Commentary For Designers

You asked: Ego, work ethic, and what makes a good freelancer

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in our advice column (read the first one). Have a question? Ask it here—it’s completely anonymous.

Ego or principle?

A few weeks ago, I was approached by a potential client with a lucrative, long-term project. The problem? Their client wanted to see wireframes before they would decide whether or not to move forward. Without payment.

I said no way, and the client said no thanks. I lost the project—and a lot of (potential) money. Everyone says I should have been willing to give up a few hours in exchange for such a big payout, but I refused on principle. Freelancing isn’t free!

Did I take one for the team or let my ego get in the way of a great project?

–Moralist or Egotist?

Freelancer to freelancer: thank you.

For some reason, people get confused by the “free” in freelancing. Seriously. Don’t believe me?

Image via Clients From Hell

In May 2017, New York passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act—which means that, until May, people were wandering around this earth not paying freelancers for their work because, in their eyes, freelancing is free. Or, at least, could be.

For reasons I will never (ever) understand, freelancers are expected to work for free. Whether it’s called “spec work,” “giving a quick overview,” or “can you help me figure this out?” there will always be people who feel no guilt about asking you to do for free what actually should cost them a lot of money.

“For some reason, people get confused by the ‘free’ in freelancing.”

What you were asked to do here is spec work: being asked to prove yourself before beginning a project, which is the equivalent of asking for free appetizers before the main course.

You’re not the first one to face pressure to work for free, Moralist—in 2015, Zulu advertising agency started the #saynotospec movement with a wonderful video showing how non-freelancers react to these kinds of requests.

They react poorly. Because it’s COMPLETELY INSANE to make that request.

But how will you get clients?

But how will I know if I’ll like it?

As the barista says in the video, You just gotta trust.

Being asked for spec work means you’re already starting on the wrong foot. The client who isn’t ready to go all-in from the beginning won’t become a trusting, happy client; we’re talking here about someone who’s never going to feel like you’re giving enough, who’s going to question your work and process throughout your time together, and who’s probably going to make your life a miserable hell.

So, Moralist, good for you.

You made the right call. It wasn’t easy, and you probably will have moments of regret, but you did right by yourself and the community. Be proud! Stay brave! Keep up the good work, and you’ll see where it takes you.

Is my career worth saving?

I’m a full-time freelancer, and I’d like to say a forever freelancer at that; I have clients, I have a good reputation, and I have a pretty stable income.

What’s missing, then? Work ethic.

I’m always behind, promising myself that *tomorrow* I’ll wake up early to meet that deadline, or after dinner I’ll go back to my computer, or somehow I’ll figure out a way to do everything faster and better. And while all this is happening, I’m still supposed to network and meet new clients and answer phone calls and emails—things that never, ever happen.

If I could keep my disorganization to myself, it would be a different story, but my clients catch on pretty quickly. My work is good enough that they’re usually willing to put up with the missed deadlines, but I’m worried that my reputation is suffering from it—and I know that my sense of self isn’t doing so hot.

What am I doing wrong? Can I make it right, or is freelancing not for me?

Searching for Solutions

Never has a question resonated with me more.

Your problem isn’t work ethic; you’ve probably got loads of that. But we’ll go into that more deeply soon.

But I want to talk about organization and prioritization first.

Until I started working with The nuSchool, I thought I was the only one—the only flaky freelancer, the only person who couldn’t stick to deadlines, the only person on the entire planet who let clients down because I couldn’t juggle all of my responsibilities.

It’s not that I didn’t know other freelancers—we just never talked about it. We all thought we were in it alone.

And then I started working with Lior Frenkel and Ran Segall, 2 of the 3 founders of The nuSchool.

When I joined the team, the first thing Lior and I did together was set up a Trello board, which did nothing for my goldfish memory. After a while, I was so scared of my latenesses that I straight up stopped checking the board. It made my stomach hurt.

I was letting Lior down. I was letting nuSchool users down. I was letting myself down, and I couldn’t take it. I told Frenkel approximately 1000000000 times that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t right for this.

But that was all untrue. The truth was, I was born for that job, and had to train myself to be good at it.

“Organization is a learned skill.”

We’re not always ready for the responsibility we’re handed. Especially since it sounds like you’re a badass designer, people are going to climb mountains and walls to try and work with you, and you’re somehow going to have to accept that.

Even if you don’t know why you deserve it.

Lior taught me that my brain didn’t have to be my downfall; it just had to be taught a certain skill set. If you started a project where you needed to work with Sketch, but you were a Photoshopper, you wouldn’t hate yourself for not knowing how to use Sketch—you’d watch some tutorials and figure it out.

Make a to-do list

Organization is the same. It’s a learned skill. It can be inherent, sure, but it can also be taught. It can be adopted.

I’m still late on things all the time, but it’s gotten way better. How?

I pay for organizational tools. I bought a Trello Gold subscription, both for the power-ups with other organizational tools and because when we pay for things, we’re more likely to use them. I track everything in Trello, from when to call my grandma to when a project is due.

I track my time like a BOSS. Harvest has saved my brain. Part of being disorganized is you feel like you waste tons of time. I use Harvest to track my time, putting in everything from regular client work to when I actually do call my grandma. That way, at the end of the week I can see that I actually did things, and used my time wisely.

I waste time productively. Another thing I paid for: Headspace pro. While I believe in the power of mindfulness, it’s not about that; I take time to meditate because once I’ve taken 10 or 20 minutes to sit quietly, it puts those amounts of time into perspective. No one died while I was meditating, or when I was on Facebook before. The time I wasted earlier shouldn’t define the rest of my day.

How has this affected my work?

What I learned from Lior was how to be organized, but what I learned from Ran was why.

Ran has a vlog called Flux, where he speaks the gospel of being a killer freelance designer from a place of real, deep truth. And, turns out, one of his truths is one of ours: that staying on track with projects isn’t easy.

But Ran tells it like it is: that consistency is a designer’s best trait.

Sometimes, it won’t be perfect—but it still has to get done.

“Consistency is a designer’s best trait.”

Loads of us use the “but it’s not ready yet!” excuse to buy more time, but perfectionism is procrastination. This isn’t about the project; it’s about you.

You work hard, you care about what you do, you’re willing to learn, but you’re scared to fail.

We’re all scared to fail. We chose our careers because we love what we do, and that means when we make mistakes, what we love can come crashing down.

It’s reallll personal.

This isn’t an issue of work ethic, and it isn’t an issue of not being good at what you do. This is a missing skillset that you have to teach yourself, just like using a new design tool or cracking HTML.

Don’t doubt yourself, and don’t put your self-esteem on the line.

Just start with a to-do list.

It’s not going to be fun. You’re going to have to deal with setbacks and hard times and forgetfulness. But if freelancing is worth it to you, you’ll figure out how to take control over your career.

Ask a question

It’s anonymous. Just ask here.

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