Is This Toxic Mindset Keeping You From the Freelance Life You Deserve?

Boss yelling at employeeby Dana Sitar

For about my first year as a full-time freelance writer, I held onto dangerous habits without knowing it.

I was treating clients as bosses, focusing on building other businesses instead of my own, and taking work I hated because I thought I was “supposed” to.

I wasn’t properly discussing rates, regularly seeking better work, or any of what I should have done to advance my career.

Like many freelancers who come from service work or corporate day jobs, I was stuck in an “employee mentality.”

To become a successful freelancer, I had to shed my lethal habits and realize that I was totally in charge of my career path.

How does an employee mindset hold you back, and how can you overcome this mental block and work toward autonomy in your freelance career?

1. Employees work for bosses. You work for yourself.

This was the biggest roadblock for me to overcome.

When I was hired for my first gig, I followed the instructions of my client like she was aboss. Unlike a boss, however, she lacked the skills she hired me for, so how could she offer me proper guidance?  As I became comfortable with the industry, though I became more confident in my expertise and realized how valuable my knowledge is.

If you find yourself treating a client like a boss — afraid to critique or make suggestions, waiting around for instructions and training — remind yourself who your real boss is: You. Remember you’re the expert in your field, so take charge, and approach your client like an equal, not a subordinate.

2. Employees work for one boss. You work for many.

For a while, I felt restricted to my first few clients and worked solely around their needs and schedules the way I would work as an employee for a single company.

I was unable to say “no” when they asked for more. I waited for them to offer me more work and never talked about money.

When I finally realized that I, alone, am responsible for my growth, I learned to say no, ask clients to work with my schedule, and make room for more work and personal projects. By reminding your clients that they are but one piece in your diverse income pie, you can not only start making more money, but also pursue personal projects that can be difficult to fit in when you’re bogged down by client work.

3. Employees wait for raises. You set your own rates.

Because I was stuck in the old-fashioned mindset of company loyalty, the idea of branching out or upping my rate used to seem treacherous. Realizing that I work for myself and am responsible for building my own “living wage”, helped me re-work my stupid strategy.

Freelancers don’t have built-in performance evaluations or annual raise rates. So if you’re working with a client for a long time, you may not be rewarded for your added skills and knowledge like you would working for a company.

You have to determine your worth, and ask for it. If you think you’re more valuable to a client than you were when you started, ask to re-negotiate your rate. If a client doesn’t have enough work for you to make a living, let them know your schedule may be changing to accommodate additional clients.

4. Employees are trained. You come with expertise.

When I started with my first client, I was green to the writing industry. I wasn’t confident in any of the skills I needed to be a successful copywriter, social media manager, or blogger. So I leaned on my client for direction and advice. Don’t. Do. That!

While you have to spend some time becoming acclimated to a company climate or getting to know how a client works, you cannot expect to be trained for your work in a new gig.

If your client knew how to do your job or had time to show you, they wouldn’t be paying you to do it for them. Come in not only well-prepared and ready to work, but confident in the fact that you are the best in the room at what you’re doing.

5. Employees offer time. You offer services.

Although I almost always negotiate a per-project rate, I know many freelancers charge by the hour for work. I avoid that because it reminds me too much of my fast-food days.

When I worked in fast food, guess what? I didn’t work as hard as I could have. As long as I was logging hours, I was getting paid. If I didn’t care about getting paid, I could stop working and go home early. If I needed to be paid more, I could slow down and hang around a few extra hours.

Whether you’re paid by the hour or the project, remember you’re hired to provide a service, not just put in time.

Sure, if you complete a quality project in a short amount of time, you might earn less — this time. But if you focus on providing quality services every minute you’re working, no matter how many or few they are, your client will be much more likely to have you back for future projects or refer you for additional work.

6. Employees follow a path. You forge your own way.

One of the most compelling reasons we become freelancers is the freedom it affords us. We can do whatever we want.

So why do so many of us get stuck doing the same ol’ thing as everyone else? An employee mindset will tell you to read books, consume blogs, take classes, and follow everything you learn to a T. But if you wanted to follow conventional steps, why aren’t you just climbing a corporate ladder somewhere?

You are free to forge your own path. The possibilities for making money writing are, in reality, as endless as your ability to scheme new ways to do it.

There is no single right path to follow in this industry. There’s also no right gauge for success, so don’t be discouraged when you learn someone else’s story and realize your bottom line falls far below theirs.

Is your mindset keeping you from a successful freelance career? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Dana Sitar is a freelance journalist and indie author. Her latest ebook, AWritersBucketList, is a launching point for all the possibilities of being a writer, a kick-in-the-butt for those who don’t know what to do next, and a simple guide to help writers forge their own unique career/life paths.

  1. Yes, my mind set has been holding me back, but I’m working hard to change that. I recently asked a client for a huge rate increase, something I was nervous about doing but knew I had to. If you do like I did, and quit your day job, you quickly wise up about who’s the boss!

