To Succeed as a Freelancer, Forget Everything You Learned as an Employee

As an employee you have to fit in.

Do as you’re told. Don’t rock the boat. Follow the rules. Stick to the schedule. Color inside the lines, always.

Everything is structured. It’s all about the company or organization, and rarely about you.

We’re boxed in and cut off from the opportunity to explore and expand our own talents and passions.

The same thing happened at school. We were told which subjects to study, which books to read, which tests to take, which rules to follow.

After all those years of education and employment, it’s little wonder that people feel stuck in a certain way of thinking about themselves, their work, their value and their potential.

And then – when people first start out as freelancers – they still try to follow the old rules. They bring that cubicle mindset with them, and don’t know how to break out.

To better understand what I mean, take a look at some of the key differences between working and thinking as a student or employee, and working and thinking as a freelancer.

If you have already been freelancing for a while, work through that list and ask yourself whether that left column contains some behaviors you’re still sticking to.

Are you still working nine to five as a freelancer? If so, why?

Are you still keeping your head down doing “busy work” just to look like you’re working? If so, who are you doing that for? Who’s watching?

Are you saying yes to every unreasonable request made by your clients? If so, why? They’re not your boss or your high school principal.

Are you allowing your clients to dictate how much you are paid for each project? If so, why? They’re not your boss. You’re the boss. Negotiate.

Are you working on projects you don’t really enjoy? Are you doing stuff that doesn’t allow you to give expression to your greatest talents and gifts?

If so … WHY?

Really. Why punish yourself like that?

The fact is, most of us bring that cubicle mindset into our lives as freelancers. It’s tough to break free of the decades of conditioning we were subjected to at school and at work.

We keep following those same behaviors. Ask a psychologist why we do that and she’ll tell you it’s about “learned helplessness”.

In other words, decades of experience have taught us that to get ahead, to get good marks and positive annual assessments, we have to follow the rules. And we learn that we are helpless to change those rules.

Truth be told, I’m not immune to these “carried-over” behaviors myself. It took me years to get past the feeling that my clients were my boss, and that I should say yes to their demands even when I didn’t want to.

I also made myself a victim of “keeping busy”. I would stuff my week with all kinds of projects and tasks, in the belief that being busy in and of itself was somehow a badge of honor.

Now for the good news …

You’re not helpless. Far from it.

Yes, the vast majority of us who set up as freelancers bring a lot of that self-limiting, learned helplessness with us.

But with a little self-awareness, you can start working through that list of behaviors and change them.

And as you check off each item on that list, you’ll feel a weight being lifted from your shoulders.

Replace old habits with new and better ones.

Above all, dig deep and find what your true talent is. What kind of freelance work will allow your true potential to blossom?

To answer this question, you may have to go way, way back. Many of us had a sense of where our true strengths and talents lay when we are very young. But then we had that knowledge beaten out of us by schooling and employment.

Will getting out of the cubicle mentality help you in your career as a freelancer?

Absolutely it will. When you put yourself in the driver’s seat of your own business, and follow a path of your own choice, it gives you a tremendous sense of freedom and a massive boost in self-confidence.

When you do work that inspires you, and not the work you think other people want you to do, every new day starts with the kind energy that makes great things happen.

When you are fully in control of your own destiny, and focus all your energy on pleasing yourself, and stop trying to please other people “in authority”, you’ll finally tap into the power to change your life.

That’s what freelancing can do for you.

Finally, please take a few moment and add to this conversation in the comment stream below. Specifically, take a few moments looking at that list of employee behaviors and tell us which of those you brought into your own freelance life. Better still, add to the list!

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Published: September 21, 2015

23 Responses to “To Succeed as a Freelancer, Forget Everything You Learned as an Employee”

  1. Good Morning Nick, It is awesome article on Monday morning!
    You may recognize me from the Webinar of Making- Money Website.I am your student.

    At this very moment , I still work full time.I stil "let my boss decide on my pay".I still have"my time controlled by other".I still have "my life controlled by other".
    I applied some copywriter jobs but I did not get accepted yet. May be I do nat have experience.

    Now I work hard on set up my website . I will let you see it when I finish.
    Thank you for your tip. God Bless Jane-Marie T Uong Barefoot Writer Club/ITWPA/PWA

    jennieSeptember 21, 2015 at 9:13 am

  2. What pains me most is to leave my family behind just because a boss has ordered me to work in remote area

    wycliffSeptember 21, 2015 at 11:19 am

  3. I will admit I still have that employee mindset at times even though I have been contemplating a freelance writing career. However, I do like the idea of working on projects that I'm really interested in and like to do. This article is written from a different perspective and really does give us all something to think about.

    SheilaSeptember 21, 2015 at 12:24 pm

  4. Hi Nick. I loved this article and I desperately needed the information! I find it so difficult to take off my employee hat. That's especially true in two situations:

    1. When clients set very close deadlines as if I am an employee; and
    2. When clients push back on fundamentals while I am accountable for results.

    I think I am still afraid to walk away from work that doesn't fit, so I allow clients to roll over me.

    Your article reminds me I'm not beholden!


    MelissaWSeptember 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

  5. Still determining if this is the right move for me. . .

    What resonates with me is that I currently have a 60 minute commute one way, time is precious and something I can never get back.

    Guest (LoriC)September 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm

  6. thank you, Nick!

