Articles - 13th February 2020

The importance of having confidence as a freelancer, and how to find it

Words by Jessica Brown
Illustration by Will Francis

When people transition from full-time work to freelance, they might expect to see a drop in their savings or free time, at least for a little while. What we don’t see coming is the drop in self-confidence. Going at it alone after having regular reinforcement from colleagues and managers can be a shock to the system. Freelancing requires an unwavering ability to tell yourself you’re doing a good job.

There’s no one way to be a freelance journalist. For me, it often means working behind the scenes on a story for months, making hundreds of decisions – what direction to take the story in, who I talk to, what I ask them – without input from anyone else. This means I need to trust my intuition, and that the decisions I make will result in a commission.

But when I eventually pitch the story to an editor, the real test of my confidence begins. If it takes longer than I anticipated, I can convince myself I’m in the wrong job. When I get a commission, I get a boost of confidence than propels me onto the next piece of work. Of course, small dips in our self-confidence can be helpful. A string of rejections may mean you’d benefit from taking a step back and tweaking how you work, or realising you need to brush up on a skill. But when the dips are so low they hold you back and affect your work, it can be helpful to take steps to improve your confidence, and your ability to remain confidence when work doesn’t go exactly as you anticipated.

Put in the work

“You first need to understand what confidence is,” says career coach Gill Hasson. “It’s not something you can put your finger on. It’s not what you can and can’t do. It’s what you believe you can and can’t do.” But knowing this isn’t enough – you have to work at getting it, Hasson says. “To feed and build your confidence requires effort – it won’t just come.”

For Adrian Ashton, who’s been a freelance enterprise consultant for 15 years, this means regularly taking courses. “I study for ongoing qualifications as a way to bolster confidence. They allow me to reflect on my understanding and knowledge objectively and critically, which helps me accept that I know as much as people say I do.”

Know your strengths

Make sure you know what your achievements, skills and strengths are, Hasson says.

“Maybe you keep a diary of your achievements to look back on,” she says. “Focus on what you can do – you have to big yourself up.” Be equally honest with yourself about what you’re not so good at – so you can either brush up on your skills, Hasson adds, or hire someone else to do this work.

Build a network

Build your own support network, Hasson says, perhaps with an online group or a professional association. “It’s really important to get support from other people and to not isolate yourself,” she says. But there’s only value in having a network if you’re not afraid of asking for help.

“Forget about seeming weak by asking for help,” says confidence coach Steve Errey. “Confidence is accepting your worth, having compassion in the face of challenges and leaning into uncertainty,” he says. “It has nothing to do with weakness or strength.”

Sometimes, a close network can help us navigate how to interpret an industry’s response to our work. Translator Ian Stephenson dreamed of translating novels on the side of his full-time job, but found he had to do work upfront before approaching a publisher – who sometimes then took his ideas and commissioned them to someone else. “I gave up for a while, but my dream to publish a translation of a novel wouldn’t go away,” he says. Stephenson did some research and found that most other translators were in the same situation.

“This proved to me that it was nothing personal, and it spurred me to work harder.” This gave Stephenson the confidence to change his tactics and started doing small literary translation pro bono. His name was passed on to a publishing house and has now translated three novels.

And while other people can be a force for good – don’t use them as a stick to beat yourself with. “Avoid the temptation to compare yourself,” says Errey. “There will always be someone who seems more successful. but aside from the fact that comparison is judging how you feel on the inside with how you perceive someone else on the outside, in no way does what someone else is doing diminish what you’re doing.”

Turn negatives into positives

When Ashton, who supports clients with financial management, was investigated by HMRC for tax fraud three times, it knocked his confidence

“They never found anything against me, and I now use these as an accolade when working with clients who are nervous about what might go wrong in their own accounts,” he says.

Become friends with the nature of freelancing

Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for a freelancer to not know how they’re going to pay next month’s rent. But we must be careful how we respond to uncertainty. “Freelancers face a perfect storm,” says Errey. “A high degree of uncertainty, a personal sense of responsibility and typically high-expectations around performance and capability.”

But our brains, he says, are wired to avoid uncertainty and risk – and will follow patterns of thought designed to increase certainty and safety. “Sometimes that means becoming risk-averse or seeking approval and acceptance in order to mitigate risk. These pursuits can actually diminish our effectiveness and our ability to do great work,” he says.

Instead, we just need to take the pressure off ourselves, and be realistic, says Errey. “You don’t need to have all the answers. You just need to know enough, understand enough, or have enough of a sense of things in order to make that next decision, or to run that next experiment,” he says. “You’re allowed to make things up as you go, because that’s what everyone’s doing.”


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