    Thanks Dana
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Re-Routing: Are You on the Right Path?

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Dana – great post. I believe I don’t have all of these habits, but have a few! I implemented a rate change this year and I am good at saying no when I can’t do more for what clients are paying me. I have a busy family and personal schedule, so I try to strike a healthy balance between client needs and my needs/wants.

    My kids really helped me understand my clients are not my bosses when they would ask me who I had called on the phone, or what a certain project was. At first I would say “This is someone I’m working for…” but a few months ago I started saying “This is one of my customers who wants me to write for them…”

    So that’s moving along where I really struggle is seeking instruction from clients. In particular I have one client who has big ideas that never seem to materialize, and if the ideas don’t materialize, I can’t help her with the tasks she’s hired me to do (writing about the big ideas). I don’t want to be her business coach, but in many ways if I don’t ask her coach, her gadfly, apply some pressure, well, then her business will fail and I will lose a decent contract. So…it’s a quandary. I try to assess the health of the business relationship, try to learn as much as I can in the meantime, so I can apply it to future experiences.
    Elizabeth recently posted..How to Be a Better Blogger (Part 2)

    • Rebecca says:

      Exellent article, Dana. Everything on this list is spot on. In fact, I encountered #5 this week when a client (who happens to be my former employer) asked me to provide them with a daily rate for a huge project. I carefully “educated” them that I use daily rates for consulting services, but for projects like theirs, where there is a defined deliverable, I price on a per-project basis. If I hadn’t taken the time to first educate myself on pricing in the freelance world, I might have found myself feeling like an employee again (an employee WITHOUT benefits).
      Rebecca recently posted..An Artist’s Appreciation for the Day Job

    • Carol Tice says:

      I love it — what we say out loud shapes our perceptions, so I love how you changed that.

    • Dana Sitar says:

      I’ve been in this position, as well, Elizabeth. It’s tricky. I’d first say that if she needs to be prodded along, this may not be a decent contract long-term. BUT, if you see room for change, maybe discuss re-defining your role with her. If she needs a business coach, and is willing to pay you for it and work with you in that capacity, taking on the role officially could relieve a lot of your stress AND help her business.

  3. Kelly says:

    Hi Carol. I love this post. You identified exactly the issues that I encounter as a newbie writer just out of the corporate culture. You give me power to ask and get all the things that will create the environment that I left for! thank you!

  4. Erica says:

    Dana, you had me at “hello.” Seriously, excellent article. I thought I had a pretty good handle on being a corporate-to-freelance convert, but you pointed out some mindsets that I didn’t even realize I had (numbers 2, 4 and 6 specifically). Thank you so much for opening up my eyes.
    Erica recently posted..How to Win a Stare Down with the Blank Page

  5. I totally agree that some writers’ mindset may be keeping them from a successful freelance career.

    But, conversely, once you’ve changed your way of thinking and adapted to freelancing this new mindset will then ‘keep you from having a successful employed career’.

    In other words, once you’ve been working for yourself a while and start having a freelance way of doing things you then become totally unemployable.

    But, in many ways, being totally employable is the best quality you can have if you want to be a successful businessperson.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..7 reasons why you’ll want CommentLuv on your WordPress blog

    • Dana Sitar says:

      Right on, Kevin! That can be a scary position, or an exciting one, depending on your goals. I tend to see being “unemployable” as a motivator for freelancers/entrepreneurs to work harder to their achieve goals without returning to employment.

      Conversely, if you find the right company, being innovative, a self-starter, and a go-getter can be desirable traits in an employee.

  6. I think #6 alone sums up the major issue holding most people back: unwillingness to take on responsibility for planning their own lives according to their own bent. It’s harder work than just following a step-by-step guide; it requires admitting (horrors!) that you’re “different” from others; and if you fail, you may actually have to blame yourself instead of someone else.

    That “blame” point reminds me of another mindset item that may not strictly fit the employee/freelancer contrast, but has been a big issue for me: Failures love to identify with the problem (“yes, that’s me all right, I do that all the time”); successes are ready to move on to the solution.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted..How to Use “Use”

    • Karen J says:

      That’s a really good point, Katherine!

      “Claiming” one’s issues (through your word choices) is the very best way to *keep having them*:
      “I am…”, “I do…”, “I don’t…” ~ those phrases often reflect an “it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it” mindset.
      Change those words to past tense – “I’ve been that way in the past, but I’m changing it by (fill in the blank)” keeps your attention on the solution, instead of the problem.
      Karen J recently posted..Aaahhh! Fairyland…

  7. Lisa says:

    Love. This.

