Declare Independence

When we think of fresh starts, we typically think of January 1st. Each year, millions of people make resolutions for the coming year, promising to lose weight, stop smoking, or dump that lazy boyfriend. Gym memberships go up, dating sites have record months, people actually start to see results—for a while, at least.

By the middle of the year, most of those promises are forgotten, though. Habits are hard to give up, and minds change very slowly. But I would like to propose a second chance date for everyone who failed to make a change: July 4.

The Fourth of July has great potential to help us change. At its core, it’s a holiday that celebrates freedom, change, and breaking out to go it alone. In some ways, it’s the perfect holiday for freelancers. We’re naturally independent, we love the freedom that comes from working for ourselves, and we are small, lithe businesses that can make changes instantly.

So, use your time off today to commit to greater independence in some area of your life—personally or professionally.Maybe it’s iIndependence from laziness. Perhaps you need to declare independence from your full-time employer. You might need to declare independence from debt, or from mediocrity, or from fear.

Whatever it might be, you (and only you) control your destiny. Stop living in captivity and put a plan in place today to find new freedom. Write down your goals, break them into manageable, reachable steps, and then start your journey.

There’s no time like today to move toward independence.

Referrals From Unlikely Places

I learned something this week that has humbled me a bit, and I want to share it with you. If you run a business that benefits from client referrals, this one is right up your alley.

Without going into specifics, I recently had a client experience that left me wanting to fire the client once the work was done. Each project was a chore, and they effected my ability to best take care of other clients. I felt that I would be doing everyone a favor by simply asking this client to find another designer to work with.

This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Sometimes we need to fire clients. Though, the better technique is to learn ahead of time what your ideal client is, and then only take on clients that fit that list of qualities. But, sometimes the need to pay the mortgage outweighs your ideals, so you end up with clients who challenge your skills on many levels. Sometimes, those clients need to politely be let go.

Politeness and professionalism is at the core of all of this. Whether the client meets your qualifications for the perfect client, or you regret agreeing to work with them, each client deserves to be treated professionally. You can decide to no longer work with them on future gigs after the current project ends, but even then you need to communicate that decision in a polite and respectful manner.

Why? Because even though they might be pushing your buttons and challenging your patience, those clients might still love your work. They might, in fact, be raving fans. And raving fans tell other people about you. Give them a bad experience, and they’ll share it with others. But provide professional services consistently, and they just might convince others to hire you as well.

Sure, that new referral might be another one-time gig. But what happened to me is that the new referral was the type of client who goes out and finds other clients for me as part of their job. Rather than having one project for us, these kind of clients could potentially bring in dozens of projects, if not more.

Freelancers can become flustered and have their patience challenged. We’re not perfect, and we can’t expect ideal clients all the time, but how we handle those situations can effect the future of our business. Rudely fire a problem client and you will feel the effects of a vocal, upset business owner. Treat them professionally and you just might empower them to help you out down the road.

Just Stop Playing

When we think of “playing” during work, most of us might think of games. Maybe you have a thing for World of Warcraft and you let your game time bleed into your work time. That’s the obvious thing we think of when I mention “playing”.

But most of us play in other ways that interfere with our work time and focus. Some people spend way too much time exploring todo list apps, trying to find the perfect one (hint: there isn’t one, so stop looking). Others can’t seem to stop making spreadsheets that analyze the health of their business. People can “play” with things that they feel are justified as essential parts of their job.

They aren’t essential, though. We just like to think they are. Finding the perfect productivity system isn’t essential. Really, it’s not. Do you know what is? Capturing every important task and note that comes your way, keeping them organized in a master list, and then working off of that list using common sense and your priorities as a guide. Everything else is fluff. Everything else is “playing”.

Stop playing. Stop fussing over the tools and just do the work.

Look, If I billed you for every hour you spend futzing around with a productivity app or a new notebook—meaning I literally forced you to pay me an hourly rate for that time—I am fairly confident that you would stop doing it. But here’s the deal: it already costs you money, you just don’t see the deductions from your bank account in the same way.

When we waste time on our tools, that’s time we could have used to do billable client work. Work that you can invoice. Work that contributes to your paycheck and your bottom line. Work less, earn less. Work more, earn more. It’s simple math. When you are exporting all of your tasks from your todo app and importing them into this week’s hot new thing, you are wasting time that could be spent elsewhere.

Do you want a raise in your freelancer salary? Do you want to accomplish more meaningful work? Do you want to get better at what you do? Stop playing with your tools and start working. It’s that simple.

