The Born Freelancer on More Essential Traits for 2015

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


A Happy and Healthy New Year to you!

To begin 2015, I thought I would conclude my previous post with a few more essential characteristics for successful freelancing. These are traits that I would posit most freelancers should possess or work towards developing in order to become more successful. Again, I list them in no particular order.


This may seem jarringly out of place in the cold, cruel world of 2015 but it still has an important place on my list.

In the old days, loyalty was probably to an employee-friendly company or organization. Do they even exist anymore? Today it is all about loyalty to individuals. If an editor knows a freelancer can deliver well and on time, they will probably offer more work after they move to another company. And in turn, a freelancer must sometimes take a chance on editors or producers. If I’ve worked with an editor who I know is a good person I am much more likely to take a chance on any new endeavours with which they are now associated.

Job definitions and boundaries are so much more fluid today. Even fellow freelancers know that they may be giving you work one day and asking you for work the next. So personal loyalty amongst your peers is also paramount. Finally, I would posit loyalty to yourself is also important. Freelancing is an obstacle course that can make you question your own abilities and intentions and basic common sense. Always be loyal to yourself, to your passions and to your dreams. If you aren’t, how can you expect anyone else to be?


In my previous post I spoke about the need for sociability: the talent for networking and making new contacts. I also spoke of its more dubious role as a diversion from our real work, which is essentially a rather solitary task. Ideally a freelancer needs to be able to combine the best of both traits. But of the two, the ability to work happily alone (perhaps guided by an editor or producer) is absolutely crucial to the successful freelancer.

I knew a freelancer years ago who would use any excuse to get together with fellow freelancers. Clearly she hated being on her own. She needed the buzz of professional companionship. And so it came as no surprise when she eventually sought and obtained a more conventional office-bound 9 to 5 job. I’m not saying we need to be 24/7 hermits. I’m just saying that for many freelancers, especially when on deadline, it isn’t such a bad trait!


Humour is very subjective. What I find funny you may not. But what I’m referring to is humour as a basic survival tool. First, a sense of humour helps you through the many dark and lonely hours of freelancing. It can sometimes be overwhelming as we juggle demands of work, family, finances, friends and life in general. A sense of humour helps leaven the heaviness with a massive dose of perspective.

Secondly, a sense of humour can help connect us to fellow freelancers and employers. Nobody says you need to do a stand up routine but a shared sense of the absurdities of life (and ours in particular) can only help professional networking.

Finally, a sense of humour can inspire. No matter what assignment I am working on, no matter how serious or solemn, a sense of humour allows me to step back and see a different angle or to make different connections that I might not have made otherwise. For me, a sense of humour keeps the most routine assignment palatable and the more challenging ones fresh and exciting.


Here are two seemingly contradictory characteristics. But I would argue they are both essential to have in balance for any successful freelancer. The hard-nosed trait is essential for getting through the day and not allowing yourself to get bogged down by all the obstacles along the way.

The empathy trait becomes important once you deal with “real” people. What is worse than the hard nosed reporter who sticks a microphone under a clearly bereaved subject’s nose and demands that they say a few words? Show a little empathy, please! I guess it is the switching of gears that can be the hardest part and knowing which trait is most appropriate and when. Granted, a hard question (when well timed) may indeed open up a reluctant subject. In other cases, empathy and time can help tease out a troubling anecdote or story.

It is never easy and takes time to achieve the right balance. I know many a journo who has told me you might not have to act like a complete jerk to make it but that it has never hurt. I prefer to posit: you might not have to act like a decent human being to make it but it won’t hurt you either.


Two more contradictory but complementary characteristics which freelancers need to learn to combine in the right balance. We need a sense of the big picture in order to guide our careers; but also in order to see new angles and aspects in stories we wish to explore. Seeing the big picture requires the ability to see past the mundane day to day and glimpse universal patterns and themes.

Conversely, the ability to get down to the details or nitty-gritty of an assignment are also absolutely essential, otherwise projects get stalled at a very early phase. Similarly in terms of career planning, it is all very well to imagine yourself as a high flying foreign correspondent. But how do you plan to get there? What specific training will you need, what contacts must you make, what bureaucratic hoops do you leap through? Attention to detail will make or break a career as well as any story.

However, the truth is most of us are usually stronger in one characteristic than the other. Our work can suffer when the weaker trait is required. As a result, many freelancers choose on occasion to work with a creative partner. It is unusual for two partners to share exactly the same characteristics in equal proportions; they tend to balance each other out.

I once worked with a co-writer who loved rewriting but was useless staring at a blank page. So I utilized my big picture trait to balance their detail oriented trait. On another show, a different co-writer liked to “big picture” the assignment so I quietly got down to doing the nitty gritty detail work. I found it liberating to be able to clearly switch roles according to the project and demands of my co-writers. It gave both of my contradictory traits a good work out. On my own it can be much harder to so cleanly shift gears.


Most assignments require forward thinking. So this becomes a natural default for many of us. What are the new trends, what are the innovations, what are the most up to date developments? These are questions most of us are always asking, without even thinking, whenever we are talking with somebody new. Even on holidays I find myself asking these questions. Will it make a good story? Or am I simply filing something away for future use? Either way, it is an invaluable approach to looking at life that has served me well.

The danger, of course, is that by always looking forward you have no real sense of direction or perspective or context. It is only when we look backwards that any of these can be activated. Sadly, we live in a culture that frequently seems to trivialize its own history or downplay past accomplishments. “If it’s not now it’s not wow” as one of my producers used to remark. (Not one of his more erudite remarks, admittedly.) But without a working knowledge of the past we have no real measure of present or future accomplishments, plans or visions.

Although it might be next to impossible to have a comprehensive historical background, I always suggest it is wise to choose at least one area of special interest and study all you can about it – especially when work is slow and you have extra time on your hands. The unique insights you will achieve as a result are almost certain to make you stand out as an expert in that field. All of which can only enhance your brand’s value as well as future employment opportunities.


What other essential traits do you already possess or hope to develop in 2015? Please use the comments feature below to share your thoughts with us.


Posted on January 16, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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