This blog post is the third in a series of eight adapted from a talk given at TOS-Con 2021. Learn more about TOS-Con here.
Master Your Craft
By far, the most important thing that you can do to stand out in your field—and it’s the thing that the majority of freelancers fail to do. As Isaac Morehouse said at TOS-Con 2019, this seems so obvious that it almost sounds stupid to say it out loud. But mediocrity in the marketplace is a big problem that plagues almost every industry. To be truly competitive as a freelancer, you need to be in the top 10 percent of your field at minimum. Over time, strive to be in the top 1 percent. That may sound like an impossible goal, but in most industries, the top 1 percent represents thousands or even tens of thousands of people—and, in my experience, the bottom 50 percent are people who put in the bare minimum, so it’s not hard to outperform them.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t start pursuing paid work until you’ve attained perfection. For one thing, perfection is, of course, impossible. A perfectionist mindset can be a huge barrier to progress. Feeling like you shouldn’t share your work with anyone else until it’s perfect can be paralyzing. You could spend weeks or months agonizing over a project that was, from the client’s perspective, ready to deliver after a few days.
One thing you should do every single day is practice your craft, whatever it is. Draw or write or paint or code. Read articles or listen to podcasts from experts in your field. Do something to become better at your chosen profession than you were yesterday, even if only by a tiny amount. As Einstein said, “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.” Small, frequent improvements add up to tremendous growth over time.
Clients care about mastery because, again, they want you, the freelancer, to make their lives as easy as possible. Mediocre, average, even above-average freelancers—they’re all a dime a dozen. If you try to compete with those people, you’re really going to struggle to stand out. In the very beginning of your freelance career, you’ll struggle to stand out no matter what, but as long as you commit to improving a little bit every single day, you’ll become more competitive and more attractive every one of those days. Most people don’t seriously commit to the mastery of their craft in a fully conscious, active-minded way. If you do, then before you know it, you’ll be leagues ahead of most of your competitors.
Master Tangential Skills
Even though it’s critically important to master your craft, it’s not the only skill you need to work on. When you work in a traditional job, there are other people working there in other capacities who support your work indirectly. There are billing people and HR professionals who collect money from clients and make sure you get paid. There are sales and marketing experts who get the clients in the first place. There are (hopefully) quality assurance people who double-check your work; a second set of eyes is often helpful.
But as a new freelancer, you have no support staff. You’re responsible for doing all of your own accounting, billing, marketing, legal compliance, and a dozen other things that we don’t have time to get into here. I’ve known really good writers—definitely in the top 10 percent of their niches—who have years and years of experience at writing but nonetheless struggle to pay their bills because they haven’t set aside the time and energy to practice all these other parts of being a freelancer.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll cover pricing your services and elevator pitches.