The transition from one year to the next is when many of us take time to reflect. I am no different. I like to look back to see how far I’ve come.
For me, 2015 was pretty outstanding on the whole. Sure, there are things I could’ve done differently, but I don’t believe in regrets. Every stumble is a lesson, not a reason for self-flagellation.
I wrapped up three years as an entrepreneur in September, and I can now unequivocally say that my little freelance media consulting business is a viable venture. I had my highest billings ever and earned more income than I ever pulled down in a single year before. I’m no longer just paying my bills and surviving, I’m friggin’ thriving, people. It feels awesome. I’m either lucky, smart or both.
As I wrap up a most excellent year and enter 2016 with fresh enthusiasm, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned on both the personal and professional front.
Busy vs. productive
First, I’ve learned that I am more productive working from home in my pajamas than I ever was in the corporate world. I get more done in eight or nine hours at my house than I did in during 12-hour day in a downtown office building. Nobody is breathing down my neck, distracting me from tasks or otherwise sucking the life out of me. I. Get. Shit. Done.
What’s more, I don’t resent having to work for a living. Those last few years under The Man’s thumb, I did. Don’t get me wrong, though, I still work to live and not the other way around. If I won the lottery, I would move to the beach and write poetry on rainy days, and that’s about the most actual work I would ever do again.
But if I have to earning a living, I couldn’t be happier with my occupation. I have found a solid niche, and I am really good at it. I get to choose who I work with, too, which rules. I no longer have to put up with assholes. Life is too short, man.
Another thing: Strictly adhering to a normal work schedule is paramount to my productivity. I don’t sleep late. I let my dogs out, get a cup of coffee and am at my desk most days by 8 a.m., sometimes earlier. I take a lunch break around noon, often standing in my kitchen with a sandwich, reading a chapter of my latest mass fiction novel on my iPad.
Some weeks, I am still working at 6 p.m., but I usually knock off by 4 or 5. If I rock out my workload Monday through Thursday, I take Friday off, or at least that afternoon. I also don’t answer e-mails at odd hours or on the weekends unless I am promoting an event for a client. I’ve found there are very few marketing emergencies — nearly every request can wait until the next business day.
Another tip for working at home — when I have to go to the trouble of getting dressed and fixing my hair for an outside meeting, I schedule several on the same day. I have learned to maximize my time out of the office.
I do this for two reasons — making myself pretty and presentable is work in and of itself, and I don’t want to go through the makeup-and-hairdryer ritual any more often than I have to. (Most days, “getting dressed” simply means changing from pajamas to yoga pants, and possibly putting on a bra. It is heaven.)
Second, this allows me to only interrupt a couple of workdays each week. I get more done in one long block of time than when I break my day into two separate blocks to accommodate a lunch meeting across town. If I schedule an entire day out of the office to knock out all my meetings, I have four full days at my desk. Much better than four days in a row with a stuttered workflow.
One lesson that sounds obvious but was really hard to grasp — I have learned to say no. And I do — to projects, meetings and people. Case in point, I never leave my house on Mondays. That is my administrative, get-my-shit-together planning day. I may take a conference call occasionally, but if you want to meet me in person on a Monday, fuggedaboudit. I have stuck firmly to that imperative without exception for the past three years, and it has done wonders for my sanity.
As for turning down projects, just last week, I got a call from someone who asked me to edit his book. After talking to him for about 20 minutes, I realized 1.) I didn’t want to do it, and 2.) I really wasn’t the best person for the job. I have edited long-form manuscripts before, and I would probably do it again, but that type of work is a major commitment, and quite frankly it makes my brain hurt. I’ve learned that I don’t love it, so I don’t do it often. I referred him to a colleague whose business focuses solely on book editing, and I felt good about it.
Speaking of books, the last one I edited was on a topic I wasn’t excited about (estate planning law), but the client was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met. Working with him was a joy for a lot of reasons, but it was mainly because he listened to me and respected the fact that I know what I’m doing. It was glorious.
I’ve learned that, if I suspect you are going to be a pain in my ass, you probably are, and I don’t have to work with you. But if I like you, the project doesn’t matter that much. The ease of our relationship is just as important (or more so) than the work itself.
