Five Traits That Every Freelancer Needs to Succeed

Written by and posted on Feb 13, 2017

Person Using MacBook Pro

Freelancing Sounds Great On Paper…

Freelancing and working for yourself has become a full blown movement. Per the New York Times the number of Americans using so-called “alternative work arrangements” rose by 9.4 million in the decade between 2005 and 2015.


Another 2015 study, this one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says that 53 million Americans — effectively one in three workers — are earning income from a job that’s not a standard 9-to-5.

And those numbers are only increasing.

And why shouldn’t they? Working for yourself sounds great:

  • Be your own boss!
  • Make your own hours!
  • Have complete control!

Perfect, right?

But most people struggle.

Well, alright, let’s bring this back to reality. If you think freelancing is all puppies and kittens, you’re wrong.

A puppy and a kitten
Regardless, here’s a puppy and a kitten.

Where does it all go wrong? Well…

  • “Be your own boss!” turns into feeling like you have multiple “bosses” — clients you constantly have to answer to.
  • “Make your own hours!” becomes a struggle of having to manage yourself and your day.
  • “Have complete control” transforms into having complete responsibility for all aspects of the business.

A ton of freelancers come in like…

Happy Spongebob

and within years or even months come out looking like…

Unhappy Spongebob

So Is Freelancing Right for You?

Tony has covered both the good and the bad parts of freelancing, so if you’re weighing the costs and benefits those posts are a great place to start.

I’m more interested in defining the type of person that makes a good freelancer, and you’re probably interested in seeing if that person sounds a lot like you.

Let’s jump into it, shall we? What follows are 5 key traits that correlate strongly to success in freelancing.

1) You Don’t Rely on Motivation

Sooooo many people love to ask “how can I get more motivated?” There’s a whole (default!) subreddit dedicated to getting motivated (it’s mostly forgettable quotes).

But guys. Trying to bottle motivation is like trying to bottle up the feeling you had that one time you sat out on the grass with that one girl or guy you liked and you guys just talked and talked and everything felt so right, and–

Sorry. I digress. My point is, motivation is fickle and fleeting. Enjoy it when you’ve got it, but don’t come to rely on it.

Instead, if you’re the type of person who can show up every day — even on the hard days — you’ve got a good chance of success.

And it’s easy to read this and think to yourself “Yes! I’m that type of person!” right now, because right now you’re feeling somewhat motivated.

But I encourage you to really check yourself — what are those hard days like? Can you consistently put in quality work when it feels like you’re moving underwater?

2) You Love to Constantly Be Learning

In an office job, you can get really good at one thing and then coast, not worrying about everything else that keeps your office running — that’s what everyone else is for. But as a freelancer, the thing you’re worst at will determine the ceiling of your success.

You remember learning about limiting reactants in Chemistry class?

Chemistry cat meme

To provide an oversimplified refresher: When you’re mixing substances to create a reaction, that reaction will go on until one of the reacting substances runs out. Even if there’s an excess of all the other substances, they’ll stop reacting because they have nothing left to react with.

Freelancing is like that, kinda.

As a freelancer, the limiting factor to your success in business is your own knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge.

If you’re a great developer but mediocre at sales, it’s your sales skills that will be the limiting factor — no matter how awesome of a developer you are.

Or let’s say you’re a great developer and great at sales, but you’re lousy at properly pricing your services. Your income is going to be limited by that.

The solution, of course, is to always be learning.

Some people love learning, others can’t be bothered to pick up a book to save their lives.

Which one are you?

Let’s take it one step further: You must also always be applying the new things you’ve learned.

Once you learn something are you ready to give it a shot without being afraid of failing the first one or two or five times? Or do you tend to hesitate, waiting until you’re 100% sure of success before starting?

You need to comfortable with always being a rookie at something. And even a Rookie of the Year isn’t perfect.

Rookie of the Year
Unless you’re this guy.

3) You Like Communicating With People…

A developer who works for a larger company can sit in a room, interact with nobody, get into a groove and have a successful day.

As a freelancer you’ll certainly have moments like that — and, if you’re like me, those will become the moments you cherish — but they’re only part of a much larger picture.

And most of the rest of that picture involves communication.

You have to be comfortable talking in front of people, asking questions and speaking with confidence.

You must be a good listener, and be able to turn the answers your clients provide into answers for your clients’ problems.

From start to finish…

Communication is how you get work, by marketing yourself and articulating the value you offer.

Communication is how you discover what those clients really need and how you can help the most.

Your phenomenal communication helps those clients trust you and see the value in what you do — so you can get paid what you’re worth.

Once those clients are booked, communication helps keep projects running on time and on budget.

Communication is the special sauce.

4) But You Don’t Necessarily Need to Be Around Others Every Day.

Because you will spend time by yourself.

There are workarounds, of course. You can work in a coffee shop, or in a shared workspace or if you’re a fan of playing fetch and giving belly rubs, you can be like me and get a dog.

Don’t try initiating belly rubs at a coffee shop though. That’s how you get asked not to come back.

5) You Value Yourself

This is a biggie, so I saved it for last.

A huge problem I see in the freelance community is contractors charging too little, putting up with unreasonable clients and otherwise not standing up for themselves.

As a freelancer, you’re not only your own boss, sales team, finance department, etc… You must be your own advocate.

If you only charge $10/hr because you think “I’m only okay at this,” I promise there will be plenty of people willing to take advantage of that rate. And they’ll be the type of clients who won’t value your time or your humanity.

You’re awesome, and you’re worth more than that.

If you charge very little because other freelancers (or worse, other clients) have told you that’s the fair market rate, you’ll be seen as a commodity who can only differentiate on price and is completely replaceable as soon as someone with a lower offer comes along.

You’re awesome, and you’re worth more than that.

But if you recognize the value you’re creating for a client — and if you can articulate and demonstrate that value — you can charge more, be a lot happier because you’re working with clients who respect you and avoid burning out.

But it starts with you recognizing that you’re awesome, and you’re worth more than the garbage that opportunistic clients will throw at you.

Wrapping up…

To recap, if you…

  1. Don’t rely on motivation
  2. Love to constantly be learning
  3. Like communicating with people
  4. But don’t necessarily need to be around others every day
  5. Value yourself

You might be cut out for this freelancing thing.

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About Me

Person standing with coffee mug with dog by his leg

Hello, my name is Tony, and I am an Experience Designer (XD). I create games, websites, and interactive experiences.

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