Last weekend, I was chatting with a young web designer. She hated her job, but felt stuck.
“I’m much too introverted to freelance,” she said. “I could never go out and sell myself.”
Whoa, I thought. That’s an interesting perception. And so utterly backwards.
If anything, freelancing is the ideal career for us card-carrying introverts. You can freelance your way to fame, fortune, and freedom without undue schmoozing or “going out and selling yourself.”
(You can also freelance admirably well as an officially-diagnosed extrovert, too. Although you’ll do it differently. More about that in a minute.)
Just for review, here’s what we’re talking about:
If you’re an introvert, it does not mean you’re shy, or insecure, a hermit or a misanthrope.
It just means you’re perfectly comfortable being alone, intently working, reading, making something, figuring things out. Your brain works best when the office door is closed.
You enjoy the company of other people just fine, but only one or two of them at a time. And not all damn day.
For you, having a clear calendar on a Tuesday, with no meetings or conference calls, is a gift from heaven.
After enduring a three-hour, nine-person meeting, your head is spinning. You say, “Thank God that’s over. Now I can get something done.”
At a party among strangers, you can be charming and engaging enough, perhaps even irresistible. (That is me, in spades.) But it is work. It drains you. After a couple hours of non-stop conversation, you are nudging your spouse toward the door. (That is me, in spades.)
And for every hour of such socializing, you require four hours of not socializing to recharge. Preferably five.
If you’re an extrovert, it doesn’t mean you are super confident, cheerful, likable, or devoted to humanity.
It only means you feel most energized and alive when around people. The more, the better. You are happiest at weddings, conferences, meetings, presentations, banquets, conference calls, sales calls. You draw strength from the multitudes.
You can work alone in the office when you must. But after 56 minutes (at most) the solitary confinement becomes intolerable. You reach for the phone (without realizing it), or call a meeting, or head out in search of other humans. Your brain works best when you’re talking, presenting, collaborating, arguing, and bouncing ideas around. You are most productive on your feet, in a room full of people, freewheeling and jotting on a whiteboard. A clear calendar is depressing.
After a two-hour meeting, you are jazzed up. “Man, we got a lot done.”
At a party, you hold court in groups of three or four. You move around a lot. And your partner is nudging you toward the door, usually around 1:15 am.
But instead of going home, you just downsize. You invite a smaller group out for drinks to keep things going.
Yes, overly simplified. But enough for now.
Who we are
But among us freelancers, it’s the other way around.
Don’t ask me for data, but at least 70% of us sole practitioners lean toward the introvert end of the scale.
It makes sense. Introverts are naturally drawn to the crafts, trades, and disciplines that are practiced solo — not the kind of work you do in a crowd. We like to draw, program, write, design, carve, compose, translate, fix things. Give us a block of stone, a chisel, and four hours alone, we’re happy. Working on a committee? Blech.
Sure, eight people in a room can ‘brainstorm’ a marketing campaign with all sorts of synergystical magic. (Or goofy groupthink, whatever.) But you can’t build a web site that way. Someone needs to sit at a desk and actually craft the damn thing.
That’s where introverts come in.
We’re the people who go deep, then come back with something good.
You can build a hell of a freelance career doing that.
Yes, but what about “going out and selling yourself?”
Forget that. Not necessary at all, at least the way most people think of “selling”.
How introverts freelance
I love how a grey-beard illustrator thinks of it: “I send my work out there to meet people and shake hands. I’m better off staying here and drawing.”
Fact is, most freelancers win clients on the strength of their work and their ideas, how well they deliver what clients like. It’s not about force of personality or charisma, or being the most vocal at a meeting.
You do your “selling” the way you prefer to work: with time to think.
All the ‘good stuff’ about yourself, the part where you’re a genius and all, the things you could never blather about in person, that goes on your website. Or your CV. Or your blog. You fill a portfolio with work. Or you post speculative, experimental work on your site. Or you do a video “interview” with yourself.
Instead of working a room wearing a smile and name tag, you send a few thoughtful emails to companies or agencies you might like to work with. Send some sketches or doodles. Whatever it is you do.
You expand your reach by contributing articles, participating in forums, sending pleasant emails to other freelancers. If you’re a writer, you contact designers or vice versa. You send a note to someone whose work you like.
Of course, you’re keeping in touch with everyone you already know. You work for referrals.
And oddly enough, I think introverts are more comfortable with a small group of tight working relationships. We’re better at one-to-one, I think, than the extrovert who wants to know everyone, who always wants to invite others into the conversation.
