Sometimes the world of freelancing and consulting seems like a Good Old Boy’s Club. That is, you’re either “in it,” or you’re not, you either “get it,” or you don’t. And you either “have what it takes,” or you’re doomed to fail.
Fortunately for my current lifestyle (because if I kept that attitude, I would never be able to do what I’m doing now), I disagree! The process of starting a freelance business is a complex, exciting, and ever-evolving one. You often have to act without having all the answers or knowing what to do. And as you act without knowledge, you learn, you get better, and you grow special skills.
When you freelance, you often have to act without having all the answers or knowing what to do. And as you act without knowledge, you learn, you get better, and you grow special skills.
So, let’s get better at it! As I thought of the most helpful thing I could write about this week, it occurred to me that there were a few things I could do that it seemed like other people couldn’t do (or they were really, really impressed that I could do it). And it wasn’t party tricks like The Worm or making my knuckles bend in weird directions. It was daily things and habits I picked up over the years an that struck me as completely normal.
There’s the kicker: normal to established freelancers is often a superpower to the uninitiated.
Here are four superpowers I have picked up over the years which — if you pick up NOW — will save you tons of time, trouble, and help you build a successful business. I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone write about or talk about these four superpowers, so I knew it was time to share them with you guys:
1. Initiating the deep grind
When you write for a living, you learn pretty quickly that writing comes and goes with your mood (or muse, as some might say). I think this is the same for just about any creative pursuit. No matter how good I get, am still slave to the writing muse from time to time, especially when I have a lot of time on a deadline. However, sometimes I don’t have the luxury of not being in the mood or not cranking it out. Enter: initiating the deep grind.
The deep grind is my phrasing for those moments when you sit down to work, feel to your bone that you are not in the mood to do the work, and in a weird combination of mental and physical masterwork you dig through your desire to not-write and just start writing. You take nothing (no energy, no mood, no jive) and jive in the face of it all, pushing through the physical and mental momentum you have to do absolutely nothing to MAKE it happen.
The deep grind allows you to take nothing (no energy, no mood, no jive) and jive in the face of it all, the very essence of this hilarious video from Shia LaBoeuf:
Click here to see the video if you’re reading via email.
How to grow the grind superpower:
I can pretty much pinpoint the moment I began initiating the grind: I asked for a lot of paper extensions in college, and early in my career I would just frantically do work up til the deadline and perform whether it was done or not (ah, life as a teacher). I was good at pacing through my first corporate job, as well as my second. However, once I started freelancing and my ability to succeed was completely dependent on me “being in the mood,” I started to grind.
I developed the grind superpower by taking on high-pressure assignments (either the topic, the deadline, or the format) and making deadlines non-negotiable. You can replicate this by taking on regular high-volume assignments (such as a client with 3 blog posts due every Friday) and train yourself to grind them out the day before, no matter how you feel. By now, two years into it, I know that if I have not prepped the work, the grind is ON the day an assignment is due. For items without complexity (such as a single blog post) I know about how long it takes me to grind the outline, draft, and final editing session, and I can often fit these in on a single day.
For me, this can only happen once or twice per week. If I try to force it too much, I’ll break it and it won’t work for a while. But I have noticed that when push comes to shove and a deadline threatens to damage my reputation, I can always initiate the deep grind and come out on top.
(Pro tip: Always leave time to edit, or you’ll regret it! I use Grammarly and I’ve used an editor in the past.)
2. Inhuman self-control
Tangentially related to the deep grind (but more spread out over time) is the amount of inhuman self-control it takes to freelance in the long-term. The ability to make yourself do something you aren’t particularly excited about is an adulting skill that many of us use to do laundry. But inhuman self-control steps in when everyone you know is quietly working a 9-5 with a supervisor and still you get up and start working around 8, take a lunch break, and keep working until your spouse comes home (give or take a few kids, walks, or chores).
This kind of inhuman self-control is more than mere mastery of your desire to fidget on YouTube, read fun penmanship blogs, and write long and rambling emails about your health problems. It’s a fundamental ability you have (or learn) to discard work habits that threaten your self-employment and deaden yourself to the constant distraction of fun.
For example, as much as I love my husband, we agree that his place is in an organization with teammates and supervisors. Left alone (say, on a computer at home all day), the likelihood of him finishing assignments and scouting out work would decline by 50% each day that he got used to being unsupervised. At the end of a given week, he’d be deep in the Apple product archives designing a fun new home office.
While I have my fair share of home office design jaunts (hello new discounted reading chair!) my average work day is much more somber: walk, eat, write, repeat. If I vary from that schedule (even if I’m allowed to), I start to feel anxious.
How to grow the self-control superpower:
Honestly, I don’t know how to help you gain more self-control. That’s going to be something you work with a counselor or business coach about, if it’s something you can change at all. In my very uneducated (on this topic) opinion, this seems more like a personality trait to understand (that is, I know I get distracted easily, so I will choose to work in a co-working space rather than at home) rather than something you can change. That said, challenging you that you can’t do it might be just the push you need… so, there’s your invitation: you can’t fix this! You can’t change! So go prove me wrong! :-)).
