Be comfortable walking away

I’ve been freelancing for 8 years now, but I’ve only started taking it seriously after reflecting on a hard lesson from my past. I was working for an advertising agency in Bucharest, barely making ends meet, stuck in a job that had started to be unsatisfying. I was very stubborn at the time and thought I could make anything work. But it was obvious to me it was going nowhere.

The long hours. Working the weekends. Seeing my then-girlfriend-later-to-be-wife a couple of hours a week, if that. The commute, oh, the commute. And then working for thankless clients for peanuts.

So I quit. Put in my notice, finished the week and didn’t go back on Monday. What then followed was just what I expected. An uncomfortable period when I had no savings and no prospects. I was eating bread with mustard and boiling tap water and cooling it down so I could drink it (I didn’t dare drink it from the tap and couldn’t afford buying bottled water). I finally had to move out of the 1 room apartment because I couldn’t afford rent.

I expected all of that and more. I couldn’t land a job because no one was hiring (this was back in 2009, when the effects of the US market crash were reaching Europe). And I mean any job — I certainly wasn’t picky, applying to anything from cleaning houses and working in the kitchen to recruiting agencies where they were only “scouting the market” and piling resumes for future use.

I kept busy with learning web development. I started a little project where I reviewed iPhone apps. I learned Wordpress for that. I learned PHP to be able to customise themes. And HTML and CSS to implement designs. I sold that project for the cost of a couple of months of rent.

Things were looking a bit better, especially because I had gotten my first “real” freelancing gig. Design one icon for one iPhone app. That led to help design the app. Then help design another app. Then websites. I was finally working with people I appreciated and was feeling appreciated.

Once in a while though, people would come along that reminded me of my agency days. It usually starts out as something innocent and small, things that feel like constructive feedback. But these are the things that are bound to turn you into the Hulk. You will wreck your family, you will lose any friendships you have made and you won’t have anything to show for it in the end.

So before Hulk smash…you need to walk away. And you need to be comfortable doing it. Unfair pay? It’s not for me. Constant nagging and always changing requirements? No, thank you. Always asking me how do I do this or that even though I’ve patiently explained it to you multiple times? It’s best we part ways. Not reading my emails and then asking me about things in those emails?

Walk away.

And be comfortable doing it. Because it’s not worth it. No money in the world can turn back time and let you enjoy your family and friends. So stop questioning yourself. What am I going to do if I dump this project? What will I eat? Where will I live? Get a bit comfortable with the idea that no matter how much effort you put into a deal you resent, you cannot come out with a winning hand.

Be comfortable walking away.

Because the next best thing is right around the corner. It could be a new client, a new job or a completely new life altogether.

One more thing though. You need to be comfortable walking away from a good deal just as much as from a bad deal. It’s easier to justify folding when you have a bad hand, not so much when you’ve been dealt a good one. But being comfortable walking away from a good hand is just as important, maybe even more so.

Everything has a cost, if only in what we pay to store it in your minds. As you are about to enter a deal, get a new client, pitch a new business, ask yourself. Do I really need this? What’s this actually worth and what’s it really going to cost me?

You might be surprised what you can discover with just a couple of minutes of reflection. And who knows, you might be more comfortable walking away.

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