7 things creative freelancers like me never talk about (but should)

Image of article author Ben Keenan.

It’s called the gig economy, projecteering, or solo entrepreneurship. Whichever buzzword you choose, being solely responsible for your own living is the fastest growing small business demographic in Australia.

As of two years ago, I’m a proud full time freelancer. I think it’s the best and most rational way to make a living. I’ve been doing it in one form or another my whole working life.

Here are some warts and all reasons why I think you should start too, even if you already have a day job.

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1. Freelancing has a cool and somewhat violent history

To get all etymological on you, the word freelance itself comes from the Middle Ages, when armies would employ mercenaries – soldiers of fortune who fought battles for money. They had a “Free Lance” to spear their enemies with. I know, right? Getting an ABN and some business cards seems a lot more badass than it did a few seconds ago.

2. Working for lots of people and places makes you better at what you do

I’m a professional creative who solves business and marketing problems. So I now get exposed to more points of view, problems, talents and solutions than I ever have been before. I learn valuable things from people every day, and transfer that expertise across my clients as I pick it up. As a result, I’m a bigger node on my network.

As you become a bigger node, more things run through you – referrals, advice, projects. When this happens, your visibility increases, your connections naturally grow, and you get more work.

Use: Write a business plan

3. Doing your own thing forces you to confront your relationship with money head on

Money is one of those taboo topics we aren’t meant to talk about. But I’m going to admit, my father-of-three-provider instinct forces me to think that however much we have, we’d be better off with more. So I had to retrain that panicked and irrational part of myself that thinks taking on more adds up to a better quality of life.

The only way around this was to teach myself to get used to my zero days. That is, when you venture into this life of independence, there will be days when you are not being paid. Hell, there could be weeks.

What you need to do is retrain your expectations around the irregularity of your new found living. And of course you need to put some processes in place to better manage your time and your money.

Which leads me to...

4. You’ll learn how to wean yourself off the expectation of having a regular salary

As stupid as it sounds, like many people, I saw fixed salary as a scoreboard for my achievements, and without one, I didn’t have a particularly good means of keeping score.

In the first three months, I started thinking that my earnings, like a scoreboard, should have an upwards trajectory. If I earn X this week, I should earn that more the next, right?

I jumped at too many things, started filling this imaginary salary hole, and by the middle of the year I was literally spending every spare moment working. I kept telling myself that I was building something, and this would all steady out, but the truth was, I was just putting myself on the road to burnout.

So here’s what I did:

I worked out two targets for my income. One is my share of our basic living costs (factoring my partner's income too), covering the essential things from mortgage to food and utilities. This is the amount where we don’t suddenly need to make rice and soy sauce for dinner, hock the furniture, or have to go back to bit-torrenting for our entertainment needs.

The second is my ideal target. That’s the amount that pushes me towards what a full-time wage looks like. It has lifestyle stuff baked into it like holidays, over-priced home wares, and splurging for UBER eats mid-week.

Most importantly, those amounts are worked out over a quarter which is how the PAYG tax in Australia breaks up your year anyway.

That means that as long as I make it to my basic goal we are fine, if I land somewhere between those two goals, we are in a good place. If I get to my ideal goal or better, I’ve worked out a spreadsheet which reminds me that I’m ahead in the next quarter. That way I can make some work choices where money isn’t the deciding factor.

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5. You’ll realise you need to erase two months from your year

The other important factor in these quarterly targets is that you need to work out what you need for 12 months of the year, then factor in that you’ll only be working for 10. For me that’s erasing January and February from the work calendar.

Work ceases, beach holidays begin and work will dip to nothing. Embrace it, you need to trick your brain into thinking it’s that magical time of having school holidays as a kid. Stay up late, read, cook and play with your kids. The work will disappear and will rise back up again.

That's the seasonal law of freelance.

6. You’ll need to understand the unwritten rules of networking

If you’ve gone out on your own, what you have essentially done is to trust that your network is going to support you. Your network is now your emotional support, your marketing and how you are going to sustain your living now and forever.

And here’s how it works. You are in a network. In fact, you are in hundreds, and each of them intersect and overlap. You have your friends, your family and your workplaces from the time you started working. To keep your network warm, all you need to do is feed it.

What does this mean?

It means giving back to it by doing things and making things that benefit and connect others without expecting anything in return. Share useful information, connect people, share your process, mentor people, volunteer and do talks/workshops.

7. You’ll soon make 'things not turning out as you expected' your default setting

There’s a great bit of advice that comes from the stoic philosophers, of whom I’ve read exactly zero but have learned about through podcasts.

Their advice is this:

Instead of being an upbeat go getter that believes everything is going to turn out brilliantly, dip into the other end of the bell curve and operate on a tiny level of pessimism. Keep your eyes open, and make 'that didn't turn out as expected' your default setting.

That way when things get cancelled, take longer than you hoped, or people end up not being as nice as they seem, you’ll be emotionally and intellectually ready for it.

Your ability to get through the hard times becomes part of the rich irrational game of working life – when you view work like that, you’ll no longer need to give them a seriousness they doesn’t deserve.

The upside of this? When things do work out for your freelancing business, it’s pleasantly surprising.

And that’s a far better place to be.

Read: Become an independent contractor