    Guest (Olga)September 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

  7. Thanks Nick, I look in the Employee column and find the reasons for why I lost my job in Dec. 2013-my defiance of these expectations. I had lived within them since I was a school girl and had burned out with them while on this last job. It is a wonderful thing to find a place and purpose in organizations but I lost my spirit in this workplace when it's goals and priorities clashed with mine.

    Guest (Nora King)September 21, 2015 at 9:14 pm

  8. Hi Nick, I am an aspiring copy writer and have very recently purchased the Accelerated Program for Six Figure Copywriters! I am so excited to be on my own path to a successful career and the chance to live the barefoot writer's life. Your article has given me insight into how to manage my business with pride and confidence -- I am the boss, and that is how it should be. Thanks for the refreshing perspective and a little extra backbone!
    To the writer's life, Emily

    Emily LouelleSeptember 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm

  9. Thanks Nick. As a freelancer, I am still struggling with saying "No" to unreasonable requests from my clients. Subconsciously, I think that I retain them by going the extra mile. But I have started putting my feet down - gradually. And I like the results - heavens didn't fall.

    Sam EremieSeptember 22, 2015 at 3:52 am

  10. Usbornes'learned helplessness and the ideas of Dr. Peter Breggin concerning negative legacy emotions converged today for me in my recent research of the meaning of hidden Jesuit education for a new book I intend to write.
    Merely,Thank you.

    Guest (Denis Molloy)September 22, 2015 at 7:43 am

  11. I used to be an editor and I'm still doing it = your list should be headed, "AS a student or employee" … I see numbers of typos in AWAI's materials and wonder if my calling is to edit their stuff…just joking.

    Guest (Sue )September 22, 2015 at 2:54 pm

  12. Nick,

    What a great article and this is great copy. Why is this great copy you ask? Because with this article the words came alive jumped off the screen and slapped me in the face.

    I would also like to throw out the idea based on this article, that the best Freelancers also can make the worst employees. So is you are struggling to find a career maybe it is because you were never meant to be an employee.

    Mark ScottSeptember 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

  13. Thanks, Nick. It's so true. We get stuck with that feeling that someone is looking over our shoulder. Plus, we're usually hardest on ourselves. So as long as you can hold yourself accountable, who cares what you do with the rest of your time? It leaves you free to truly explore our passions.

    Guest (ScottF)September 22, 2015 at 3:35 pm

  14. thanks Nick.these are words of deliverance to all newbies. When you the experienced folks talk to us you shorten our learning curve. Experience...they say is the best teacher...but ,also, the slowest way to learn...

    godfredSeptember 23, 2015 at 9:29 am

  15. There are very few careers that allow you to work in the the second column. Only teaching comes to mind. I think the true path to happiness and inner peace in the working world is to work for yourself because you have only yourself to blame when things go wrong, and you don't have to share your success with anyone else when things go well.

    Guest (Jim Novara)September 24, 2015 at 9:31 am

  16. My Goal: Professional Copywriter

    First why: I'm a romantic at heart and love the idea of living the writer's life. A close second (gives meaning to the first), I love feeling empowered (w/personal growth/personal development/entrepreneur @ heart)and want to give back.

    If I were to give you one word it'd be: Environment. One more word...Harmony.

    Thank you for this article Nick! It's an eye opener...and you're right about learned helplessness. It's not a nice feeling.

    As you breakout of old habits you discover...when you don't follow your passion and do what you love you find you're not "in the flow". Even if what you do is from a serious hobby standpoint b/c even hobbies deliver!:)

    Becky WestSeptember 24, 2015 at 3:53 pm

  17. The one big difference for me is that entrepreneurs (freelancers) aren't afraid to fail, they take chances, or tip the boat as you say. Fear is embedded in many employees.

    Guest (Peter)September 25, 2015 at 12:38 pm

  18. Being a complete newbie here, having joined AWAI just 3 days ago, I have yet to gain access to my accelerated training package. I've been reading all that I can about this industry, articles, posts and comments from experts and new users as well. I can't tell you how Inspirational it is to have this exact sort of commentary available and so accessible within an online training community of professionals and students! I have a feeling of Imminent Freedom welling up from inside, the more I read and learn. Through the many layers of information that I am learning from, the strength really seems to lie, in the end, in this support team and system. Thank you!

    Terri NorvellSeptember 26, 2015 at 1:00 pm

  19. I'm reading this a week late, but better late than never. Realizing now that I let my barely-started web writing career fizzle out because I lost confidence and longed for the security of a full-time job. Now that I have one...I'm remembering why I thought it was a good idea to freelance in the first place. Moving forward now!

    (I have to admit, the job's a good thing, though. It'll keep me clothed/fed/housed AND inspired until I can make the leap to full-time freelancing.)

    RandiSeptember 28, 2015 at 2:30 am

  20. I am very new to AWAI and I am trying to get as much information before I tell my husband what I am doing. I've been writing stories since I was young. This looks like an exciting way to get back into it. I also have the 9 to 5 job and my boss yells all day and we don't get any breaks. Looking for something that gives me purpose in life.

    MrsHooseSeptember 30, 2015 at 6:52 pm

  21. Fantastic article, Nick. I especially loved the idea of tipping the boat over and seeing what happens. I do that often. I love doing it and think that often it is an absolute must. It's unbelievable how many people are afraid to do just that, not just at work, but in all areas of their lives

    Guest (Jeff)November 24, 2015 at 11:34 am

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