Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Giving Up On Yourself
I am in the process of adding some chapters to the Freelancer’s Guide, and updating a few others. This one has bothered me for nearly a year now, so I’m happy to redo it. Here’s the revised chapter that will go into the second edition of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide.
Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Giving Up On Yourself
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Amazing the difference eighteen months make. I first wrote the posts entitled “Giving Up On Yourself (Parts One and Two)” in June of 2010. But as we head into 2012, I realize that some of what I wrote is out of date.
I’ve revised this section and it will eventually go into the second edition of the Freelancer’s Survival Guide. The core information is the same but the outdated information is now gone. I initially wrote this section about giving up on yourself by focusing on publishing. But I no longer agree with those parts of the section. I am going to keep the overall structure, talking about artists first. So the initial introduction is gone, but the important stuff remains.
KKR, November, 2011
First, a disclaimer. The Freelancer’s Survival Guide is for freelancers of all stripes, not just writers, actors, musicians and people who work in the arts. The Guide is for anyone who works for herself.
This topic applies to all of us, but I’m going to start with artists—and by that I mean people who make their living in the arts—before I broaden the scope of the topic.
Artists occupy a rather unique place in the freelance firmament. Unlike most professionals, artists don’t need a formal education. Artists don’t need a license to hang out a shingle. Anyone can declare himself an artist, quit his day job, and try to make a living from his work.
While that’s sometimes freeing, it’s also a danger. Because unlike a doctor who can’t get his license without years of formal training and a certain level of competency, an artist can start “working” the moment she sings her first note or draws her first straight line. In some professions (the securities trade comes to mind), this level of accepted incompetence gives rise to fraud. In the arts, however, the only person who gets cheated when an artist is inexperienced is the artist herself.
Most people who attempt a career in the arts suffer from a mixture of extreme ego and extreme insecurity. We need the extreme ego to attempt success on an international level. After all, what makes our voices different from everyone else’s? There are billions of people on the Earth. Why do we believe that we will stand out?
Ego gives us that belief. But common sense tells us that we will fail at our goal. Worse, we take every mistake to heart. Most artists are sensitive souls, easily wounded by criticism. We believe in ourselves, but not all the time. That insecurity keeps us grounded. It also gives us an Achilles heel.
When the ego and the insecurity are out of balance, the artist tips in the wrong direction. Too much ego and the artist becomes insufferable. A mild-mannered bookstore owner once told me the story of the one and only time he kicked an author out of his store. The author was doing a book signing. A line of customers waited there to get their books autographed. The author was so abusive to his fans, he reduced even the most jaded of them to tears. The bookstore owner stepped in, stopped the signing, and when the author got more belligerent, asked the author to leave. The author refused, the owner threatened to call the police, and the author left in a storm of invective.
That author’s ego was so out of control that he alienated everyone around him. In fact, when the bookstore owner told me who the author was, I was not surprised. I had heard through other sources what a mean, egotistical jerk this man was.
At the time of the signing debacle, the author had several books on the New York Times Bestseller List. Now, no major publishing house will touch him. Why? His ego. His writing is just as good as it always was, maybe better. But no one in a major publishing house—from the publisher to the editor to the sales force—wants to deal with the man. He has alienated everyone in the business.
An out-of-control ego is one side of the imbalance. The other side is rampant insecurity. I can tell you of writer after writer—many of them former students of mine—who write tremendous fiction and can’t sell a word. Why? Because they refuse to let the work leave their offices, believing it no good. A single negative comment will get them to shelve not just that work, but also any other work that might be in the same genre or have the same tone.
I threaten a few of them occasionally, saying I’ll go into their files and mail their stories for them, but of course I don’t follow through. Because Dean and I have a philosophy that runs through all of our workshops:
You Are Responsible For Your Own Career
The egomaniacal writer I mentioned above is responsible for the downturn in his career. The insecure writers I mentioned right after him are responsible for the fact that most readers have never heard of them.
