The latest is freelancing as a lifestyle. I used to use the term “freelance lifestyle” but I let it go. I’ve just met too many different freelancers with too many different lives to say that anymore.
What I say now is that it’s life-changing.
Once you shift your relationship with employment and exploitation things change. They have to change.
But Lord do they change slowly.
I’m sitting here, five years into my full-time freelance career and feeling lucky I’ve gotten through my own dip this quickly.
Expect for the most extreme situations, freelancing is a slow burn. It’s more than a marathon. It’s changing the way you engage with work — something that for most of us dictates where we live, how we love, where we raise our children, how often we see our families, our health, our fun, our old age and how we spend our youth.
Our relationship with work is a bigger deal than most people want to admit. For many of us as Black people, other people deciding that people like them shouldn’t have to deal with the ugly part of work (but still wanting to reap all the benefits) is the literal reason we live where we do…even the reason I’m writing this post in this language!
We know, possibly better than any group of people on this planet, that changing a relationship with work changes lives.
That’s why resilience is so important for us as freelancers.
If you want to see the life change that taking control of your relationship with employment can make, get ready for the journey. That’s what I want to help you with today.
What This Post Covers
This post walks you through the core traits that help you build resilience and a sustainable life as a freelancer. Remember…you can get better at this stuff. Even if you weren’t born with it or didn’t develop these things when you were younger, you can improve them today.
I have to make an extra #BlackFolk note here — resilience isn’t just enduring, working harder, ‘grinding’, ignoring your pain, or getting up one more time. Resilience is learning how to take your freelance challenges and turn them into the valuable information and lessons that will improve your career and make your freelance life easier over time.
So let’s do this.
1) Focus on self-direction.
We’re kicking things off with this one because this right here? This is the one that employment (and even most education) grinds out of you.
We learn early on to internalize other people’s goals, titles, and lifestyles — which means even when we might feel self-directed, there’s a good chance that we’re heavily motivated by objectives and fears that aren’t even ours in the first place.
I think that’s what gets a lot of us tripped up choosing a niche and terrified to market — we haven’t had practice really putting in effort for ourselves.
Self-direction though is empowering. The truth about most freelance struggles is that you have much more flexibility and more options in getting out of them.
Niche not working out? Start exploring a new one. Can’t afford health insurance? Raise your rates to cover it. Racist or high-stress client? Fire them and start looking for a replacement (or the other way around if you still need that check coming in). The answers might not be easy, but they’re there.
Spend some time imagining the life that you want…I mean it. I want you to be creative and detailed here.
Remember, we’re not just talking about your career; this is your life. How much free time do you need? What part do you want your work to play in your life? How much do you want to sleep? What kind of stress levels can you tolerate? All of these play a part in establishing your freelance ‘Why’.
It’s almost impossible to start being self-directed if you don’t know what you’re working toward, so this is thee most important step.
2) Get around people who know what’s possible.
Community is SO important in freelancing.
Too many of us are out here trying to build freelance careers alone…that, or completely based on the image other freelancers portray. It’s hard to build a realistic vision for what your life can look like if you’re stuck in your own head or only seeing superficial freelance experiences. You’ll probably out here setting unrealistic goals AND not dreaming big enough.
Community also puts you in a position to help others, which builds confidence and helps you feel aligned with a greater purpose. That will keep you going for a very long time in this work.
Start having conversations. That might be in the BlackFreelance Academy Skype group, skill-based freelance groups, general freelance communities or (preferably) a mix.
You need to be having conversations with people weekly, if not daily so you get a complete picture.
3) Prioritize your mental health.
Freelancing did a lot to improve my mental health, but I’d be lying if I said the opposite wasn’t possible.
Working independent of an employer has some unique challenges that can make conditions like depression and anxiety worse (which is why I don’t tell anybody to just up and quit their job).
Freelancing overall should be a benefit to your mental health. Better mental health means better endurance as a freelancer, so this needs to be something you keep an eye on.
The great thing about this kind of work is that since you have more control, you can adjust elements of your freelance business to fit your mental health goals. I personally focus on earning more in less time because money stresses me out and working over 35 hours a week makes me feel like I don’t have control of my own life.
You also should check in with professionals. That might mean podcasts, online resources, an occasional visit with a therapist who specializes in entrepreneurs, or an ongoing relationship to manage any conditions. Regardless, don’t push off your mental health to take care of later.
Side note: If you have a recommendation for mental health resources that hasn’t been mentioned here, drop it in the comments.
4) Reframe ‘failure’.
I know a lot of people hate the non-response and rejection that comes with freelancing, but honestly? It’s really valuable information.
As a freelancer, you’re continuously shaping your business to meet the needs and demands of a market. So every ignored email and polite “maybe later”? That’s a signal that you need to probably need to make some adjustments.
It might mean you need to rework a subject line or even rethink your niche altogether, but it’s always useful. Even outright racist interactions are telling you something about the nature of a person, organization, or even the culture of a niche.
Learn to find opportunity in failure and you’ll get a lot more life out of your freelance business.