Yes, I have learned to trust my instincts when it comes to any and all work-related decisions. If it feels icky for any reason, I run the other way. If I am going to hate myself (or the client), I don’t take the job.
Letting go of people and projects was painful at first because I worried I would lose out on needed income. Now that my income stream is pretty steady, I have the freedom to say no, and it feels fan-damn-tastic.
Lack of feedback
A major adjustment for me as a freelancer has been that no news is usually good news. I have a few loyal clients who go out of their way to tell me I am doing a good job, but they are the exception.
Most of my clients keep coming back (ergo, they must be happy), but most of them say boo about the work I’m doing for them. This absence of feedback has really astounded me, and I didn’t realize how hard it would be to soldier on without it. I didn’t think I was the kind of person who needed regular accolades, but it does wear on one’s self-esteem when said accolades are notably absent.
I want to get better at what I do, so it’s not just positive feedback where I feel a void. If you are not happy with me, I would much rather you tell me why so I can do things differently the next time. Radio silence and fading into the abyss don’t help me — or you, for that matter.
Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it burns my ass. I am self-aware and confident enough in my abilities to know that I am damn good at my job, but I won’t be a good fit for everyone, just like not everyone is a good fit for me as a client. But I want to learn something from every misfire and failure. In a perfect world, I think I deserve the courtesy of an explanation. I have had to make peace with the fact that I almost never get one.
Also along the lines of feedback, I mostly like being an island unto myself, but I’ve realized that operating in a vacuum is not healthy all the time. I need collaboration — other smart brains to bounce ideas off, other entrepreneurs to keep me on mission. That’s one of the reasons I helped start a small group of like-minded women business owners.
We meet twice a month with the sole purpose of supporting each other professionally and personally. Those meetings boost my confidence and reassure me that I’m exactly where I need to be. It has been invaluable to my success in the past year.
I also realized recently that I’m stagnating a bit. One thing about working for a big employer, you can often get your boss to pay for professional training. I lost that opportunity when I went out on my own. I pick up new career tips and tricks by osmosis and hands-on experience, but marketing, particularly digital marketing and social media, is a moving target.
I accept that I can’t know everything about it (there is just too much), but I do need to constantly seek out training and resources to boost my skills. I had a potential client approach me this fall about managing his digital content. He was super savvy himself, so it forced me to up my game.
I love to be challenged because that’s when I buckle down to bolster my knowledge base, but I also realize that as a solo-preneur, I can’t wait for a challenge before I get my ass in gear. I didn’t get that client, but that’s OK. It forced me to seek out some professional development that will benefit both me and future clients in the long run.
I learned a few other things from that recent failed proposal. See, I thought this dude would be a “dream” client. In hindsight, I’ve learned that it’s fine and dandy to get excited about possibilities, but time has a tendency to put things in perspective. I sent the proposal in mid-November, and we went through a few rounds of questions, but it took until the end of December for him to give me a final decision.
The long wait did two things: 1.) It provided time for the luster and excitement to wear off and my head to come down out of the clouds. Once I was back on Earth, I was able to take a realistic look at the work I would be doing. Turns out it wasn’t as cool as I thought. 2.) It showed me that, in some ways, this client might be more of a nightmare than a dream. In the end, the universe protected me from getting in over my head, or completely drowning.
Finally (and most important), I’ve learned that my reputation is my most precious commodity, so I never, ever burn bridges. All of my current clients came to me as a result of a professional referral or personal recommendation. I'm really proud of that, and I want it to continue.
No matter how contentious a business interaction has been for me, I keep my side of the street clean. I am always courteous, polite, professional, and I never disparage the other party (even the assholes who deserve it).
If you tell me “no,” like Mr. Dream/Nightmare, I say a gracious “thanks,” because learning from a "no" is as important a lesson as landing a “yes.” Plus, if I’m a cordial loser, you might come crawling back when the joker you chose over me doesn’t work out!
Anyhoo, those are just a few things I’ve learned about myself in the past year or so. I’m looking forward to all the new stuff 2016 will illuminate for me, too. Here’s to a great year!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.