If I were to, say, try to help my husband be more focused, I would recommend he use his calendar to schedule really important assignments so that the pressure is off of him to remember. I’d also recommend all those productivity tools like RescueTime and StayFocusd (more here from 99U) to train you to not be distracted when you’re on the computer.
3. A positive outlook on everything negative
This one is more science-based than not. I started reading Jim Collin’s business book Good to Great, and the first chapter describes the most important characteristics of CEOs that take companies (in our case, small companies) from good business to great business.
One of the most important traits of the leader is the ability to remain unyieldingly positive and optimistic about your ability to succeed… while staying realistic and well-informed about the bad news, dangers, and downsides of the situation.
Feeling your business fade. Feeling doubt creep in. Feeling your inbox drying up…. And picking up your computer to dig it all out and up again.
As a writer, that means deciding to respond positively and politely to a rude editor’s email or a set of incoherent client feedback. It means putting your boundaries first, professionalism second , and “proving them wrong” or “showing them what’s right” as low on the list as possible so that your eyes always stay on the final goal (being successful, not being right).
Feeling your business fade. Feeling doubt creep in. Feeling your inbox drying up…. And picking up your computer to dig it all out and up again. That’s an emotional and psychological superpower you will not get far without.
How to grow the positive-but-negative superpower:
We all experience doubt and fear. We all feel our businesses fade some months and wonder what’s going to happen. But if you stay wishy-washy about your ability to succeed over the long haul or refuse to address the problems that come your way, you will likely fail. Instead, you need to learn how to maintain a positive outlook while understanding all of the risks and downsides of your situation. You must manage yourself like an external employee and following the process no matter how you feel.
If you feel like it’s really hard to acknowledge reality AND stay positive, seek out a supportive community or “success stories” of freelancers and businesses that will inspire you. Many great business books use case studies to show companies that were failing who turned it around, or people who started with a small idea and used thoughtful solutions to be successful in the face of adversity.
I’m also thoroughly enjoying Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do With Your Life for its refreshing “reframe.” The intro chapters are taking a lot of time to clarify that anxiety and the feeling of being lost are good things that lead you to greatness.
Freelancing is like life in so many ways, but especially in that it can be really, really crappy AND awesome at the same time (often within minutes). Acknowledging the crappiness (or the danger or risk of your situation) sets the stage for your eventual triumph if you can keep your head about it.
4. The ability to say goodbye
Speaking of boundaries, the ability to say goodbye (AKA “No”) is one of the most elusive superpowers you’ll ever try to master. Seasoned pros still find themselves saying “Yes,” far more often than they want to (especially women, research shows), and when you’re first trying to start your business, saying “No” seems like pure lunacy. However, your time and energy are limited. Saying “Yes” for anything you don’t want to do, that drains you, or that pushes you away from something more beneficial poisons your potential.
Think of it this way: if you’re over-booked with clients, it’s time to raise your prices so you can pick and choose who you work with. When your schedule is over-booked, it’s time to raise the standards on how you spend your time so you can pick and choose what you work on. Eventually, the more successful you are, the MORE you need to say no to make sure that what you’re doing is the most effective or most enjoyable way to spend your time!
How do you know when it’s time to say goodbye to something in your business (a client, a contractor, or an office chair)? Watch for signs of emotional, physical, or mental discomfort. They’re all signs that something is not right in your business.
Watch for signs of discomfort when it’s time to say goodbye to something in your business.
Physical discomfort means something you’re eating, how you’re moving, or what you’re doing with your body isn’t aligning with its needs. Emotional and mental discomfort (business-related, at least) means that something you’re doing isn’t aligning with your purpose.
Discomfort isn’t a sign of failure; it’s a early warning siren for self-knowledge.
How to grow the goodbye/”No” superpower:
The only thing that grows this superpower (and build up the confidence to charge more) is a healthy ego and practice! Humility and understanding are attractive and valuable as a freelancer, but in this situation you’ve got to puff up your ego a bit and analyze why you deserve better.
In private, really talk up how talented you are and how much value you bring to the table, and decide that you’re too good to waste time being so nice to someone who sees you as a tool or an asset. Also consider how much other people are charging to do what you do (download Ed Gandia’s pricing guide to start with) so you have a different view of the value of your work.
I am still learning this lesson. I kept a client for a long time because I enjoyed our personal relationship (that is, I liked the client), even though the format of our relationship stressed me out and the organization of our relationship was pretty haphazard. After much internal struggle (how can I turn down work? It’s not that bad is it?) I finally “fired” the client… and I can now personally attest to the weight that lifts from you when you do it.
It’s like turning in notice at a bad job! It’s like breathing fresh air! Even if they’re good people. Even if they pay well. If the job makes you grind your teeth whenever you hear from them, say farewell!
(Pro tip: The words you use need to come from your heart and from your situation, but I found a few great problem client scripts from Nick Reese’s website here.)
What Superpowers Do You Have?
I love a good blog post, but sometimes the comments are where the real magic happens. So, please share! What superpowers have you grown over the years and which would you add to this list?