Artists must learn to balance that insecurity and ego so that they’re not raving lunatics (except in the privacy of their own offices) and so that they’re not so self-effacing that they refuse to let their brilliant work see the light of day.
Successful artists walk that line every single day. Push any of us hard enough in either direction and you’ll hear a burst of ego or a whisper of insecurity. But neither will last long, and one (the ego) will often result in an immediate apology.
No successful artist has gotten where she is without paying her dues. Paying dues is a long hard slog, often done in complete solitude. The end result is rather like the end result of going to medical school. You emerge exhausted, different, but with a working knowledge of your field and yourself. You must continue learning from that point on, constantly improving your craft, or you will destroy something (or someone—including, but not limited to, yourself).
When I started in the writing profession, paying dues took a certain amount of courage as well as ego. Most writers did not live anywhere near publishing central, which was (at least for Americans) New York City. We had to convince someone we’d never met to buy our work, and we had to do it via snail mail. Cold-calling an editor was a breach of etiquette. So was dropping into an editor’s office if, indeed, you decided to fly yourself to New York. Writers’ conferences were few and far between.
You had only yourself, your words, and your trusty (but somewhat inaccurate and out-of-date) Writer’s Market. You had to take the flyer.
It took years to run that gauntlet, often with little or no feedback. The writers who survived the constant rejection, the writers who worked at improving each and every day, the writers who persisted against all odds, became the ones whose names you recognize now.
All of the arts had some form of this gauntlet: musicians made demo tapes that had to be mailed to various record studios; artists developed portfolios that had to be mailed to galleries or publishing houses; actors sent resumes and photographs before getting auditions. We didn’t have the benefit of the internet. We couldn’t build websites that promoted our work, and we couldn’t tell someone to look at our online résumé/portfolio/demo.
I’m excited about the changes digital media will bring to my industry. I already love the way that it has changed the other arts. I can now look at my favorite artists’ portfolios online or listen to music from musicians who don’t get Top 40 airplay. I watch made-for-internet-only video, and I spend too much time looking for the unknown on the web.
But I worry. I watch the internet providing newer artists with an easy way to give up on themselves.
I see this most strongly in the publishing industry because that’s where I’m tapped in. Instead of a writer enduring years of rejection to get a book published, learning craft, improving, figuring out how to entice a publisher to buy the work (learning the proper use of an agent—which is not as a publisher’s first reader), learning the entire business as she gains experience, writers now make a few attempts, and then give up.
Initially when I wrote this piece, I said that new writers who didn’t try the traditional publishing gauntlet were giving up on themselves. At the time—eighteen months ago—I was on the cusp of being wrong. I hadn’t seen the changes in the industry or if I had seen them, I hadn’t understood them.
Back then—and before—it was easy to see a writer who was giving up on herself. She tossed in the towel, didn’t fight that gauntlet, and just defaulted with publishing online.
Now it could be argued—and I just might do it some day—that writers who refuse to learn how to publish their own work (particularly their backlist, if they’re professional writers) are giving up on themselves. These writers don’t have to do the work themselves, but they should learn how to hire the best help for a flat fee, and then get that work online.
Because, in the eighteen months since I wrote this piece, e-books have become 25% of the book market (and they’ll continue to grow), bookstores have all but vanished except in a few (lucky) places, and most books are ordered online. There is little that a traditional publisher can do that a writer can’t do herself—provided she’s willing to learn how.
The learning is the key. Because the writer who gives up on himself is the writer who stops learning.
There are a variety of ways to see that unwillingness to learn.
Among professionals, it’s a refusal to look at the changes in the industry and figure out how to apply those changes to the writer’s advantage. The writer remains stuck in the old way of doing things and never even bothers to look at the new way.
Among newcomers, it’s an unwillingness to admit that they still have learning to do in their craft. Maybe their self-published title isn’t selling because it’s unusual. But maybe it’s not selling because readers have sampled it and found it lacking—either in storytelling, grammatical basics, or in just plain old good writing.