Thoughts on My Social Hiatus

In my own imagination, my absence from social media has been as pronounced as Kiera Knightly’s lower jaw, but in reality I think I’ve barely been missed. No worries, though. I’ve done this before and know what to expect, though it’s been years since my last hiatus. Still, I’m human to dream of being missed, right? Part of the reason for stepping back this time is that I’m just so busy. Not with busy-work, mind you, but a dramatic expansion of my workload. I have a lot more on my plate these days, and while I like it, it meant taking an inventory of where all of my time is going. It’s like being in an airplane that’s losing altitude. First you toss the empty seats, and then the cargo, and finally the essential supplies. You might even kick the annoying people out, too, but that’s the stuff that only happens in the movies, thankfully.

My evaluation revealed to me just how much of my time was being spent in places like Twitter and App.Net. I couldn’t believe how much of my time I was spending on something as mind-numbing as “checking my stream”. I wrote ‘spending’ but I think what I really meant was ‘wasting’. You can only read so many tweets/posts about RSS services and apps before your eyes bleed and you start to want to become a beet farmer. In the Ukraine.

It’s not always the topics, but the vapid, anger-filled apocalyptic nature of each of them. Everything is the end of the world. Everything is super-bad, or super-good. Everything is the best thing since sliced PSD’s, and everything else is the Devil’s sperm, ready to impregnate our minds and turn us into the worst consumers imaginable if we ever touch the stuff.

Do we really need to panic about how we’re ever going to manage to gather and read all those articles on why Apple is beleaguered or the latest blurry photo of an unknown internal component for the next iPhone? Is iOS 7 (not a public release, but a beta version, mind you) really worth hundreds of designers lining up on either side of the issue like some sort of Dadaist West Side Story, ready to flick open their styli and stab someone? Honestly, it’s not important.

You know what is important? Feeding my kids. Money doesn’t grow on trees, unless those trees are Work Your Ass Off trees and you’re patient enough to give them time to grow and produce fruit. I have to work hard each day to earn my keep in this world, and I’m doing it for a few other human beings I really care for as well. I get an average of seven hours each day at my desk. Less than five minutes is equal to about 1% of my available work time. A half-hour is a massive 7% of my daily income.

So the choice I’ve faced each day is to either spend all of my time doing the work I need to do, or spend most of it doing that stuff, and the rest on things that have no lasting importance whatsoever. This isn’t about being a snob and downplaying the stuff that other people might deem important; this is about perspective, about what will matter in five years or even ten. To me, at least, this is about growing up and being a man.

But listen, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for discussion and community and social interaction. That’s what has made this hiatus so difficult. I miss the people. I miss the conversations. Not all of them or even most of them, but some of them, at least. But I’m not interested in talking and writing about something as asinine as Google Glass and how it’s going to revolutionize the way the top 1% of the wealthiest nation in the world is going to conduct their entitled, abnormally unique lives.

When are we going to talk about something truly important? How many hundreds of hours have been spent just this week criticizing the decisions of companies that, frankly, never asked us and couldn’t possibly care one iota?

The conversation — the Greater Conversation, mind you — needs to elevate. It needs to push us to greater places, inspire us, challenge us to be better and do better and think better. But right now, the Conversation is laying on the bottom shelf in an abandoned 7-Eleven in rural North Dakota, covered in filth and going nowhere.

We have moments, sure, but it’s inconsistent at best. One moment we are waxing philosophical about something deep and full of meaning, and the next we are shoveling yet one more load of fuel into the gaping furnace that is the ego of some sensitive, coddled internet celebrity.

Let’s talk about the things that last. Let’s talk about making lives better around us. Let’s talk about making choices that aren’t about blessing ourselves, but rather about helping others. Let’s talk about the things that would still matter to our great-grandparents, and the things that people will still be talking about when we have grandchildren of our own.

Those conversations are more rare and happen at a much slower pace, though. They don’t eat up our time like fighting over UI changes does. And that will free up time for us to spend on doing our real work and taking care of our families.

I’m sure I offended you, and I sincerely apologize for that. It’s not my goal to belittle anyone reading this, and I fully acknowledge that what is important to one person might not necessarily be important to another. Much of this rant is subjective and open to debate (ironic, I know).

Just understand that you have two choices after reading this: get angry and defensive, or look for the good pieces and find a way to help out in your own small bubble. I’m not 100% right about all of this, so arguing with me about being wrong is pointless. I just want people to be a lot less dismissive than they tend to be. We all owe each other that much, don’t we?

