Making a successful leap into the world of freelancing isn’t just about perfecting your skills or maintaining a roster of clients – it’s also about focus, and being able to prioritize as your own boss. Career consultant and life coach Rahti Gorfien knows a thing or two about how to get there. As the founder of Creative Calling Coaching, Gorfien has been helping her clients organize and manage their path to growth for over a decade, and was recently recognized as one of the top 15 life coaches in NYC by Expertise. Specializing in work with entrepreneurs, artists and those with ADHD tendencies, Gorfien assists her clients in identifying obstacles and creating ways to overcome them in order to help move their business, art and life forward through emphasis on time management, accountability and strategic tactics.
We caught up with Gorfien to share some of her best tips for freelancers, and hear about what it really takes to be your own boss. Whether you’re just getting your feet wet or have already taken the leap into freelancing, Gorfien’s approach is worth checking out. So, when it comes to tactical advice, what would be the “must-haves” on a freelancer’s checklist? According to Gorfien, in order to be a successful freelancer, you have to display and continually develop the following traits and sensibilities:
You have to be someone who can function without being told what to do
“If you need someone to tell you what to do, that’s a problem,” explains Gorfien. “If you’re someone who enjoys applying your skills at the beck of other people, becoming a freelancer is probably not a good idea.”
As a freelancer, you’ll need to be able not only to create your own agenda, but also set your own priorities – and constantly adjust these as your business fluctuates throughout the year.
You need to be willing to create your own structure
“If you are not willing to learn how to structure yourself, then you should not be a freelancer,” warns Gorfien. But for those willing to roll up their sleeves and take the risk, she says much of that self-discipline can – and should – be learned and practiced constantly. According to Gorfien, much of this is willingness. “It does not mean you have to be ultra-disciplined and always be somebody who knows how to do so, but rather, you have to be willing to create and adhere to your own structure,” she says. “There are ways to do that that are not so horribly difficult, even as simple as going out and showing up at a coffeeshop at 9AM everyday – it can be simple.
Very often company is stronger than will – that’s why coworking spaces work well for freelancers: you’ve paid money, you’ve got skin in the game, you’ve got to go there and work, so that’s a good thing.” Like with anything else, that structure is going to require your constant attention and evaluation, to see what is working, what could be working better, and where you can experiment in order to improve.
“What I do with my clients is create a marketing plan,” explains Gorfien. “There is a certain number of things that you do every week, and you track how many of those things you do, so that then, if you look back over the year or the past few months and you look over those checklist sheets, you see that your activity may have dropped off in a certain area and you see your income may have dropped off in some areas, and you can actually make some parallels between activities and results in order to improve.”
You need to have a tolerance for uncertainty
“The definition of being a grown-up,” Gorfien explains, “is the capacity to thrive within ambiguity and uncertainty. To be able to feel at peace not knowing where your professional life is going to take you day-to-day. I think that to be a freelancer, you have to find your sense of peace elsewhere, and understand that your needs as a human being will not all be filled by your profession. I think that’s true across the board, but often, our sense of self esteem rises and falls with our income, and that’s especially true for the self-employed. That’s a problem.”
Be open to finding the support you and your business need
“You don’t have to create a structure alone,” says Gorfien. “I don’t want to shut people down by saying that you have to create structure on your own, because if you’re willing, you can achieve that and that is really my business: I help people find and create structures for their freelance businesses. Like I said, company is stronger than will – no one does anything alone. You need a willingness to learn and try things on.” And like everything, it takes practice, and inevitably, some learning curves on the way.
“I think these are skills that can be learned,” explains Gorfien. “Wanting is a powerful thing, if you know what you want. If you really want to make your own rules and be the head of your own business, you need to be willing to learn and willing to make mistakes, and you can do it – but you have to be willing to do these things to get there.”
Learn to practice self-care
Being able to have a sense of well-being that is separate from your business is crucial, says Gorfien. “Your self esteem can’t rise and fall with your income,” she warns. Instead of succumbing to feeling overwhelmed or snowballing into negative thought patterns, Gorfien advises to focus on rewarding yourself for your accomplishments, while honing in on areas where you may need to reevaluate your steps to improve results. An example of this that will ring true for many freelancers is in how we deal with task load and prioritizing our own work.
