Adopt These 4 Traits of Freelancers to Weather Career Ups and Downs


Half of freelancers have lost 60 percent of their income due to COVID-19 and the economic downturn, a Haymarket Business Media survey found. Half say they’d even consider quitting self-employment to go back to an employer.

But the pandemic has illustrated that traditionally employed people aren’t any safer than freelancers.

Successful freelancers have accumulated skills and resilience to weather the unexpected. If the pandemic and recession have thrown your career a curveball, these four traits of successful freelancers can help you cope.

Be an Agile Self-Starter

When things go wrong, freelancers don’t look to a supervisor to fix things. They assess the situation and make a plan.

When Chanté Griffin, a freelance writer for natural Black hair markets, lost work due to COVID-19, “I asked myself what unique things I bring to the table other freelancers don’t. How I can capitalize and monetize that?” she said.

She continued to sell natural hair pieces, assuming few out-of-work writers could serve that niche. Griffin also diversified her income by launching an online spiritual writing class.

“Just that one class filled a need that I didn’t even know was going to exist and didn’t imagine teaching more than once,” she said. The class sold out, so Griffin’s offering it again.

Freelancers tend to be independent spirits who develop leadership skills out of necessity: They run businesses of one. In an office, you may have fewer opportunities to be a self-starter given the chain of command, but you can cultivate an agile approach to concrete tasks, time management and productivity. Agility is a learned skill that increases resiliency when things change suddenly.

Build a DIY Support Network

Co-workers are built-in communities of peer support. To create those communities for themselves, freelancers improvise online support networks through social media, online forums, or in-person events such as conferences. These networks are invaluable for advice, career support and professional development.

Griffin connected with a Facebook group for Black women writers early in her freelance days. The mix of novice and professional writers was a welcoming place for someone transitioning to writing from another career to learn the ropes. Griffin’s connections led to paying work, critique partners and mentorship.

“Having these communities is critical. It’s the difference between working alone and struggling in the dark and being successful and going from height to height,” said Griffin.

“Your network is your future net worth,” she said. Take ownership of that future worth by broadening your support network.

Griffin suggests joining industry-relevant social media groups and commenting often, so your name and face become familiar to members. Once you’re known to the group, they’ll help you take your career to the next level. Then, you can use your experience to help others.

Invest in Professional Development

Personal finance writer Dana Sitar worked alongside employees with freelance experience before becoming a full-time freelance writer earlier this year.

She noticed a “distinct difference in the amount of autonomy those with freelance experience expect and initiate.

Freelancers, she said, “have become accustomed to building our own careers, creating our path and being 100 percent responsible for the development of our own carers in a way people who have been employees” have not had to do, she said. (Note: Sitar is a former staff writer and editor for The Penny Hoarder who now writes on a freelance basis.)

Work experience on both sides of the freelance divide taught Sitar that “a full-time job does not mean job security any more than being a full-time freelancer means security in your income,” she said.

To maintain a pipeline of work, long-term freelancers have to be proactive about marketing and professional development.

When freelancers treat their work like a business, they can identify missing skills and knowledge, find ways to grow and keep the pipeline flowing. Professional development not only leads to more work and money, it can be intrinsically rewarding.

If your company doesn’t have mentorship or training opportunities, you’ll need to identify and shore up weak skills to make yourself more attractive to your current or future employer. This is something freelancers learn by trial and error and paying attention to marketplace trends.

Not sure what to learn? Ask your network!

Become Accustomed to Feast or Famine Work Cycles

The pandemic has created feast-or-famine work cycles in many industries. Reopening is start-and-stop; recovery is likely to be too. Many workers will experience an uneven level of work for an indefinite amount of time, which can compound stress or financial insecurity.

These ebbs and flows are part of the job for freelancers. Smart freelancers leverage it to their advantage. In slow times, tackle back-burner projects, invest in professional development, or relax by taking a day off. When work gets busy, get back in the grind.

Ultimately, these mental shifts are ways of cultivating resilience. While we can all plan for the future, none of us know what will happen next. In these times, that feels overwhelming and intimidating. But there’s a flip side: uncertainty opens up new opportunities.

Armed with agility, resilience, a strong network and a commitment to professional development, you can create your own luck in any work environment.

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