The Business and Performance Art of Freelancing
The idea that your work speaks for itself, while a very sweet meritocratic concept, is an imagined one. The fact is, your personal brand carries as much weight as the work you produce. From the way you talk about yourself and your business (reminder: freelance is a business) to how you dress, to your social activities and what you choose to share publicly, it’s all part of shaping a narrative to get you more clients and work.
It takes a lot of effort to curate and maintain that image. The question is, is it really worth it? Does the performance side of freelance allow you to step into bigger shoes, and create better work, or does it just tie up your time and energy in trying to look the part while keeping you from actually growing creatively? Perhaps some combination of both?
Let’s take a look at a few things every new freelancer does and see how it all stacks up.
Things you probably do as a freelancer
1. Make yourself seem bigger than you actually are
Have you ever written “we” when it was actually just an “I”? Scheduled an email response for later to make yourself appear busy and in-demand? Exaggerated the scope of a project that you did to make it look better? Of course you have.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for staying away from the “freelancer” label in favor of calling yourself an agency or at least a “we.” On a practical note, the term “freelancer” is more a comment on the structure of your business rather than the skills you bring to the table, as Suzan Bond points out. And if turning attention away from your limited number of hands, over to what you are able to produce, yields a higher rate of respect and compensation, then why not?
The only catch is keeping whatever you choose to call yourself consistent, which can be emotionally exhausting and stressful, as you are at constant risk of being found out. Drink a bit of your own KoolAid and view your light deception as a stepping stone to where you will soon be (i.e. a party of more than one, or a party of one that is so amazing that everyone wants to work with you). Just make sure you’re ready to back up your “bigger than you actually are” image with deliverables.
As far as projects go, if your actual portfolio isn’t bursting with quality, substance and a plethora of examples, Daniel Mall suggests creating your own unsolicited projects for dream clients to highlight your critical thinking and design abilities. It’s an attainable way to make it look like you’ve done more and better work than you’ve technically been paid to do.
Conclusion: Making yourself look bigger than you actually are is a pretty benign act. If you keep your ego in check and back up your claims with actions, it just might help you develop the image you want to project more quickly.
2. Exaggerate your abilities
If we only took on the kinds of projects that we already knew how to do, we’d never learn anything or have the chance to take on more challenging work and get better, right? Right.
Claiming to have built the beginning of his career on a mountain of aspirational lies, Tobias van Schneider advocates for becoming more of an expert than your client is about whatever they want you to do. If you can surpass their expertise, you become the expert, irrespective of your lack of experience. Do your research, set a realistic timeline, be prepared to put in extra time to catch your skills up to where you told your client they were, and get it done.
Conclusion: Fibbing about your abilities is fine as long as you commit to staying at least one step ahead of your client and put in the work to get up to speed and complete the project.
3. Dress the part, both in real life and on social media
How many outfit changes does it take before you actually get to a client meeting (or just out the door)? Do you really like your laptop bag or is it just one you know it’s cool to have? Should you post a photo of your meal and tag the place so everyone knows you were there? How much time do you spend thinking about how many followers you do or don’t have?
And more importantly, is anyone actually looking or is acting out your delusions of grandeur just distracting yourself from building your skills, and attaining some actual grandeur?
There’s not much reading on this one that isn’t just an article telling you how to build your personal brand online (yawn, it’s 2017). My personal stance is that self-delusion is effective up to a point. If dressing a certain way or posting pictures of your food at fancy places makes you feel like you’re actually “making it” and encourages you to keep believing and investing in yourself, then by all means keep on. The moment the image you project becomes a source of personal or financial stress rather than pleasure is the point at which to draw the line.
One more thing: you are a freelancer—don’t give up your entitlement to cultivating a little mystery. No one really knows how you spend your time and people generally assume you’re doing way cooler things than you actually are. Nothing perpetuates that better than gaps in your posting. Let others fill in the blanks.
Conclusion: Freelance is designed to give you more control over your life. Don’t squander the opportunity by being overly beholden to others’ standards and expectations for what you should look like, in person or online. Take some time to figure out which aspects of your outward facing identity are truly yours and which are just you keeping up with the Joneses; keep the former and cut out the latter.
4. Pretend your freelance gig is your only job and that you’re financially stable
Unless you have a sweet trust fund, chances are you live off savings from your previous job, or have a less glamorous side job, as you start out freelancing. There is no easy way to explain this to friends and family without having them think it means you’re not successful at it (when you’re actually just being financially responsible). Despite the fact that cognitively we all know it takes time to build a business (reminder #2: freelance is a business), emotionally we prefer to jump to conclusions about what it means when a person isn’t an overnight success.
Why do we hide the reality of our finances from our nearest and dearest? Most simply because we need them to think and talk about us with confidence, and them knowing that we’re not currently “making it” undermines that likelihood.
The paradox of sweeping the reality of your second job and/or financial situation under the rug is that you risk alienating the very support system you need by projecting a false sense of your stability and happiness. People generally want to help but aren’t likely to if they have no idea you need more referrals or just some emotional support.
How to reach out? Start by cultivating respect for what you’re working towards by clearly explaining what you do as a freelancer. Practice on your parents or close friends—once they know you’re serious and committed they’ll help you maintain a credible image while also providing support on the back end when you need it. Here’s a very straightforward and succinct guide from Rachel Kaufman that will get you started.
Conclusion: Sometimes our outward self projection stands in the way of getting the help we really need to establish ourselves and grow our freelance business. Some honest disclosure to the right and trusted people can go a long way.
Some amount of playing the part is inevitable when you’re starting out as a freelancer. If you could be 100% transparent and just sit back and watch things take off, that would be way too easy. Having to play the role of freelancer as you grow into one forces you to take yourself seriously and find ways to make sure others do the same. From what you call yourself, to how you show your portfolio, to which skills you claim to have, there are opportunities to make yourself seem further along in the service of actually getting yourself there.
The nuance lies in balancing your natural self with the idealized version that you want to project, so that clients, friends and family view you with confidence. Choosing when, and to what extent, to call on each persona can be both empowering and exhausting—it’s up to you to figure out which parts of your self presentation serve the greater purpose of helping you become a better freelancer, and which merely take time, energy and resources away from your work.
Got any personal experiences or tips to share? How did you best present yourself when you were just starting out? What did you gain from the choices you made? What did you lose? Comment below.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.