    I also thought I had a pretty good handle on this — my husband was an entrepreneur for years so I learned a lot by proxy — but this list made me realize some ways I’m still thinking like an employee. Number 6 is a big one for me. I keep looking for someone to tell me what to do. Mentors are great and advice is great, but at some point you have to ACT and figure it out for yourself! I’m starting to do that and I’m excited about it.
    Lisa recently posted..The Brutal Truth About What Babies Eat (and why you shouldn’t feel guilty)

  8. Anne Grant says:

    As a business owner for 20 years, I believe #6 is an excellent point and could be a lesson of its own.
    Being new in freelance writing, even though I knew better, I found myself paralyzed by trying to get all the answers before I got started. Of course, the only way I will have any real understanding of what it takes for me to be successful is by applying principles I have learned–while I work through each small step. Only by doing, can I really learn.
    While I appreciate the webinars, blogs, workshops that are offered by Carol and many other talented writers and bloggers, too many voices can keep me from hearing my own thoughts that move me towards action.

  9. Excellent advice — not just for freelance writers but for anyone who’s self-employed and providing a professional service.

    Susanna
    Susanna Perkins recently posted..Pensions, British Expats and QROPS

  10. Shelly Moreau says:

    Hello Carol,

    Thank you for sharing this article. It comes at such a good time, as I have just submitted my first copy for spec. I had come across a website via a Facebook link and wrote back with a comment, letting him know that I loved the site, and was a (fledgling) copywriter, and I would be happy to volunteer some services just to be associated with them (in exchange for reference and portfolio content). He wrote back and said he was intrigued by my offer, we spoke on the telephone two days later and he told me what they were looking for. I just submitted my copy to him not more than 30 minutes ago. I’m so thrilled to have been given this opportunity, and your article below provides additional guidance and support to my future plans.

    Thank you for your continued nuggets of gold that keep me wanting to go forward in this new and interesting field of copy writing.

    Regards,

    Shelly Moreau

  11. That’s right Carol,
    It’s all business.

    Just remember to find new ways to add real value and results and they will be hooked on you like sweat tea.
    Darnell Jackson recently posted..Link Building: You’re Doing it Wrong pt. 2

  12. Teresa says:

    I’m #1 for days! I’m working on trying to be more assertive. I often have trouble confusing assertiveness with being, you know, the “b” word. I think freelancers need access to their own special assertiveness training! Especially to deal with the “I work for myself” mentality. :) I’d sign up for that in a heartbeat!
    Teresa recently posted..52 Weeks of Irresponsible Bravery

  13. Dude, this is so right on… I think the hardest thing for me to break out of as a baby freelance writer was the idea that I should be “grateful” to have any writing work at all. When you’re an employee – especially in this job market – you’re grateful to your boss for giving you a job. Even if the hours suck and the rates are crappy, you know that things could be much worse if you didn’t have a job at all.

    I carried this mindset over to my writing career, which caused me to stick with low-paying clients for far longer than I should have. When I finally came to my senses and realized that I have something valuable to bring to clients (and that I should be charging accordingly), it made a huge difference in my ability to earn decent rates.

    Also, in my experience, saying “no” to clients because you’re too busy to take on more usually leads to them sending you more work at higher rates :)

    Thanks for this awesome post!
    Sarah Russell recently posted..The Content Writers Guide to SEO Keywords

  14. Karen says:

    Great points! Would love to see some of your work . . . any links to your actual articles (for magazines), or marketing pieces ???

  15. Stef Gonzaga says:

    Dana, these habits are the kinds that I hope freelancers (esp. from the Philippines) can transition from. In my opinion, it defeats the whole meaning of the word “freelancing” because you’re essentially tying yourself to your client, coming to them at every beck and call, and depending almost everything about your business with them.

    I’ve never had a job as an employee, so this post helps put things in the perspective of the freelancer who has already been oriented in the corporate environment. Top that off with the local culture’s imminent desire to “please the boss,” and you have a professional who needs to rethink and reaffirm himself/herself.

    I hope to keep these in mind, and to encourage fellow freelancers to stand on their two feet and run the show, so to speak. Thanks again and great post!
    Stef Gonzaga recently posted..More Than the Money: My Thoughts On A Life Beyond Borders

    • Dana Sitar says:

      Thanks, Stef. How great to get the perspective of someone who’s never been an employee — kudos! And you’re right: “freelancing” should offer you the kind of FREEdom that employment doesn’t. That’s why we’re here :)

  16. Ian says:

    Dana,

    Thank you for those freelance writing success tips. Tips #1 and 2 really hit home with me. I just left my temp job yesterday to now eat, breath and sleep my freelance writing business full-time.

    Your advice will help me build my business, fast.

    Thanks again,

    -Ian
    Ian recently posted..MOVIE REVIEW – Craigslist Joe

  17. This is a great list, but I disagree with the wording in item #2. It conflicts with item #1. If I work for myself and not a boss, how can I also work for “many bosses”? I don’t. I serve customers.

  1. [...] Is This Toxic Mindset Keeping You from the Freelance Life You Deserve? at Make a Living Writing [...]

  2. [...] I had heard of Dana Sitar in early January. I left a comment on her blog. In early February, I read her post on Carol Tice’s site. Then, I read her post on Writer’s [...]

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