The publishing craft might be lacking as well. The writer might have a great story buried in terrible formatting, hidden behind an awful cover, or hidden behind a bad cover blurb. All of these are skills that a writer can learn or, if he has the funds, he can hire someone to do the work for him for a flat fee.
I keep repeating that flat fee statement because yet another way for writers to give up on themselves is to fail to understand business. Right now, writers can post their work online or do the work to do a trade paper edition, and get up to 70% of the profits. But so many writers are refusing to learn the various ways to do this and retain that 70% profit. Writers can retain the profit either by learning to do the work themselves or paying someone a flat fee to do the work for them.
Too many writers—most of them, in fact—are paying some “professional” as much as 50% of that 70% to do the work for them. Work that will take the “professional” a few hours, and that professional will keep earning a profit on that work for years, maybe even decades.
The difference here is that the writer hasn’t learned business, and refuses to. He’s giving up on himself, and in doing so is costing himself thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands over decades.
That frustrates me to no end.
Musicians, who’ve been struggling with this ten years longer than writers, have learned to have multiple platforms. They make sure their music is available in vinyl, CD, and MP3. They license usage rights to radio stations as well as television shows and commercials. They do more concerts than they used to, just to get the music heard. The big recording studios still exist, but they are more selective than ever about the artists they back. The difference is that the artists who have the shot at the bigs and fail to achieve a studio’s numbers now have something to fall back on, and a way to rebuild.
Actors no longer have to choose between stage, screen, and small screen. They work in short video, live-action films, YouTube stories. They work on basic cable and premium channel films. They take television shows, even though that would have been the kiss of death to a movie career twenty years ago, and they do a lot of international work. The markets, in all of the arts, are changing.
But the changing markets shouldn’t be an excuse for failing to try hard. It’s pretty easy to see why an actor isn’t getting work if he posts his latest homemade video on YouTube, and it’s filled with too much emoting and not enough emotion. Anyone can spend days watching singers on YouTube attempting to become the next Justin Bieber. Most of those singers are out of tune and have no performance skills at all. It’s hard to become a professional musician. You need a certain level of skill, not just a pleasant voice.
Sadly, it’s the same for writers. You need a certain level of skill to succeed on an international level, and now the only way to know if you have that skill is to trust the readers. The readers will find your work. If it’s good, it’ll sell—not at huge numbers per month, but a few copies here and there. If the sales remain consistent or grow, you’re doing a good job. If you sell five copies in July of 2012 and only one copy in the next six months, then there might be something wrong with the product.
Should you figure out what that something is? Should you rewrite the book to death? Heck, no. You should practice—keep writing new material, and learn, learn, learn. After a few years, come back to the book that’s not selling. You will see it differently. You will know if the cover is bad or the blurb fails. You’ll know if there is no opening hook.
Provided you’ve been learning and growing and getting better.
All freelancers succeed because they persist. They try, they fail, they learn. They try again, they fail, they learn. They keep trying, keep learning, until they get a glimmer of success. Success rarely comes overnight. It comes after years of hard and often thankless work.
People who go into business for themselves expecting it to be easy are bound to fail, and fail in a spectacular way. Working for yourself is hard. You have a lot of decisions to make, a lot of assessing to do.
How does all of this publishing/artist talk apply to those of you who don’t work in the arts? Simple, really. There are things that you can do for your business that look like get-rich-quick short cuts. You’ve probably tried them. You know that they don’t work.
What works is learning the ropes and becoming the best at what you do.
Sometimes that means going on a limb with a project no one else believes in. But if it’s early in your career and no one has believed in you yet, then perhaps the problem isn’t that the project is too new or too innovative or too different for other people to appreciate.
Maybe the problem is that you haven’t learned your craft yet. You don’t know how to run the most efficient business possible. You haven’t learned the tricks to your trade.
When you always take the easy route, you’re giving up on yourself. Take that ego of yours and remind it that you need to be the best at what you do. And the best never takes the easy route.
Then take that insecurity of yours and tell it that you need to work harder to get better. It’ll take over from there. And it’ll balance out the ego that seems to think it should be rewarded just for trying.
