How I Learned to Outcompete Much More Experienced Freelancers
Article originally appeared on FastCompany.com
Most freelance careers take a little while to build. But for a long time, my growth curve looked like the readout of a dead man’s EKG. The main thing holding me back was myself: I was ashamed of being a beginner.
So I hid behind cheesy LinkedIn taglines like “Professional Writer,” and I spun my writing history into sounding impressive. But what that really told the world was that I was scared to be me–somebody new to the game.
Looking back, I lost business this way. Clients who might’ve hired me were turned off by my pretentiousness. Here’s how I finally got over it.
BRUTAL HONESTY WORKS BETTER
I realize now that the better strategy would have been candor:
Hey Businessperson, I don’t have much experience. I’m just starting out—but I can write. And I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. You’ll love my work, guaranteed. If you don’t, you don’t have to pay.
Using this strategy, I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to build up my credibility. And while writing on spec would have been risky for me—putting time into a project without no promised payout—it still would’ve been valuable experience to pad my resume.
Not only that, but in exposing myself and failing more, my confidence and resilience as a new freelancer would’ve doubled in half the time. Instead, my fear of being recognized as a neophyte slowed my progress. Worse, I put more energy into building and preserving a false image than in developing my value. Because I didn’t believe in myself, I couldn’t count on others to believe in me either.
Writing my way out
Fortunately, my favorite area of writing is self-improvement. And the more I practiced things like journaling, self-affirmations, and meditation, the less embarrassed I became. Steadily, my work became more genuine and my strategy for getting it out there more ambitious. I pitched national corporations and painted myself just as I was: an underdog passionate about writing and inspiring others. When I pitched the real me, clients were more willing to take a chance. And I delivered.
Once I shook off my beginner’s nerves, I gave other people a real chance to accept me as is. And why wouldn’t they? I write for hours a day, edit for just as many, and do my best to live and breathe my craft. Businesses need that kind of ethic–and that conviction is my personal brand as a writer. It’s part of my value proposition. I’ve found that clients are willing to bet on me if they sense it and know that it’s authentic—even if my competitors have (much) more experience under their belts.
Here are a few of the bad habits I had to shake–and the new ones I learned to adopt–in order to compete successfully with other full-time freelancers despite being a newcomer.
DROP THE CHINTZY TAGLINES, AND JUST BE A PROFESSIONAL
Professionalism is evident in your conduct and in your work. No amount of taglines can make you a true professional, and other professionals know that. So don’t be afraid to embrace whatever level of your craft where you find yourself. Just be a “writer” or a “designer” or a “consultant”–no need to be a “professional writer” or “expert graphic designer.” Scrap the adjectives. Be humble. People like that.
Professionals are known for their work ethics, not their job titles–and that’s especially true of freelancers. They go to conferences to learn the latest techniques. They read trade publications. They do the thing they say they do for hours and hours a day. So do that.
Many would-be pros drop out of the game before they get a chance to make real money because they aren’t earning enough. And it’s true that working for yourself full-time can take a long time to become sustainable. Many people spend years in the the part-time phase. But if you accept that the money will come eventually–and that it will come faster the more you practice–you’ll feel better about devoting several hours a day to whatever it is you do. Just make sure to do it. Be the professional you want to be seen to be.
How? Start small and work up from there. Browse websites and businesses to see where your work would be useful. Try solving a problem that a company doesn’t know it had, even if it’s a minor a design flaw, or just a clumsy landing page–and even if you’re doing it on your own rather than for money. Work on that project as if you weregetting paid. Stick with it until it’s completed. And at the very least, you’ll have refined your craft. And at the most, you’ll have something real that you can pitch to the company, and if they like it, they’ll buy it.
VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE COUNTS, TOO
Writers can learn from their own mistakes and successes as well as others’. If you study others practitioners’ experiences and absorb them vicariously, you won’t have to stumble around for years learning the same lessons firsthand. You can apply the book knowledge to real work.
I improved my writing considerably after reading just a couple of books. I took frenzied notes on just about every page, then focused on implementing each lesson into my next work session. Super simple. But it takes a level of discipline and persistence that not everybody has.
PRAISE YOUR EFFORT, NOT YOUR RESULTS
The key to sustaining your growth is to praise your effort, not your outcomes. If you rely only on your successes for confidence boosts, you’ll putter out before you earn 10 bucks. You’ll fail dozens if not hundreds of times before you get a positive result. So applaud every ounce of energy you devote toward your goals, whether that means studying or working. If you can’t learn how to support yourself emotionally and psychologically, you may not manage to support yourself financially, either.
START A SELF-ACCEPTANCE PRACTICE
In my experience, the easiest and most effective way to improve your self-acceptance is journaling. It only takes a few minutes at the end of the day. And all you have to write about are the things you were grateful for, especially the things you did–the effort you showed, what you were proud of, and so on.
This simple habit teaches you to accept yourself no matter what level you’re at, whom you’re competing with, and which setbacks you’ve recently encountered. It teaches you to look for the best in yourself, relentlessly, even when that’s hardest. And that’s how you’ll get everyone else in the world to accept you, too–clients and employers included.