On developing your skills as a freelancer

After being in the freelance market for the past two months, I had a realization that was difficult to accept (but I had to):

While I had developed my soft skills, my hard skills are so raw that they’re not ready to help possible clients.

Hard skills versus soft skills

When you’re a freelancer, you can grow your practice or your business using your soft skills. But, in order to start your freelance practice, you need hard skills.

I had developed my soft skills by reading countless books on building habits, human relations, leadership, productivity, and so on. But, my hard skills are not good enough to cater to a client’s simplest need.

You may be wondering, what are hard skills and soft skills?

In my own words, hard skills are the skills that get things done. They are the skills that enable you to directly create something of value. They are the skills required in the traditional jobs we know of.

Examples of hard skills are programming, accounting, designing, selling, supporting customers through voice or text, painting, drawing, and so many others. The key here is that these hard skills directly create value.

On the other hand, soft skills are the skills that make the process of getting things done easier.

Examples of soft skills are leadership, communications, building relationships, organizing, and so on. These skills add value albeit indirectly.

The problem was that when I began my career in accounting and finance, I focused on developing my soft skills. I wasn’t able to develop my hard skills to the point that I can use them by myself to cater to clients’ needs. I only learned parts of a complete service or a complete solution. In order to serve clients’ needs, I always had to work in a team.

When I decided to start a career as a freelancer, I realized that the style of writing I was good at (or so I think) was inspirational writing. But, that type of writing is a soft skill. What’s needed in the freelance writing market are technical writing, SEO, content marketing, and copywriting among others. These are the types of writing that get things done, sell more products, and increase the visibility of blogs and websites. Unfortunately, those are the types of writing I have yet to develop in.

There’s nothing wrong with developing your soft skills. But, if you want to start a freelance career and directly add value to your potential clients, you need to develop your hard skills first.

To do this, you can make a list of your hard skills. Then, think about how you can use them to serve other people’s needs. That’s how you start a freelance practice. Better yet, go to the market (like Upwork) and get a feel of the skills clients actually need by looking at their requirements.

Also, like with writing, a skill can either be soft skill or a hard skill. The key is to be more specific about your skill and ask yourself whether your skill directly or indirectly adds value to others. If it directly adds value to others or if it enables you to create something tangible, then it’s a hard skill.

Focusing versus diversifying

The next question is: Should you go do deep (focus on one skill) or should you go wide (develop multiple skills)?

There are pros and cons to each path. For example, focusing on one skill increases your chance to becoming the best (for someone) at that one skill. It also increases your chance to learn that one skill more quickly. However, it may limit your vision and make you blind from the other opportunities around you. On the other hand, going wide may help you explore other opportunities requiring different skills. But, you may not become the best (for someone) at one thing.

One thing I learned by being in the freelance market is that there are more opportunities requiring multiple skills. But, it’s more difficult to get picked if there’s no one thing that makes you stand. It seems to be even more difficult to grow your practice or become recognized if there’s no one thing you’re good at doing. (By the way, going wide or going deep is the same as being a generalist or a specialist.)

What should you do? Should you go wide or should you go deep?

It depends on where you are in your career, your business, or your practice.

If you don’t know the one thing you can be the best at, it makes sense to go wide. You should explore different opportunities and learn different skills until you find your one thing. When you find it, that’s the time you go deep.

Obviously, if you already know your one thing, then you should go deep.

So far, it seems that what I’m saying is that going deep is the way and that going wide is required only to find your one thing.

Another thing I learned by being in the freelance market for the past few months is that it’s no longer enough to be great at one thing. After going deep, you still have to go wide from time to time. You still need to learn other skills.

But, you can’t just learn any skill. You need to learn complementary skills. These are the skills that complement your one thing. These are the skills that make your one thing stand out even more.

For example, I have a degree and a license in accounting. But, what clients are looking for online are not just accountants with knowledge of accounting. They are also looking for accountants who know how to use accounting tools and software such as Quickbooks and Xero. Offline, clients are looking for accountants who know how to prepare and file their tax returns. Those are the skills that I’m in the process of learning. Those are the skills that will complement and make my accounting knowledge stand out even more.

Another example is writing. Nowadays, you cannot be just a great writer. You also need to learn how to publish and market your own writing. You need to learn how to blog and how to market your work on social media or someplace else. Of course, these are still just complementary skills. No matter how great you become at marketing your work, it wouldn’t matter if your writing is not helpful or interesting to others. You should still focus on or go deep with your main skill.

What this means is that while you go deeper into your one thing, you should go wide and learn other skills that complement it. Still, the focus remains on your one thing. You don’t even have to be the best at your complementary skills. In fact, later on, you can outsource them. But, you have to be the best (for someone) at your one thing. And that’s one thing you cannot outsource.

How about you? Do you already know what your one thing is? Do you know how you can complement it with your other skills?


This post was published first on my blog, Charging the Lines, where I write short essays about doing work that matters — to you and to others — every day.

Visit the blog for more tips on doing your best work yet — whether it’s a dream project, a work of art, a side business based on your passion, or a day job wherein you feel truly alive.