I know. I know. It’s not always easy versus hard. The answers aren’t always clear-cut. How do you know when you’re giving up on yourself versus being innovative? What if there’s no clear path?
I also know that it’s different for other types of freelancers. The digital world isn’t one-type-fits-all. For example, retail stores with unique inventories are actually hurting themselves if they don’t have a significant online presence. Same with real estate agencies. Doctors are starting to investigate the benefits of e-mail “appointments” for minor matters. Every type of business is different.
So if they’re all different, then how do you figure out where you stand? Are you working hard enough? Are you giving yourself enough credit? Are you hurting or helping yourself?
How do you know if you’re giving up on yourself?
First, recognize that giving up on yourself isn’t black and white. Just because something is easy doesn’t make it wrong. Just because something is hard doesn’t make it right. To know if you’re giving up on yourself, you first have to figure out who you are.
Oh, yeah, that’s simple. Take a lifelong task and figure it out in the next twenty minutes. Not.
What I mean by that is this:
Figure out what your dreams are. Write them down. Figure out what your goals are. Write them down.
Once you’ve figured out what your dreams and goals are today, right now, this instant, honestly assess if you’re on the right road to attaining those dreams and goals. Only you know what your dreams and goals are, and whether you’re really on the right path to achieving those dreams and goals.
I stress that only you can figure out if you’re on the right path because sometimes—to an outsider—it looks like you’ve given up on yourself when you really haven’t.
For example, my husband has a degree in architecture and three years of law school. He quit in the last week of his last semester of law school because he realized he did not want to be a lawyer, and if he had graduated from the University of Idaho Law School, he would automatically have had most of the responsibilities of a lawyer, even if he never wanted to practice law.
So one week before graduation, he became a full-time bartender and school bus driver. To anyone looking at him from the outside, it would seem like he had given up on himself.
Instead, he focused on his writing career. Becoming a full-time professional writer isn’t something you can do overnight. It takes years, and he had just embarked on that career. But think about it from the point of view of his friends and family: he was a thirty-something former professional golfer and professional skier, who had given up “guaranteed” careers in architecture and the law, to what? Spend all his time in bars? Noodle on his computer?
It seemed like he had given up on himself when, for maybe the first time in his life, he had actually started to take himself seriously. Now he’s a bestselling writer, with more than ninety novels published. In hindsight, he made the right—the obvious—decision. But only in hindsight.
What did Dean have that many people do not have? He had a firm belief in himself and a willingness to take risks to achieve his goals. Those risks often made him go against common wisdom, and to fight against the beliefs of others.
That’s tough. But that’s what people with non-traditional professions, freelancers in other words, have to do.
So how do freelancers know when they’re giving up on themselves?
Here’s where it gets tough, because sometimes (often!) the act of giving up on yourself is by degrees. It’s subtle. It’s settling for a little less than you want. It’s slowly moving off the path until one day you wake up and realize that, not only have you left the path you wanted to walk, but you’re not even going in the right direction any more. And you got there by varying your course by half-inches instead of making hard right turns. Sometimes you didn’t even notice as you went off course.
To keep from giving up on yourself, you must:
1. Believe in yourself.
I know, I know. You’re insecure. You’re uncertain. We all are. And sometimes, articulating those big dreams out loud just sounds ridiculous, especially if you haven’t had any achievements in your field yet.
So how do you gain a belief in yourself when you really have none? I take a tip from the training that actors receive. Pretend. Pretend you have the belief. Act as if you do. Figure out how people who believe in themselves would act in that situation, and then mimic them. Eventually, it will become habit. And somewhere along the way, you will realize that you actually do believe in yourself. To be otherwise would feel odd.
2. Stop the negative self-talk.
If you hear yourself saying, “I’ll never be able to do that,” add “if I don’t try.” Give yourself little pep talks. Keep your focus on what you can control. Remember that your goal is a hard one, and will take a lot of effort. So reward yourself for the small steps.