Listen and take notes. Any time anything feels like a failure, stop. Then, ask yourself a few questions like
- What can I learn from this?
- What does this teach me about my business?
- What does this teach me about my market or this client?
- What new information have I gotten that can feed my future freelance strategies?
I won’t tell you every lesson is worth the price, but there is almost always an opportunity to take something away from it.
And while you’re at it, keep a list of your wins too (and ask those questions again).
5) Put down other people’s burdens.
This…is one I’m still working on myself. Whenever I pick up other people’s issues — even client issues — I remind myself of something one of my favorite managers used to say.
“Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.”
Now, this takes some nuance because clients are literally paying you to pick up their problems. But this is exactly why it’s so important to draw clear boundaries around the work and the problems you solve.
You have to know which problems to pick up and which to leave sitting right where they are to keep at this long enough to see real change in your life.
You know how I talk about knowing the value you provide as a freelancer? This is where it really pays off.
Say, for example, it’s my job as a content marketer to help a client build out content that provides value by driving business. That means I help them with writing, marketing, ideation, sales…I might even give them some social media tips.
It, however, is not my job to help them
- Communicate better with internal teams.
- Deal with disorganization and chaos within their organization.
- Make up for their lack of investment in proper resources or poor hiring decisions.
- Adjust my prices down to deal with revenue and profitability issues they’re responsible for.
Keep notes on your clients, their goals, strengths, and weaknesses so you know where your responsibilities start and stop in addressing their problems.
I’ll admit this is easier if you’ve got a few years of employment under your belt, (another leg up for older freelancers) but you can make progress here regardless of your experience level.
6) Say no.
Since we’re all coming into freelancing with YEARS of ‘Yes’ that we didn’t choose, most of us could benefit from getting better with ‘No’ early on.
‘No’ allows you to make space for yourself, your business, and a future of more freedom where your freelance business becomes increasingly beneficial to your life over time.
Say no to a schedule that doesn’t fit the life that you want. If you don’t want to work past 4 pm, put down a firm no and say yes to the things that will make it possible.
Say no to low prices, exploitative fields, and anything that doesn’t move you in a direction you want to go. Remember that you have options.
Resilience requires growth. If you aren’t looking back to learn from your past, you’re pretty much dead in the water. You either won’t make it long or you’ll be stuck in patterns that don’t get you closer to your life goals.
Reflection can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, especially at first. But as you learn to reframe the way you look at failure (remember that part?), you’ll start to see it as more of an opportunity than a task but also a really important tool in building your resilience.
Every six months in the Academy, we have Reflection and Assessment Month. But even if you’re not a member, you can do it on your own.
Take time to look back on your work as a freelancer, and have an honest conversation about the good, the bad, and the net impact freelancing is having on your life. You can do the same thing for individual clients, niches, partners, you name it.
8) Be less Self centered.
As much as your freelance business should be enhancing your life, it still isn’t a pure expression of yourself. While there’s creativity and artistic influence involved in your work, your business isn’t art. It’s not expression. Very little of this work is purely personal.
Your freelance business solves someone else’s problems.
If you get too much of yourself tied up in it, you won’t only take rejection and falling short too personally — you’ll miss opportunities for growth and will stress yourself out overworking to meet your own standards when your ‘good enough’ could’ve been someone else’s ‘great’.
What you think is a weakness might not even register for your clients. What you see as a strength might not provide much benefit for them at all. A big part of keeping at this work is getting out of your own head so you can be more objective about the work you’re doing.
Take some time to start seeing things from your clients’ perspective.
This is something that’s hard to do in healthy ways before you’ve established healthy boundaries and your own standards (see numbers 5 and 6). But once you have, you can extend yourself in healthier ways that will help you meet your clients’ needs and in turn, shape a business that works for you.
9) Work on your tolerance for ambiguity.
Few things in freelancing are cut-and-dry. That’s what sets it apart from employment.
You get to choose who you will and won’t work with, the projects you’ll accept or reject, even the fields you work in. Depending on your personality, past experiences and current needs, you might find that exciting…or terrifying. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, know that dealing with ambiguity is a skill and trait you develop your own sense for over time. The more comfortable you are with the wide-open and murky nature of freelancing, the easier (and more enjoyable) it all gets.
I’m a person who likes a certain level of stability, so for me to step into freelancing, it was important to find certainty and predictability where I could, at least during the first, rocky years. For me that meant in personal relationships and even choosing a niche and clients who were established (vs. emerging fields and startups). It also meant getting better at decision-making so that I could limit uncertainty where it wasn’t serving my goals.
I’ve already mentioned the BF Academy a couple of times, but here’s one last reminder to check it out. Am I selling you something? Yes. Do I also know that it provides something critical to building resilience, and sustainability for a really good value? Yup.
Whether you join or not, I want you to remember to be patient with yourself while you’re finding your path to freelance resilience. Give yourself room to grow.
Most importantly though, remember that you don’t have to do it alone, so if you have anything you want to talk about, drop it in the comments and I’ll get back to you.