Think Like a Freelancer

From 2008 to 2012, I was a freelance musician. I played gigs of all kinds and taught students from ages 2 to 22. It was a great experience.

My gig these days is in academic advising (8-5 instead of 8-midnight), but I still think like a freelancer. In addition to “working for” my students and the university, I’m constantly asking myself “What new skills have I learned this week/month/year? What am I doing to become more valuable in the marketplace?"

Deep down, I’m still a freelancer. So are you.

We’re All Freelancers Now

The old-school paradigm looked something like this:

  • Great job right out of college
  • 40 years with the same company
  • Retirement dinner and gold watch

For most of us, this just isn’t reality. 40 years in the same career is no longer the norm, let alone 40 years with the same company. How to adapt?

As Steven Pressfield suggests in The War of Art, act like you own a small business:

Me, Inc.

In other words, think like a freelancer. But how does a freelancer think? It’s a big question with many answers. Here’s one:

A Freelancer Knows Her Superpower

A freelancer asks, “How can I set myself apart from the other freelancers?” Seth Godin calls this your superpower. From Linchpin:

When you meet someone, you need to have a superpower. If you don’t, you’re just another handshake. It’s not about touting yourself or coming on too strong. It’s about making the introduction meaningful. If I don’t know your superpower, then I don’t know how you can help me (or I can help you).

When I tell the superpower story to people, they seem to get it. But then I ask them their superpower, and they pick something that might be a power but it isn’t really super. It’s sort of an average power. “I’m pleasant and compliant” is the one we’ve been taught. Sorry, that’s good, but it’s not super.

How to figure out your superpower? In The Art of Work, Jeff Goins suggests asking the following question (paraphrased):

“What’s easy for you but hard for others?”

What makes others say, “How did you do that?” or “Why does [x] come so easily to you?” or “I wish I could do that”?

  • Unusual confidence around new people?
  • Juggling a huge number of commitments?
  • Remaining unflappable in high-stress situations?

Our basic skills (playing the cello, keeping the books, bartending) aren’t rare. But our basic skills coupled with our superpowers often are, and knowing what sets us apart helps us carve out our niche in the marketplace, for a single gig or multiple careers.