Two years into my freelance writing career I’d made a whopping $10,000—barely enough to qualify as a hobby, let alone a career.
I still lived with mom and dad. And even though I put consistent effort into writing, I wasn’t fully committed to making it big. It took moving out to get where I am today, writing articles for national ad campaigns, working for multinational corporations, and coaching the people who are inspired by my work.
Hi there, and thanks for visiting Millennial Success! I’m Daniel Dowling, founder–and I’m also the smiley and inexplicably-pointing guy just above. (Yes, those are man-pris.)
Do you know what the exact opposite of success is?
In case you’re racking your brain, the opposite of success is my life story up until age 24, technically. Before then I’d been kicked out of highschool (twice), booted from the Army (which is almost impossible to do), and I dropped out of college. If failure was an art, I was f!$#*ng Picasso.
Learn about how I made a life-180 and started a lucrative freelance writing career in this podcast–>
Much as we hate them, ruts happen. We spend our mental energy griping about the rut, wishing it hadn’t happened, and pretending that it’ll disappear on its own. But ruts are completely under our control. And they most often occur when we’ve stopped our success routines.
Take me, for instance. I make a good living writing, and I’ve worked like a dog to get where I am. But I’m not immune to reality: if I stick to my good habits, good things happen. If I stop, even for a day, the proverbial shit hits the fan. Like last month.
How to fall into a rut
I’d been working on several large projects for state agencies and foreign companies over the last month. These accounts demanded a lot of my attention, and I had to adjust my schedule accordingly: where normally I’d spend my first three hours exercising, meditating, writing, then reading, this month I checked my email first thing in the morning.
Not a big deal. I handled my accounts well and nailed my assignments. But after the major projects concluded, I kept checking email first thing in the morning. I didn’t even have anything to check—I just kept doing it because I didn’t discipline myself to get back into my normal productive routine. And a funny thing happened.
I lost all of my motivation.
Before I knew it, two weeks had slipped away forever and I hadn’t the slightest accomplishment to show for it. I felt restless, uninspired, and helpless—the opposite of my normal charged self. I didn’t know what was happening. Even my daily staples like journaling and studying seemed harder than cleaning out the Augean Stables. And writing…forget about it. I did 500 words a day at max (normally it’s closer to 2,000), and some days I didn’t write at all.
That’s when I realized that no one is immune to bad habits. I’d gotten cocky, and thought I could do whatever I wanted and still keep kicking ass like usual. But after two fat weeks of nothing, and me feeling like a fraudulent toad, things came to a head.
How to get out of a rut
This weekend I woke up at 3:00am feeling worse than I could remember. I was gripped by an intense mixture of fear, guilt, anger, and uncertainty that wouldn’t budge. I tried deep breathing—nothing. I tried reading to fall back asleep—nada. That’s when I realized this was one problem I had to fix proactively. So I picked up my journal (which had collected a week’s worth of dust) and started scribbling maniacally. I was determined to earn my life back.
And I was brutally honest.
I wrote about every little habit that was keeping me down. I wrote about my inconsistency, and how I wasn’t living to my own standards. And in the free flow of words, the answer to my weeks-long funk stared me right in the face:
I had completely abandoned my morning success routines.
Where normally I’d wake up with purpose, meditate, plan my day, exercise, knock out a writing project, and study, I was checking email. It doesn’t sound as heinous as I’m painting it to be, but the influence was subtle. It stole my confidence bit by bit till I was paralyzed.
Normally, every part of my morning would boost my confidence—I’d boost my mood with exercise; I’d feel proud of how disciplined I was as I wrote my first article; I’d feel smarter and more capable after having studied—and on and on. But now I was starting my day with a confidence drain.
When there wasn’t anything in the inbox, I felt worthless. And I was more focused on what I received than the effort I gave and the work I produced. That slight shift in focus was enough to degrade my sense of purpose, and it happened gradually. I didn’t notice much after a day or two. But then a week passed, and I felt bad about myself. Two weeks passed and I was no better than a speck on a frog on a log.
That’s how fast your life can change when you ease up on your success routines.
But the best part of this story is how fast you can turn it all around.
In that midnight session of infuriated journaling, I figured out exactly what went wrong, and what I needed to do to turn it all around. I spent an hour identifying the major gaps in my daily routine and planned for something better the next day. After my hands and sheets were covered in blue pen-scratches, I lay in bed confident that tomorrow would be different.
If I won the morning, I knew I’d win the day.
I’m not going to say breaking the routine was a piece of cake. It took every bit of my willpower.
I forced myself to meditate—to fight the urge to head straight for my laptop as I’d done the past 15 days. And after getting my mind right, I forced myself to do my normal morning exercise routine, which takes about 45 minutes. I hated it at first, and felt I’d much rather be surfing the internet and checking my email. But midway through the workout, I felt my old sense of confidence growing. The real challenge would be when I got back home—when I had to write.
Again, I forced myself to pick up the keyboard and to deny every impulse that screamed, “Check your email!” The keys were heavy, and my mind was slow. But I persevered. And after two hours—normally an article takes 30-45 minutes—I’d worked through three paragraphs. But I was proud of myself for the effort. And when I felt that pride surge, I tapped into a creative wave. Soon I’d finished my first real piece in over two weeks.
I still didn’t feel like my usual chipper self. But I knew if I stuck to my confidence building routines, I’d be back in no time—definitely later in the week. But I surprised myself.
By the end of the day, after hitting my standard goals, and then going above and beyond to reach my dreams, I felt as if I’d never been bucked off in the first place. I was high energy, high productivity, and high on life. Instead of the dread I’d known for two weeks, I felt optimistic about the future, and excited about my opportunities to kick ass, refine my skills, and make life better.
By the end of the day, I hit my pillow knowing that I’d done the absolute best that I could do. And that gives me the self assurance to strive for and accomplish great things.
So what will you do about your rut?
After making a profession of clawing through ruts, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But if I can turn my momentum around on a dime, in under a day, so can you. All it takes is focus, clarity, a plan, and a promise:
• I will do only the things that boost my confidence
• I will start first thing in the morning,
• and I will keep it up all day.
Success is that simple.
The more specific your plans for an ass-kicking day are, the likelier you are to stick to them and build your confidence. So choose positive thoughts and habits—you’ll do more inspiring things. And when you find yourself in a rut, be brutally honest about the thoughts and habits that are holding you back. That’s how you’ll get back out.
If you’ve been in a rut for over a month, you may want to consider a life coach.
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.
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