A corollary to this is: stop talking to/listening to the negative people around you. For every person who thinks something will work, there are five who will tell you the flaws in your plan. First, look at the source. If the person who tells you the flaws hasn’t done anything with his life, realize that what he’s telling you is what goes on in his head every single day. Those negative words are the ones he lives with, and the ones that have prevented him from achieving his dreams. He thinks he’s being helpful. And he is. He’s giving you an example of where you’ll be if you listen to him.
You can cut the negative people out of your life, but that isn’t always productive. I have some marvelous friends who can be very negative about any dreams or goals. I just don’t discuss my future plans with those people. (I often don’t mention my successes to them, either.) I enjoy their company on a casual level, and I keep the relationship on that level.
3. Perform a daily gut check.
Make sure you’re on the right path each and every day. Seriously. Your gut will twist slightly if you’re making a poor decision. That feeling is different from the feeling you get when you make a risky-but-good decision.
Let’s see if I can describe the difference. If you’re making a risky-but-good decision, you’ll feel a bit lightheaded, a bit breathless, and a little frightened. You know it can go wrong, but you’re willing to risk it.
If you’re making a mistake, veering ever so slightly off the road toward your dreams, you might feel lightheaded and frightened, but you’ll also feel just a little sick. Often, if you’re paying attention to that voice inside your head, the one that gives you advice (good and bad), you’ll hear it say, “That’s okay. I’ll be all right. I can live with that.”
4. Watch out for that evil phrase, “I can live with that.”
“I can live with that,” is often accompanied by “for a few weeks, for a year.” But add “forever” to that phrase. Can you live with it now? Can you live with it forever, if you know it means you’ll never achieve your dream?
Sometimes, you have to live with something. Several of my friends have been taking care of their elderly, very sick parents. My friends have volunteered to live with financial hardship and emotional difficulties so long as their parents are alive. My friends also know that this will lead to some deferred goals. But they’re willing to make that choice—and they know, by the very nature of the task they’re facing—that they won’t have to live in this situation for the rest of their lives.
Dean has a great way of analyzing the “I can live with this” part of life. He asks—quite pointedly—“Do you want to be doing this in one year? In five years? In ten?”
If you answer those questions honestly, you’ll know if you’re making too many compromises. For example, I would hate to have to go back and wait tables to finance my writing. But I’d do it, if the writing stopped earning money for me. I’d do it for the rest of my life if it meant I could keep writing.
But I wouldn’t take on another profession. I never could imagine myself being a news director forever or even a journalist forever. Nor could I imagine myself editing magazines and books for the rest of my life.
While those professions seem close to professional fiction writing, they aren’t professional fiction writing. In fact, they get in the way of professional fiction writing.
For a while, I was better known as an editor in the field of science fiction and fantasy than I was as a writer. I was an acclaimed, award-winning editor, and if you look at the circulation figures, the years I edited The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction were the years of its highest circulation in its entire existence. In other words, I was good at my job. Very good.
I liked the job at first, came to hate it by the end. If I had remained as an editor (and I had dozens of editing job offers after I quit. In fact, I still get editing job offers every now and then), I would have been remembered, acclaimed, famous—and I would have given up on myself. At that point in time, most people believed I was a better editor than writer, and that I was making a huge mistake giving up the editing career.
It was one of the best decisions of my life.
But editing was very seductive. It wasn’t easier than writing for me. It was harder. I had to work for someone else. I had to fit myself into a mold that wasn’t comfortable for me.
However, editing gave me great acclaim and respect. I had achieved, by the age of thirty-five, fame in my chosen genre (science fiction and fantasy) and I was at the pinnacle of my editing career. I could have stayed at that pinnacle for decades, if I had chosen to do so.
It would have been close to a writing career. In fact, it mimicked the writing career in all but the production of stories. I even wrote a lot of words—editorials, interstitial materials, essays. But I didn’t write fiction.
I had been writing fiction since I was seven years old. Giving up on fiction for a career in sf would have been giving up on myself.
