If someone said the phrase skilled freelancer to you, would you blush and be OK with it? Or would you feel as though you’re out of your depth? Would you imagine someone who can do pretty much everything and anything their vocation requires? Or would it be less simple than that?
According to Neil Gaiman’s 20212 Commencement Speech for a group of Arts graduates, whether you are a musician in a band, a film maker looking for crew, a copywriter, developer or any group in a creative or freelance pursuit, you need these three things:
I often refer to this as the stool a skilled freelancer needs to stay steady. Three legs propping up your business. Let’s see how they break down.
Not everyone has creative ability. But it’s not that magic of being able to do something so much better than everyone else that defines it. Natural talent combined with the desire to keep producing creative work helps separate the wannabes from the real deal.
You can’t simply take only natural talent and succeed.
At times, it’s tough to keep that level of application up. Especially when the field you’ve gained your stripes is ever-changing. You have to want to stay up to date with your field. To dig in and to be a skilled freelancer means a hell of a lot of homework.
Keeping to deadlines, turning up and being consistent are a huge part of being creative. It helps make a great reputation for a skilled freelancer because it means you can be counted on when the clients need you.
The other people you create with need to know you are going to meet their efforts, match them and keep the fires burning.
After all, being creative is revealing, stressful and full of unknowns enough without wondering about reliability. If you can remove yourself as a thing to worry about, people will thank you for it.
But there is a dark side to hanging your hat on reliability.
As a skilled freelancer, you may want to never miss a deadline. But at what cost? So many freelancers burn the midnight oil and live in fear of missed deadlines. Our ability to judge time and create space for the work that isn’t punishing is well-known. But what good is work handed in after a 2am business bender if it isn’t your best? Or your relationship slowly dies as a result? Or your health and mental health begin to suffer?
A reliable, skilled freelancer has to be one that is great at estimating time. One that understands you need to watch scope creep. And make sure your freebies are logged and accounted for. As well as being able to double the time estimate for quoting purposes, leave time for hiccups, and critically cast your eye over the time it’s taken you in projects past to build much better estimates.
Easability isn’t a word, it’s true. But consider it a new lifestyle goal for a skilled freelancer. One that demonstrates a lot of emotional intelligence. And a healthy respect for communication and boundaries.
Respecting other people’s creative process makes for a high easability factor. Having a positive can-do attitude to who you work with, what they do, the audience, external forces such as venues, press and so on make a massive impact on your creative endeavours and freelance clientele. If you are easy going, you usually have more credibility too.
Being easy to deal with makes people want to work with you. You gain credibility. And to be honest, everyone’s a tad sick of the tortured artist, eccentric genius and the diva. We’re over toxic workplaces where pussyfooting around predators and bullies is the name of the game. So, you’re rather in vogue.
However, it’s not all positive. Clients can confuse a great attitude with being able to take advantage of you. Plus, it can be difficult when you’re under stress to keep the easy-going attitude flowing. Oh, and let’s not forget that you have to have great boundaries, so you set the expectation early on in the client-freelancer relationship to avoid any really big problems.
It’s important not to confuse being nice with being kind. Nice is when you pot to please people, often in detriment to yourself. Kind is when you can still deliver the bad news on occasion but do so from a place of compassion.
And the good news? Two is all you need
These three things are ideal conditions for creativity, but it is rare to get the skilled freelancer trifecta. Most will make do with two.
- If you have the chops and you either send in stuff on deadline or you are easy to deal with, you’ll find yourself a space in creative teams for your teamwork abilities.
- If you are easy to deal with and reliable, the value you give to momentum will outweigh superstar ability.
- If you have ability and you’re a bit of a curmudgeon, you can set expectations at the outset and still manage to get through.
The reality of the creative process and freelancing lifestyle means everyone already has their own issues to deal with. Workload, doubts, moments of indecision, distractions, dry-ups, dark days and lack of motivation plus day-to-day life, stress and time shortages plague every single person who is creative or putting their butt on the line in this manner.
If you continuously put yourself ahead of the needs of the other people you are collaborating with by doing a half-baked job, being unreliable or being hard to work with, don’t expect to be on speed dial. Most of the time the people you are collaborating with just don’t have the headspace to solve your issues as well as their own. Making yourself a problem won’t endear you to anyone.
Couple this with most creative people struggling to make money from it or not making any money from it at all and pretty soon you become the number one buzzkill for what is meant to be a labour of passion and love.
It has to be a focus of making a solid effort with two legs of the stool to claim the title of skilled freelancer.
A skilled freelancer is charged with making good art
As Neil Gaiman explains, your intention should always be to ‘make good art’. The myth of the creative genius who everyone has to put up with is well and truly dead for the majority of independent creative people who slog their guts out trying to keep momentum. Those people who value their ability so highly they can bend others to their will, delight in deadlines whooshing past and who don’t commit at an equal level simply don’t have a place in a creative world where mega bucks, fame and entourages don’t exist.
Indeed, you diminish your own creative value and potential opportunities by choosing a route that leads you to have the reputation of being in some way difficult.
The three things are a must to have. The two things are very welcome. Having only one is a recipe for disaster. Don’t you agree?
There are other abilities too
They may not be as impactful as the other core skills, but these ones do count:
Adaptability – being able to adapt to circumstances, change on the fly, cope with change generally, add a little MacGyver to your repertoire – it all matters. Especially in changeable conditions like the ones we’ve experienced under COVID or with continuing environmental impacts.
Connectability – your networks matter. You don’t have to be the most skilled freelancer in the room to be solid at networking to get yourself and your fellow freelancers’ jobs. By knowing who to put forward for what job, you create an opportunity to be included in jobs because you cutdown the legwork related to finding other skilled performers. And that matters, especially with large-scale projects.
Oh, and don’t let anyone else tell you what your combination should be. What your clients value about you is about how you both connect. Not about how someone else wins business. So, please, don’t beat yourself up about missed deadlines, being a bit of a grouch or not swinging from the dizzying heights of some of your peers. Instead, focus on doing the best damn job with what you have. And own it. Set the expectation early and work the way you, not everyone else with an opinion, thinks you should.