3 simple ideas

There’s 1.4 million freelancers in Britain, up 14% in the past decade. There’s 53 million freelancers in the US, 34% of the national workforce. In Europe, freelancers are the fastest growing group in the labour market1.

There’s clearly a shift happening here. We’re soon going to be in a world dominated by people who are self-employed.

The industrial age created factories and production lines. You got a job, you did what you were told, and then you retired.

But we’re not meant to be on production lines. We’re not meant to be working 9-5. We’re not meant to be told what to do. Those things are imposed on us by social norms. Times are changing.

Which brings me to the point of this article.

I know many of you are thinking of going freelance one day. Perhaps you’re not ready to quit in the next year or two but one day you’ll know it’ll happen.

How can you prepare? What are the skills and attributes you can work on that will help you when the time comes?

I’m going to talk about 3 things:

  • The ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn
  • Start creating and sharing
  • And why you should be patient

Go on, grab yourself a coffee and get comfortable.

Ready? Let’s jump in.

Learn, unlearn, and relearn

When I starting building websites well over a decade ago (man, that makes me feel old), it was standard to build layouts using HTML tables. I’d code these fancy websites with complicated table layouts and it was great. The web began to slowly transition away from table-based layouts to using divs. I had to throw away everything I’d learnt about HTML tables and start learning something new.

The work we’re doing today won’t be the same work we’re doing in 10 years. I’ll probably still be building websites, but the way I’ll be building them will be completely different.

10 years ago, responsive design wasn’t a thing. The iPhone wasn’t a thing. Nor the Kindle or iPad. Twitter didn’t exist, and YouTube had just started.

And that’s why it has never been more important to become a world-class learner.

When Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine (and a ton of other things), was asked what advice he’d give to young people today, he said that they should read at least 10 books a year. Books, and audio books count too, are perhaps one of the most underrated tools for improving yourself.

Read books above your level, or read a Roman Emperor’s private notes to himself on stoic philosophy, or why people buy and why they don’t, or about the guy who sold his company for $22 million and gave it all to charity. Read as much as you can and you’ll get smarter.

Try new things. Learn photography, or how to code, or how to draw cartoons, or how to play golf. Don’t be worried that you need to specialise. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have one true calling. The cross pollination of different hobbies can lead to unique insights and new ideas.

And don’t worry about making mistakes. The education system is floored in many ways but one of its biggest problem is that it teaches us that making mistakes are a bad thing. What’s bad is not making mistakes. That shows you’re not pushing hard enough. The quicker you can get over making mistakes, the quicker you can move on and learn.

I concur with Alvil Toffler when he says: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

The best way to learn, of course, is by doing. Which leads us nicely on to our second point.

Start creating and sharing

The next thing you need to do it start putting your art out into the world. It doesn’t matter if that’s writing a blog post or a book, drawing cartoons, creating music, or releasing open-source code. Start creating and sharing.

As you start to create, you’ll come up against mental blocks. Things like imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud and that you don’t deserve success despite doing good work) or writer’s block (being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing) are both natural and common. Overcoming these hurdles is important and you’ll only do that by creating every day.

You’ll also find your canvas, the medium that fits you. For Gary Vaynerchuk, that’s video. For Marc Maron, that’s audio. For Stephen King, that’s writing. You won’t know your medium until you experiment and see what fits.

Sharing what you create also helps you build an audience. And why is an audience important? Because it’s really hard to convince people to give you money. An audience is a way of selling things without the need to sell. Perhaps my favourite article on this is 1,000 true fans (definitely worth 10 minutes of your time).

Finding your voice is important, too. When we first start out, we copy those whom we admire. We sound a lot like them. It takes a while to find our voice and what’s unique about us. The only way to do that is to create every day.

Putting things out into the world is scary. Not everything you do will be a success. But you’ll get real feedback and you’ll learn from it.

Be patient

I encouraged a friend to start blogging (I encourage everyone to blog). He published a handful of posts and then after 3 months he said he wasn’t getting any traffic, should he just give up?

I wasn’t getting traffic after 3 months. Nor was anyone.

It takes years to build an audience, to find your voice, and to gather the skills required to be a “successful” freelancer. That’s why it’s so important to be patient.

Learn, create, share, and do it over and over and over. You need to look years into the future for the payoff. Nothing happens overnight.

So that’s my best advice: become a world-class learner, start creating and sharing, and be patient.