Call them success secrets or just common sense. Either way, certain principles have guided me for more than two decades as a professional freelancer. Here are my keys to surviving -- no, let's call it thriving -- without having to work for the man:
Think Like an Investor: How do you get rich as a freelancer? The same way investors do -- by diversifying. My workload this week includes two old-fashioned print magazine profiles, a new blogging gig, an as-told-to project, three corporate writing jobs, a print/web travel story, a series of online slide shows, a personal essay, two children's books, research for a non-fiction book and running a workshop for freelancers. Clients go away. People get fired. Keep your finger in many pots.
Ten People Matter More than 1,000 Pitches: On my first job in journalism, I worked with a staff of ten people. Those ten each introduced me to ten more, and those tens of tens to tens of tens more. All those contacts are now spread across the vast plains of the multi-media landscape. Wherever you are in your career, you can apply this Power of Ten rule rather than pitching ideas to anonymous inboxes.
Exercise, Discipline, Affection (in that order). The philosophy works for the Dog Whisperer, and I like it, too. A good rule for freelancers is to commit first to staying in shape. Exercise clears your mind, reduces stress and keeps you healthy enough for high-deductible insurance. Next, discipline yourself to work on challenging projects early in the day, and set a schedule to actually beat deadlines. After that, you can reward yourself with whatever affections you need to live well. Even if it's just a 4 p.m. salted caramel frozen yogurt.
Find Your Mountain: This one's from Neil Gaiman. On being successful, Gaiman says, "Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be ... was a mountain, a distant mountain, my goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I'd be alright. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop and think about whether it was taking me towards, or away, from the mountain." Dr. Seuss put it more succinctly. He wrote, "You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So... get on your way!"
Ask for Help: Freelancers are famous for holing up at their desks, only to be seen by the cat and the UPS dude. The thing is, you can't do anything great alone. When in doubt, ask the smartest people you know for help, guidance, feedback on your ideas and drafts, referrals to editors, suggestions on various next steps, etc. Two or four or twelve good advisors at your back really makes a difference.
Be Thomas Edison: Edison held a world record 1093 patents for inventions like the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph and the Shake Weight for Men. Why him and not you? Probably because you don't write down every random idea you get and trust that it's worth pursuing. Keep a notepad (incandescent or otherwise) at all times to log big and small ideas for stories, books, collaborations, graphic novels, whatever. Then regularly use it as a source for your next pitches and projects.
Get a Good Accountant: I'm not talking about your tax advisor, though having one of those is important, too. Freelancers need someone -- or better yet, a team of someones -- to hold them accountable to the writing goals they set. Having a supportive, like-minded circle of pros around you makes the difference between freelance success and working at Fatburger.
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