7 Career Skills I Learned from Being Self-Employed

19 Apr
my former home office

my former home office

Since graduation, I’ve spent the majority of my career as a freelance writer and the founder of my own creative/marketing company. But over the last year I’ve undergone a major career change, shifting from ‘self-employed’ to ‘employee’ and relegating my contract work to nights and weekends. While settling into my position as part of a team, I’ve gotten a chance to appreciate the skills that I picked up as a freelancer that have helped me to stealthily navigate my career and life in other settings.

Whether you’re dealing with a client, coworker, boss, or friend, the same skills will help you to earn what you deserve and stay cool, productive, balanced, and challenged.

1. Don’t fear the unknown task.
When I worked for myself, I would have been out of the job if I declined a project because it seemed a little (or sometimes a lot) out of my league. I wouldn’t have been growing my skill set either. Whether at work, volunteering, at home, or socializing, sometimes it’s smart to push yourself to take on the scary project. Ignore the I’m not smart/strong/brave enough voice in your head and go for it.

2. Say ‘no’ when things don’t feel right.
When you’re an artist/creative and a woman, there are people throughout your life who put the squeeze on you for time, work, emotional energy, and more. Women are often wired to want to keep things feeling comfortable, and we do this by saying ‘yes’ too often. Recognize when you’d rather not and stick to your guns. Your work will be better because you actually want to do it, you’ll suffer less stress, and your relationship with your client/boss/spouse/friend will be better off.

3. Save yourself time and stress by creating boundaries, managing up, and setting expectations.
People are different. They communicate differently. They work differently.  They manage projects differently. They require different things in order to thrive and feel comfortable. Recognize what you expect out of others and yourself, and then figure out what you actually need. Recognize what your client/coworker/spouse/friend expects, what they actually need, and try to meet them in a place that feels fair and comfortable for both of you.

4. Ask for more than what you think you’re worth.
I’ll admit that this one is an uphill battle for me. But I realize that as a freelancer, I already have a leg up on many other young professionals. I’ve had ample opportunity to practice deciding upon my own wage, asking clients for it, and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. Holy cow, have I under-quoted on jobs before! There are certainly writers who charge more than me, and there are many who charge less too.

But what I learned through all the clients and negotiations is that you should always try to ask for more than you think you’re worth. Because chances are, you probably undervalue yourself. Especially when negotiating with an employer, never accept the first offer. Always ask for more. You’ll probably get it.

5. Know when to cut yourself off.
I’ve also made the mistake (as I’m sure many freelancers & entrepreneurs have) of totally over-booking myself and leaving little to no me time on the calendar for months on end. When you freelance, work can be feast or famine, and it feels scary to say ‘no’ to jobs, or to say that you’re not available for three or four months. But you have to give yourself time to relax. Time off is precious, and it doesn’t take more than working through a weekend or two before important things begin to unravel (your sanity, your relationships, the quality of your work).

6. Be wary of the internship/unpaid gig/pro-bono project
If you’re an artist or working in the creative industry, then you’ve probably already faced a handful of unpaid job “opportunities” that claim to pay you with “exposure,” “portfolio building,” or by helping you to “get your foot in the door.” As a writer, I implore you: Do not take unpaid work! PLEASE! With every unpaid or might-as-well-be-unpaid wage you accept, you are undermining your own worth and the value of your fellow creatives. What we do is worth a wage. Hold out for respectable compensation and don’t be afraid to tell people that their pay (or lack thereof) is shamefully low.

7. Pick your projects and positions wisely.
In our hired today, fired tomorrow world, there’s no telling which of your technical/creative skills will sustain you over the long haul. This means that it’s important to think critically about the type of work that you take on. Diversify your skill set to give yourself more options. But don’t just say yes to a project because it’s something you haven’t done before. It’s equally important to decline projects that don’t fit with the skills you intend to develop.

At the heart of all my experience is the knowledge that nothing is more important than the pursuit of experiences that help to move you closer toward what fulfills you and makes you happy. If an opportunity feels totally out of sync with your values or goals, then it’s not worth it, no matter how fabulous the pay or prestigious the title.

How about you:

What career lessons have you learned over the years?

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