Evolve or die: Survival in the ever-changing freelance biz

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

Reader “Spanky” commented on one of my previous posts, “What a sad state of affairs our business is in. The model is beyond laughable.”

This got me to thinking, is the freelance model broken? Or have we just undergone another seismic shift that will eventually reset itself? The key difficulty, of course, is in trying to judge current conditions when they are still evolving.

Perhaps a little personal history might help. Turn the lights down low and gather around the computer screen, boys and girls, while Uncle Born tells you a scary story. You see, once upon a time, there was all the freelance work your uncle could handle. At one national broadcaster he usually worked two or three days a week. At another national broadcaster there was always something else to do. And once an overseas production company even arranged for him to spend time in their country establishing a rapport with them, all expenses paid, just because they thought it would be good business. And it was.

But for a while now, well, your uncle hasn’t heard a peep from the folks he once knew at those national broadcasters. He’s not sure they even work there any more. And that amazing overseas company? It got bought up by a huge multinational conglomerate that stripped its assets bare and shut down the rest. Feeling your flesh tingle a bit? Okay, you can turn your lights back up again. I did warn you it was a scary story.

Those were just three examples from the top of my mind. In 20-plus years of full-time freelancing, I’ve seen ups and downs in my various career threads. Usually I’ve been able to survive periods of downturn in one by jumping to another, employing a variety of skills in a diverse ranges of freelancing jobs. One of my key survival skills as a freelancer has always been to maintain an assortment of distinct career threads.

The state of things

But today I would say something has indeed fundamentally changed in our business. It’s been noticeably ongoing for over three years now, and I don’t see it returning to exactly where it was before. It is a broader and wider and deeper shift than I’ve ever encountered in the past — a shift that has impacted all my various career threads simultaneously for the first time in my working history. Now I know this is not necessarily true for everyone — a small number of freelancers I know seem busier than ever — but they are in the minority among my colleagues. As gloomy as this may sound, history also teaches us that upturns eventually follow downturns and that for every door that closes there’s at least a couple openings elsewhere, if you’re ready for them. Admittedly you may have to climb up and into a window but, hey, you do what you have to do, right?

The key to survival for me has always been flexibility and adaptability. In nature, the species that fails to adapt simply dies out. I’d say this is as true today for freelancers as it has ever been. And, so, as the business changes so must we change.

There is a natural resistance to change, of course. That’s not a completely bad thing either. You don’t want to hop on the next trivial fad only to find it’s fallen out of favour by the time you immersed yourself in it. You want to carry on with your proven strengths and expertise. And you don’t want to be taken advantage of by employers sensing weakness. But too much rigidity in your professional behaviour can lead to career inertia. The trick to change, it seems to me, is mentally preparing yourself to accept it as an ongoing positive challenge rather than as a negative burden. In Zen philosophy they teach that it is the flexible willow tree that bends in the wind. It is the mighty oak, solid and immovable, that breaks.

Change or die

If you Google “change or die,” you come across the seminal 2005 Fast Company article by Alan Deutschman. I recommend reading it.

What I take away from it:

Change is so hard because much of our life is habit-driven. (And, as a slave to my habits, I know how hard they are to break!) Ironically sometimes it’s easier to make big changes than little ones.

Well, do I know that one! In my previous post I wrote about how I once needed to change my geographical location in order to advance my career.

We need to modify our emotional response to change and not just our way of thinking. And it’s usually much more effective to motivate with positive feelings rather than negative ones.

I have seen so many technological changes in my career that my head gets dizzy just thinking about them. When I started working in radio, for example, it was the very end of the analogue recording era. I learned to edit by physically cutting pieces of tape with a razor blade! Today, of course, it’s all on my computer and effortless by comparison. Fortunately, I’ve always been bit of a tech geek, and I love playing with new “toys”. So my emotional response to technological innovation has usually been a positive one, which has moved me continually forward throughout many changes.

We need as much social support as we can muster to help us through periods of uncertainty and change.

This was a key reason for joining a union in the first place for me. I underwent a complete attitude readjustment. Originally I couldn’t imagine
joining a union. But as I quickly found out, it’s lonely out there fighting all your battles alone. There are times that even independent-minded freelancers can come together to their mutual benefit. It seems so obvious to me now that I find it hard to remember a time I felt otherwise.

To really keep the brain capable of change, you need to keep learning new things. This is a good plan for your personal as well as professional health.

Every now and then I have taken a career-related seminar to brush up on various strategies and techniques. It is refreshing and usually enjoyable and also another opportunity to network with like-minded individuals. And sometimes I’ll attend a seminar or lecture that has nothing to do with my career just for the sheer joy of learning new things.

Looking ahead

So what about the immediate future? I know I’m not willing to have my freelance careers simply all die out. Nor am I willing to meekly accept unreasonable impositions by shrewdly calculating employers taking advantage of the shifting times. I don’t know all the specifics yet of how I’m going to proceed forward from this point. But I do know in order to put myself in the best possible position to reevaluate my options and create new ones, I need to first revisit and once again upgrade my mental outlook to prepare for some big (and not so big) pro-active changes. Since I’d prefer to jump than be pushed, this seems to me a necessary prerequisite for continuing as a successful freelancer in the years ahead.

And, finally, thank you for your comment, Spanky. You may notice I’m not laughing either.

Posted on June 23, 2011 at 10:51 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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