“Discipline is such a funny word – because that’s another word that kind of shuts people down,” says Gorfien. “A lot of people tend to assume that they don’t have the discipline needed to achieve something, but I don’t have discipline, either. What I do have are things that make life worth waking up for in the morning, things that I look forward to and enjoy.
We have to treat ourselves like children – I mean, good parents reward good behavior. They don’t shame bad behavior. They don’t give it any energy. It’s like having a dog, in a sense. So I like to give myself little checkmarks, like ‘gold stars’ for the things that I accomplish. I have my rituals in the morning, that I like to do, that leave me feeling ready to take on work – mindset rituals: I have to have a little piece of chocolate with my coffee to make life worth living, for example. Or I take the time to think of three things that I’m grateful for, because what you pay attention to grows. When you’re paying attention to having, that’s where your focus is.”
Diversify your base – always be planting the seeds for new business
Much like a beautiful, blossoming garden, successful businesses don’t just spring to life overnight – they require constant care, upkeep and nurturing, as well as a strong, fertile base on which to grow. “Never depend on one client for your income – this is really important!” Gorfien stresses. “Many times, people have one big, fat client. They may have other gigs that come and go, but they have their one ‘ideal’ client, and well, nothing lasts forever. Something could happen, things can change – so no matter how much work you have, you have to make friends with marketing. As part of your modus operandi, you have to be doing it consistently and continually.”
Gorfien describes an all too common scenario: “What tends to happen is people get to a point where they have all this work lined up, so they’re busy with fulfillment, and then suddenly they find themselves with no work, because they forget that whatever they’re doing is the result of whatever they were doing in order to promote themselves three months earlier.” The key to overcoming this hurdle, according to Gorfien, is to think of your marketing a little bit like you approach other daily tasks such as brushing and flossing: “If you’re doing a little bit all the time, every day,” she says, “it’s something you can sustain.”
Reimagine your network
“You have to have enough faith to know that your tribe is out there,” explains Gorfien. This holds true when it comes to leveraging your network, whether when seeking like-minded partners to assist with work distribution or when seeking new leads – it is often these connections that can help you land new business in the future. “You have to shift your view of competition. It’s actually a little counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best joint-venture partners are people who do something very much like what you do, because very often clients who buy something buy many of the same thing, and you’re going to have access to a similar yet different following. Joining forces can be very powerful. Your strengths are never going to be identical to someone else’s – your esthetic, for example, is never going to be the same as someone else’s.”
Focus on solutions, not problems
“To be entrepreneurial you have to be solution-focused instead of problem-focused,” says Gorfien. “The distinction there to me is that when you’re problem-focused, you just keep staring at the problem and think oh, I’m such a procrastinator, I don’t know how to stop procrastinating, instead of turning it into a question and asking, how can I get myself to do this thing? That’s a question that is worth entertaining: how can I get myself to do this thing that I really don’t feel like doing?
You could say to yourself, gee, I dunno, maybe misery loves company, maybe I should call up a friend, make them come over and do it with them. Or maybe I could come up with a reward system for myself. Or maybe I don’t have to do it in my house, and I could go elsewhere to a quiet, enjoyable space that would help me get it done. Maybe I don’t need to do it all at once, and I could do just five minutes a day,” she continues. The goal is to find the most efficient way for you to accomplish what you need to.
Embrace the grey zone
“When you ask yourself a question, it’s not a negative meditation,” Gorfien reminds us. “A lot of times people get into an all-or-nothing mindset – black-or-white thinking. I always like to say, ‘What’s grey? Where is the grey area in there?’ And then you can get creative.”
This can easily apply to those tougher stages in building out your business. “Say you think you either have to make X amount of money freelancing, or you have to go get another job,” posits Gorfien. “At this point, what you’re making freelancing may not be enough to cover your baseline. So you set a target number and ask, what can I do in order to make this much money? Maybe I can sell some things I don’t need or want, maybe I can get a part-time job that’s not necessarily in line with my business, until I work to bring my income up, maybe I could look into a small business loan, for example. It really isn’t all or nothing.”
The creative solutions are often hiding in those grey areas. Gorfien urges freelancers to ditch the black-or-white thinking, and instead, embrace the grey zones. “We’re constantly testing ourselves, and that’s very stressful when there is no grey area to explore,” she says.