And yet, waiting tables—even now—wouldn’t be. Waiting tables would enable me to concentrate on writing during my off hours. I would put in my time for my paycheck, come home, and do what I love. And that’s extremely important to me—more important than being remembered or being the center of a certain genre or being a big shot.
I am a storyteller at heart. And I am happiest when I write down my stories and try to get them published. So long as I do that, I am staying true to myself.
5. Watch out for “good enough.”
I hate that phrase, “Good enough.” The thing that got me to work hardest on my fiction was a comment Frederick Pohl made about my writing at a writing workshop. He said he would have bought a story of mine—not because it was memorable or brilliant, but because he had a 3,000-word gap in his magazine and my 3,000 word story was good enough.
Ack. Kiss of death. I never want to be good enough. I want to be the best.
“Good enough” is settling. And I never want to settle. Not in my fiction (“Oh, my writing is good enough. I don’t have to learn any more.”) or in my life (“Oh, this job is good enough. I’ll get by.”) “Good enough” is as deadly as “I can live with that.”
Only, “good enough” crops up in other ways. Like this:
• I’m good enough to do something as a hobby, but not good enough to do it as a profession.
• This is good enough to get by.
• I’ll never be good enough to achieve my dream.
All three are deadly thoughts.
Let’s take them one at a time. “I’m good enough to do something as a hobby, but not good enough to do it as a profession.”
That sentence has a whole bunch of levels. First of all, who decides what “good enough” to do something professionally is? And let’s say there are standards; who says you can’t improve? Who says you can’t get better?
Why are you afraid to try?
“This is good enough to get by.” Why are you settling for “getting by”? Why aren’t you striving to do your best?
“I’ll never be good enough to achieve my dream.” Here’s a secret: people who achieve their dreams are never “good enough.” They’re always trying to get better. In fact, they never believe they have reached a plateau. “Good enough” suggests there is one.
And here’s a final one. If you’re constantly satisfied with “good enough” in your field of endeavor, ask yourself this: Are you in the right field? Because if you’re not willing to constantly improve, if you’re willing to settle, then you are not enjoying your work.
There are a bunch of reasons for failing to enjoy your work. You might be burned out. You might be overworked. Or you might not like the work itself.
Many of us have had dreams that have proven wrong for us. I love music, but when it comes to being a musician, I always settle. I never strive. I practice until I’m “good enough” to get by. And no matter what I do, I cannot break myself of this habit.
Which is why my career in the arts is as a writer, not as a musician. I never got to “good enough” as an editor, but I could feel it looming on the horizon. I moved on before “good enough” became part of my editing vocabulary.
This is why I tell you to do a gut check daily. Because you’ll be able to chart the progress of what you do and how you’re feeling. Honestly, it’s okay to discover that a dream you’ve had is not for you.
But here’s what’s not okay: it’s not okay to give up on yourself because you’re not worthy, or someone else has told you the task facing you is impossible.
I have a quote on the bulletin board next to my desk. It’s from Thomas Carlyle: “Every noble work is at first impossible.”
And another from Judy Garland: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of someone else.”
That’s what we’re talking about here. You need to be a first-rate version of yourself, and only you know who that person is. You’re living your life, not your mother’s life or your best friend’s life. Only you know what you’re capable of.
Don’t do what everyone thinks you should do. Do what you think you should do.
And don’t give up because others tell you you’re not capable of success. Prove them wrong.
6. Be tenacious.
Cling to your dream. Work for your goal. If you step off the path, climb back on the moment you realize you’ve veered in the wrong direction.
You will make mistakes. You will take the wrong path. The key is to come back to yourself, and come back to the right road for you.
I can’t tell you if you’re giving up on yourself. Only you can know that.
Dean has one other question, and it’s a big one: when you’re on your deathbed, what will you regret?
Will you regret not striving hard enough for your dream? Will you regret lost years while you were succeeding in a profession other than the one you love? Will you regret being “good enough?”
Only you can answer those questions.
And you should. Daily. To keep yourself on track.
To keep yourself from giving up.
“The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Giving Up On Yourself” copyright © 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
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