a full-time content writer & digital nomad. Here are 10 best lessons I have learned as a freelancer so far.
This year marks the fifth year of my freelancing career. Yay me! In the past five years, I’ve done many different things: from teaching surf and yoga to organising international retreats to becoming a full-time content writer. Here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learnt as a freelancer so far.
I think this is the biggest, most important lesson I have learned in the past 5 years. Freelancers are forced to deal with uncertainty. You don’t know how much you’re going to earn, you don’t know if you’re going to get enough work, and you don’t know if and when you’re going to be successful.
In the first 3 years, I thought almost every day about quitting and going back to a ‘safe’ office job. Having a steady income every month is quite appealing. It’s a very normal thought that every freelancer is familiar with.
But imagining myself going back to work for someone else actually tied my stomach into a sailor’s knot. So, I didn’t have a choice but to continue walking the path of my freelancing career. After 5 years as a freelancer, I’ve learned that the thought about quitting only comes from my fear of the unknown.
And the funny thing is that an office job is as ‘safe’ as freelancing. Do you think you’ll never get fired? That you get to keep all of your pension? That you will never have a burnout? Is it ‘safe’ to take out a mortgage then?
Life is full of risk and uncertainty. Freelancers probably need to accept that faster.
I learned that you have to do things, and then anything is possible. So stop thinking that you first have to build up years of experience. Stop thinking that you first need to feel ready. You’ll never feel ready. The best and quickest way to learn is by doing. And it’s incredible what you can achieve when you get out of your own way.
The first time I hosted a surf and yoga retreat, I didn’t have any experience. My ex told me that I should volunteer or work for a retreat company first, so I could see how things were done. It is good advice but I didn’t listen to it. Instead, I did it all on my own and learned more in a month than I would have in a year working for somebody else.
When I was younger, I was always too shy to say what I really wanted. My insecurity made me prefer to ‘leave things to fate’ rather than to go after my dreams myself. An absurd and highly ineffective strategy. Fortunately, this has changed in many areas of my life, especially my career.
Nothing will happen if you don’t put yourself out there. This applies to your presence both offline and online. You need a website and social media to showcase yourself and your work. I have a couple of regular clients. Half of them I got by sharing my work and telling people what I do on Facebook, Instagram, and my own website.
Discipline comes easier to some people than others. If you have zero discipline, then freelancing might not be for you. You need to be able to kick your own ass sometimes.
Every day, you have to open your laptop and start work. It doesn’t matter if you do what you love. After all, work ain’t no holiday. As a freelancer, you don’t have anyone bossing you around (especially when you’re single), so you have to do it yourself.
I have learned that I work best if I have a regular routine. It’s funny that the more freedom I get, the more structure I need. I live in Bali and I surf. So at first, I worked around the swell.
On flat days, I worked and on the days there was swell, I surfed. Since Bali has waves almost every day, I was broke after 3 months. That’s when I decided to work from Monday to Friday and only surf in the morning (I know, I’m tough on myself).
Many freelancers find it difficult to find an hourly rate. You can go two ways. You either ask a good price straight away, so you only attract clients who are looking for quality. Or you start low and build up experience.
I chose the second way. And within one year, my price and my income increased fivefold. This may seem like a lot, but that’s because I was doing jobs for less than a nasi goreng (fried rice, super cheap here in Indo). I thought I needed to build up a portfolio and gain some experience first.
But once I was getting enough work, I decided to ask for more. My clients sent me positive feedback so I knew I was worth it. Asking for more wasn’t easy but my friends encouraged me to increase my price. One of them said that if I’d keep working for nothing, I would never have time to land better-paid jobs. Makes so much sense.
My price is a lot better now, so I also have time to develop high-quality work. And the more I improve my skills, the more I can ask.
Finding a good work/life balance is difficult for everyone, including freelancers. Work comes in waves. Sometimes you are drowning in jobs and sometimes there is a flat spell.
The flatness never lasts long but you have to learn not to panic. Enjoy your free time or work on your own projects. Whenever it’s a bit quiet, I use that time to write something for my own website. A new job often presents itself before I even get to finish my article.
Having a 3 to 6 months financial buffer is a good way to have some peace of mind. This way you don’t need to panic at all when you’re going through a flat spell. Although it’s tempting to spend everything on travel, gadgets or clothing, it’s wiser to set some money aside.
Also, something I highly recommend: try to lower your cost of living. If you learn to be content with less (fewer clothes, fewer gadgets, smaller home), it makes your life and freelancing career a lot easier. I kind of became a minimalist when I started freelancing. Makes traveling easier, too.
Freelancers often work from home. How cool is it that you can make money in your pyjamas from the comfort of your own couch? Well, to be honest, after a while it gets a bit boring. I combine working at home with working in a café, library or co-working spot. I enjoy being surrounded by other freelancers, digital nomads or entrepreneurs from time to time.
If you are home alone all day, you can start to feel a little isolated and lonely. And if you have a family or live together with your partner, you might be able to concentrate a bit better somewhere else.
I used to be horrified by the word ‘networking’. It’s not that I don’t know how to talk to people, it’s just that the pressure of that word alone made me want to vomit. But if it happens in a spontaneous, informal way, it’s a completely different story.
The word networking should be substituted by ‘talking to people’. Everyone can do that, right? Maybe some better than others. But it’s still a necessary and useful skill. By talking to other people, telling them what you do and what you like, new opportunities present themselves.
You can do this at parties or when you’re playing sports, at conferences, on your travels, etc. My goal is never to get a new job but rather to have a nice conversation. If it turns out that you are talking to another entrepreneur who happens to be looking for someone like you, that’s just a bonus. This attitude takes away all the pressure.
There is no linear path to success. As a freelancer, you will go through highs and lows. You’ll take detours, roundabouts and wrong turns. You learn what you like and don’t like, what works well and what doesn’t. You are a lifelong student. And that’s the fun thing about freelancing, there’s always something new to learn.
Also, success is a subjective concept. When are you successful? When you have a Ferrari parked in front of your villa? When you are working on a fun, creative project? When you have more time to spend on your hobbies or loved ones?
Whatever it is, there will inevitably be ups and downs. Just like life itself. The goal is to enjoy your chosen path. It doesn’t even matter whether you arrive at your ‘destination’ or not.
Life is here to be lived. There is no destination, there is no success, and there is no failure. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most beautiful lesson you can learn as a freelancer (or human being in general).
Want to learn more about freelancing? Check out these tips to find freelancing jobs for beginners.