Friends and family used to ask me that all the time. Back in the late 1900’s people studied career paths like they were magical treasure maps.
“What kind of career is that, anyway?”
At the time, I had no good answers for them, which made me look clueless. All I knew was I wanted out of a job I hated. Wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
Fact is, you have as many — or more — career options as a freelancer than you do as an employee. And you can change direction faster and more often than someone who works in a job.
You are actually shaping your career in real time.
Get good, get big
When you practice your trade all day long you eventually become good at it, especially if it fascinates you.
If you always angle toward bigger assignments, more difficult challenges, higher-profile jobs, you grow. You develop a style. You become known in the business. You carve a niche. You become the person to call. You become an icon. (There is good money and security in being an icon.)
Plenty of designers follow this path. Think of greats like Paul Rand, Milton Glaser. They essentially remained ‘freelance.’ Hollywood film directors and cinematographers do this, so do screenwriters. Some journalists.
My daughter recently interned for New York photographer Richard Pierce. He creates still-life shots for cosmetic and fashion companies at budgets that would make you swoon. He has a big studio, tons of equipment and plenty of helpers. He is a freelancer grown large. Plenty of career there.
You go can from translating travel brochures to being the guru that big publishers fight over to translate the next Fifty Shades of Grey into Spanish.
Build a firm
You start as a web designer. You luck into some big jobs. You bring in some helpers. In time, you have a design group that does design and UX/UI for major media sites.
As a PR specialist, you can team up with another PR specialist who thinks just like you. Or nothing like you. Both of you can attract bigger clients than you could alone. Soon the two of you are a PR firm.
Build a product
Designer Mike McDerment became frustrated trying to create invoices with Microsoft Word. As a side project, he tinkered with a solution. It became FreshBooks, a company with 90 people.
A freelance magazine writer in New York wanted to give her networking a boost. She starting running small meetups for editors and other writers at local pubs. Running the meetups soon took all of her time. She is now in the business of creating meetups.
Maybe you can turn your programming chops into clever iPhone apps, a specialized programming language or an utterly ingenious way to train new programmers.
After years of freelancing, an editor who loves your work recruits you to head up a new venture in the parenting space. Or in entrepreneuring, nutrition, or motorcyles.
It happened to me. I had been writing copy for a small marketing agency, for one of their big tech accounts. They wanted to hire me as their creative director. Salary and everything. At the time, I had been through a bad stretch with freelancing. My family was growing impatient with me. I took the job.
I lasted only 18 months. Went back to freelancing.
Forget career plans, though
Funny thing is, you can’t plan any of this.
As a freelancer, there is zero value in long-term career plans.
The world changes, your head changes. At the doctor’s office, the ultrasound shows, uh-oh, twins.
At best, a ‘plan’ is just a wild-ass guess at what might be fun, or profitable, or in demand six years from now. That is Ouija board territory.
Most of us, as stupid as it sounds, make it up as we go along.
A freelancer career is sculpted moment by moment by the little decisions you make all week long, punctuated by some random occurrences and chance collisions.
Take this job or that one? Which client to pursue? How much to charge? How wild to get with this design? Knock off at 4 pm today? Which email to answer first? Blow off this silly request, or not?
If your background brain worries about money, you’ll tend to angle towards the safer, the steadier, a few degrees at a time. You’ll end up nine miles away from the guy whose brain always nudges toward the bigger, shinier, flashier, scarier, also a few notches at a time.
In a way, you’re always optimizing, a little at a time, around your preferences, your fears, your obsessions, your prejudices, the pressures you feel from on high.
Consider a client who needs 36 documents translated in a big hurry. Impossible deadline.
Freelancer A, based on where his head is at that day, says “No way. I can handle five, maybe. But I can give you names of others to call.”
Freelancer B, prodded by something in her brain, says, “Heck yes. No problem.” (But I have to find a bunch of translators right away.) She takes it on. Finds out that managing translators is way different from translating. But she finds it more stimulating than living inside a document all day. She angles that way.
(Or she finds that herding translators is pure hell. “Screw this,” she says. “Give me a document.”)
We’re all making it up as we go.
I like the way E.L. Doctorow thought of it:
You can drive a thousand miles seeing only as far as the glow of your headlights.