That’s not needed. You can build a thriving career on Ten True Fans.
And when a client does call, you listen more than you talk. You keep saying, “Hmm, tell me more.” Unlike our extrovert brethren, we don’t try to talk our way into friendship, or talk our way into a sale. We shut up and let the client talk. They like that.
Instead of talking about yourself, or trying to wing it and kick ideas around, you tell them their project is intriguing and you’d like to think about it for a bit, and get back to them with some ideas.
Which means you get to hang up, and figure it out. You think for a day, or a morning, and spend an hour or so tinkering with an email, or some quick doodles, or something to send back. No socializing needed. Or, you can say, “No thanks.”
You can touch 24 people in an afternoon like this, without subjecting yourself to an exhausting meet-and-greet, industry conference, or client meeting. Yes, in a pinch, you can do all of that. But it’s not you. It takes way too much prep, too much energy. Cede that territory to people who live for it.
I know, there are pressures to be more outgoing, more dynamic, more dazzling in a crowd. The world awards status points for that. And you’ll hear advice about ‘stepping outside your comfort zone’, ‘putting yourself out there’ ‘doing what you’re afraid to do.’
In other words, to be more successful, you have to be an extrovert. No you don’t.
It’s always better to go with your own grain. Do what you’re good at, how your brain works. You will never out-socialize an extrovert.
And an extrovert will never out-deep you.
How extroverts freelance
Don’t get me wrong. I love extroverts. I always wanted to date them. (The female ones at least.)
I like to watch the full-on extroverts performing at a backyard party in the summer — wondering how the hell they think of so many things to say. (But I still want to leave after an hour or so.)
As freelancers, though, they go a different route.
My friend Laurie came from the publishing world. She quit her job because of the toxic politics and low pay. But when she went freelance, writing technical manuals and training books, she damn near went crazy.
She is not cut out to spend all day by herself writing. In time, she morphed into actually doing the training, giving courses, working closely with companies surveying employees, trying to figure out what instruction would be most helpful. She’s freelance, but spends all day in meetings and classes.
Very similar story with a graphic designer I worked with a few years back. In the busy hubbub of an agency, with people around all day, she was comfortable.
But when freelancing on her own, doing identities and logos, she was way too fidgety. Last I heard, she was a ‘branding consultant’. She does this participatory thing, where she helps executives think through what they want to be as company. They brainstorm things at meetings, sketch out logos in groups, develop ‘brand messages’ with stakeholders.
She is in the studio maybe one day a week, and at client offices four days. She naturally gravitated toward clients who wanted a facilitator, an on-site collaborator.
Introvert and Extrovert, Inc.
Often, an innie will team up with an outie.
Stacy, who did the work, partnered with Brian who landed clients, did lunches, and got meetings. In a way, on paper, they were the perfect complements.
But within eight months, they had weekly shouting matches in the office, each claiming they were the only one doing anything. The partnership ultimatley ended in a fistfight in the parking lot.
A week later, both were happy again
Brian had four new clients, nine lunch meetings on the calendar. And Stacy had the office to himself.
These are things I cut from the piece, because they didn’t quite fit, and because you’re supposed to ‘kill all your darlings, but I thought I’d used them anyway:
There are days when I wish I could just do the talking, pestering, cajoling, negotiating, and then get paid. In fact, there’s a common bitching point in my circle of bandits: “So now, after two lunches, six conference calls, two amended proposals, a long call with the boss, two more conference calls, and six days of waiting I have merely won the right to spend 67 hours actually doing the damn work.”
- — -
Extroverts may love people. But that doesn’t mean people necessarily like being around them. You can be an irritating extrovert, too.
I once worked with video producer who didn’t like to “think too much” about an upcoming presentation. He preferred to walk in and wing it. (Me, I would need to pace around my office for like a day practicing aloud, rehearsing until my mouth went dry.) He thought better when he was talking. I think better before talking.
Extroverts send much shorter emails. I’m trying gamely to work with a client who’s a non-stop talker, but a constipated emailer. “Just make the opening section about how we care about the industry and. . . . etc. etc . . .Call me.”
First of all, you can’t go out there and sell yourself as if you were an insurance policy or a used car. I tried that. I’m embarrassed to say that I used to read books on salesmanship. I learned techniques like the ‘forced-choice close’, the ‘alternate advance’ and the ‘hook and tie-down.’ In practice it was all useless. One client said, “Geez, that was the worst forced-choice close I ever heard.”