A month ago, I lost my job. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling like a complete failure. Although I was not technically fired, I still had no job, no severance, and no warning, and I was painfully reminded that I live in an at-will state. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel a vague sense of relief, as though I’d escaped from a labyrinth where a Sphinx was waiting to trap me.
I resolved to throw myself into the job search and scale up the freelancing work that I’d been doing for extra cash. I’d been underpaid in my previous position, so I set a goal to do better by working for myself, while searching for my dream job. And that weekend, as I assembled my portfolio, re-designed my resumé, streamlined my professional social media, and wrote cover letters, I discovered something about myself.
And by moving forward with my own business, I could flex all my creative muscles and be even more awesome.
It was challenging, of course. I had only one regular freelance client, and most of my jobs were through Upwork, which is not ideal due to the platform’s hefty fees and tendency to accept freelancers who will work for pennies. A friend connected me with a freelancer who wanted to pass work to me, but that freelancer ended up ghosting me. I posted on various freelance subreddits requesting work, to no avail.
In just a few short weeks, though, I started landing better-paying work and building a network of clients. I launched a website and began my social media marketing campaign. And amazingly, I was able to replace my lost income. But the true value lay in my self-discovery. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could actually manifest good things for myself.
Here’s how I did it:
I Built a Personal Brand
Previously, my “personal brand” amounted to photos of my meals (yes, I’m one of those people) and cat memes. A lot of people knew vaguely what I did, but once they helpfully started sending jobs that simply didn’t match my career, I realized that they had no idea what I did.
So, I started to think strategically on all platforms. I began plotting out how to share my recent articles on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, and Quora. I created a Facebook page, Medium publication, and business website, and I started aligning my messages and bios across platforms. Even my personal Facebook became a marketing exercise, as I began writing posts based on what value they could bring my readers.
Most importantly, I started using results-oriented language to describe myself. Instead of saying that I was a writer with a master’s in anthropology, I started calling myself a “strategic storyteller” and “creative communicator.” Instead of listing about what I’d done for clients, I started talking about what I alone could provide.
Now, I feel like people get a sense of who I am and how I can help by visiting my pages, and so far, it’s been helping me get leads.
I Stopped Taking Things Personally
As I mentioned, Upwork is a bit of an adventure that’s sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. One of its worst features is that your applications sometimes end up being subject to luck of the draw, as clients are inundated with proposals and often end up choosing the first qualified person to come across the transom. However, that taught me two things:
First, I learned to not take things personally if clients didn’t contact me. I just figured I’d been lost in the noise, rather than agonizing over what I’d written in my proposal and if I could have said something better.
Second, I realized that it’s impossible to be a good match with everyone, and so I shouldn’t feel worried or offended if a prospective client doesn’t work out. While I still think that ghosting is rude, I don’t take it personally.
I Learned the Value of my Time
This was the hardest lesson: your time is extremely valuable, and for freelancers, it’s an extremely precious commodity. It is very tempting to set your rates low to land jobs, and to be honest, sometimes you have to. It is also tempting to do extra work to make a client happy. Don’t do it. Either way, you’re reducing your hourly wage to almost nothing.
I’m still escaping the spiderweb I wove for myself, because for one client, I was so eager to please them that I walked right into a situation where I’m spending 20 hours per week on work for which I’m being paid $300. That’s $15 an hour, which isn’t enough to cover my overhead.
Once I tallied all my business expenses, I realized that freelancing is expensive. It costs me $22 an hour to work. If I work for less than that, I’m losing money. This is something that people who are not self-employed don’t realize: Freelancers aren’t able to sit in a desk chair and be paid for downtime, meetings, or breaks. Freelancers have to maximize their productive time and be compensated fairly for it.
The flip side of this is that break time must be built into your schedule. You cannot work yourself to death in 12-hour days with no breaks (do as I say, not as I do). It’s also helpful to set boundaries with clients. Avoid the temptation to respond at 3am (or 3pm, depending on when your productive time is). Be willing to say no! Any client who disrespects these boundaries isn’t worth it.
I Accepted Myself
Even if I wasn’t freelancing and finding that I can make money directly off my skills, my soul-searching alone could have led me to my conclusion: I am worthy of rewarding work and a good boss (which is currently myself). I don’t deserve toxic workplaces with passive-aggressive bosses. My efforts and experience are valuable.
I used to be so hard on myself that I barely acknowledged my successes. I compared myself to others and bemoaned my mental illness that kept me from achieving my goals. Now that I have to rely solely upon myself, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I’ve achieved more than I realized. When I stopped comparing myself to arbitrary benchmarks, I — surprise! — felt better about my life and career.
None of this would have come to be had I not lost my job. And so while I realize how devastating job loss can be, I hope that if you’re in the same boat, you realize that you have more potential than you might think. Take the steps to establish your personal brand and take stock of your achievements. Celebrate an opportunity to find something that’s truly right for you. And don’t forget to have some proofread your resumé.