Small Acts of Kindness Go a Long Way When You’re Freelancing

Because nobody wants to work with a**holes

Small yellow flower offered from two open hands
Photo: Lina Trochez/Unsplash

The decision to become a full-time freelancer felt incredibly scary at the time, in part because apparently, it’s a shark tank full of people just trying to “get a piece of the cake” out there.

My fears were misplaced. It was the complete opposite for me starting my career and building my network. Most freelancers were the most relaxed and friendly people I ever met (spectacular exceptions excluded). They would be waiting for you to ask for help without expecting anything in return, simply enjoying the fact that they can. The kindest freelancers were usually the ones that got the best jobs and didn’t have to do any real client acquisition to speak of because new jobs came knocking every week.

It seems to be common sense, but sometimes you have to be reminded that — in the undying words of Justin Timberlake — What Goes Around Comes Around.

But why does it seem so important to be kind as a freelancer, and what are the pitfalls?

Nobody wants to work with assholes

I guess this one is a no-brainer, but nobody wants to work with people they despise. Over the years, I met people who were great at their job but so exhausting to work with that they simply never got booked anymore. It doesn’t matter how well you get along with the boss. In the end, the team decides if you’re in or out.

The way you handle yourself on a personal level is ultimately more important for your chances of a follow-up booking than what expertise you bring to the table.

Have some empathy

Take anothers’ situation into consideration before judging them. Maybe the other stressed-out designer still has to prove themselves to their bosses while you have the luxury to be booked as an external expert.

My career is going well for me, and I am making a good living out of it. So naturally, I tend to project that onto other friends and colleagues who might struggle to find that sweet spot. Yet, sometimes, it is more helpful to listen and confirm their struggle is real and normal. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking down from a high horse, even if there is no malice involved at all. Giving some tone-deaf advice to people in completely different situations can backfire pretty quickly.

Accept responsibility for your actions

I have a pretty bad temper when I get to a certain point, sometimes crossing the line of professional conduct. Making your hobby your job comes with its downsides. To this day, I still cross said line more often than I would like to, only realizing how heated it got after the fact.

If I realize it or have someone point it out to me (quite literally kicking me in the shin during a rather uncalled-for monologue), I always try to own up to it and apologize. You don’t lose but actually stand to gain quite a lot of respect if you’re able to own up to the mistakes you’ve made.

Be aware of your privilege

If you’re, like me, a white cis-male, be very aware of your privilege. I am 6'2 with a rumbling voice and a full beard, so budget negotiations come easier for me. I also don’t have to prove myself based on my gender.

Though I tried to argue against it at first because I met some exceptionally strong and confident women, I soon got a real-life check when I talked to some fellow female freelancers about their experiences.

It is a sad thing to realize but also quite humbling to know that your female opposite probably has to work twice as hard and put up with double the crap to get to where you are, even when she has the same or even a higher level of expertise.

There’s a time and place

After going through all the reasons to simply be kind, I guess it’s important to point out that there is a time when it pays off to stop with the niceties. It’s great to be comfortable with all team members, and I would always prefer a good professional and personal relationship, but sometimes staying kind is simply out of the question.

Don’t forget you are there to do your job and not to make friends (although it is nice).

Kindness goes both ways. While it’s important to always go in with a sense of empathy and give each other the benefit of the doubt, it’s important to know when to draw the line. It doesn’t pay off to degrade yourself, not standing up to your beliefs and opinions. Especially when you can back up your argument with valid, empirical reasons, it’s also okay not to stay nice if the tone gets rougher and someone else crosses that aforementioned line. You can always apologize later on.

I (mostly) know when to pick my battles, but there are some subjects I refuse to bend on. As a freelancer, you’re often expected to speak your mind and ask tough questions because you were booked as an external voice.

It’s the little things

In the end, being kind and showing appreciation for your colleague’s work doesn’t have to be some grand gesture. It’s the small things that usually accumulate to having the biggest impact.

When I’m booked on a project, I am there to do my job, but I also try to stay mindful and open to pick up the undercurrents of the team I’m working with.

If I can tell a teammate is stressing out, I offer to help or suggest going around the block and having a coffee. I never speak of a singular me but plural us when I present a new feature or idea because every outcome is a team effort (learned from a good friend). Retros are great to talk about issues in a given project but often completely miss out on the small everyday interactions within the team. I know what it’s like to work in a toxic environment, so I’ll always try to do my part in lifting the pressure. It seems that being booked externally also means that people feel more at ease talking to you about issues at work.

It doesn’t always work, but mindfulness usually helps me navigate even the most stressful projects by creating easy ways to communicate with each other. While I think that is a major factor in a follow-up booking, it’s simply more fun to work with people you get along with.

Starting my freelance career, I had loads of people to help me avoid some fairly massive pitfalls. So now that I am in a position to help, I try to do the same. I love having calls or coffees with people and help with questions on freelancing, finances, or other topics, sending them my excel sheet for my breakeven point or example invoices. It is nice to realize you know what you are talking about, but it can make the difference between weeks of research and try and error for other people.

If you look at the news or some Forbes list, it seems narcissism inevitably floats to the top in the corporate world. Thankfully, the real world still looks different more often than not, with the good examples less prominent in the limelight. Working as a freelancer means you act as an external service provider, which some creatives tend to forget. Diva behavior isn’t tolerated as easily when the team employing you feels like throwing a bunch of money out of the window to be cussed at.

Being kind comes easy to me because, thankfully, I never really got why you should be anything but. It did, however, help me tremendously with building my career and getting to the point where I am today.

If you don’t burn bridges left and right along the way, you will inevitably end up with a network full of like-minded people.

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Life in your 20s and beyond. A Medium publication focused on Work, Freelancing, Money and Life Advice.

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David Kippels

David Kippels

Freelance UI/UX Designer | Random thoughts on Design, Finance, and other things | www.davidkippels.de

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