Am I crabby and idealistic? You bet (get off my lawn, while you’re at it). But dammit, we can do better than this, can’t we? Prove it.

The Ultimate Freelancer

On Ecuador's Mt. Chimborazo, there is only one ice miner left. We works alone. He works hard. He works because it's what he was born to do. Watch Baltazar Ushca's story. As a freelancer, I appreciated the honesty and brutality of his life. It's as pure as the ice he carries, and as rich as the history he inherited.

What's Your Purpose?

The next most important thing to having a goal is to have a purpose. Why do you do the things you do? What drives you to make the choices you make? How are you wired? What is the reason for all of the motion and action you do each day? Are you merely flailing your limbs and running in place, or is there a purpose for every movement? The best way to discover the answer is to look backward. What lessons can you pull from your experiences? What were the elements of your job that brought you the most joy and fulfillment? In what settings did you come alive? What type of project makes you smile every time a client brings one to you?

Image two photographers in a room together. One bills himself as a "portrait photographer", and the other speaks about herself as "a photographer who is committed to capturing the beauty and awe of everyday life". What's more appealing to you?

Your purpose is the story, written by your past, that informs your journey into the future.

Know yourself. Know your motivations and reactions and resonations. Be self-aware and driven to tapping their information to hack your future.

The Wanderer

A traveler without a destination is a wanderer. Wanderers waste effort and time and resources in their quest to go…somewhere. They are the most inefficient travelers in existence. No one decides to be a wanderer, though. It happens when they lose their destination. They have no plan, no goal, no reason. Wanderers don't wander because they are lost; people wander because they've lost their focus.

As a freelancer, you are a traveler. You will go places, do things and accomplish an enormous list of tasks over the course of your career. But if you aren't careful, you might become the worst of travelers. Without a goal, every day becomes the same. Punch in, punch out. Do the job and go home. Rinse and repeat. It's a life without a destination.

Don't wander. Set long-term goals, and then a ton of sub-goals to get you there. Then use each day as a vehicle to move you forward toward a specific place, idea, achievement or state. Holding that target in your mind is what keeps you from wandering around for weeks or months.

Don't be a wanderer.

Dear Freelancer

Dear Freelancer,

You get up each day and hit the grind without a boss to guide you. You set goals, chase them down like cat chasing a squirrel, and never let up until you reach them. You know yourself well enough to commit to responsibilities that depend on your very best efforts, day after day.

You bet your livelihood, and sometimes that of your family, on your ability to get things done. You talk to strangers, believe that people you've never met will send you real money, and abuse substances (namely sugar and caffeine). These are things we teach our kids to never do, but you've somehow turned them into an art that generates results.

You do a dozen things you hate – like bookkeeping and networking events – just so you can do that one thing you love. You look toward the future more than anyone I know. You only let the past serve as a reminder of past success, not a source of fear and doubt. You have courage and faith.

You've chosen a career that is absent of any false sense of security. You go without sleep and food to please your clients. You believe so much that hoodies are here to stay that you've bought a dozen. You have a light footprint and incredible flexibility, and this makes you so much more attractive to your clients than the Big Boys.

Don't give up. Sure, there are always going to be bad days. But those are mere islands in a Sea of Awesome that laps against your bare feet. Wiggle your toes and enjoy it.

You're appreciated.


When I first started out doing design work, there was little I knew how to do. I had the raw tools at my disposal, however: intuition, my eyes, and a knack for learning quick under pressure. My sense for design carried me through many of those first projects, and most of them involved forcing myself to learn to do the things my mind envisioned. Later, I began to take on projects without knowing how I would accomplish them. Everything I know about InDesign was learned with that kind of pressure hanging over me. Learn it, or fail to satisfy the client. Now, I could have played it safe and only agreed to work on the projects that I felt comfortable with, but that is like working on a lease.

I prefer to go places. Taking on new types of work, tackling new challenges and teaching old dogs new tricks are all things that take courage. Courage to say yes to the scary things. Courage to trust your ability to learn something new under pressure. Courage to take on risk in pursuit of a big reward.

The only thing that separates the person you are from the person you could become is courage.

30 Seconds

Do you know what you have to offer? I mean really, really know it? Do you know your value and services and purpose so well that you could tell someone in just 30 seconds? It used to be called the "elevator speech", and was conceived to equip business owners and salespeople for that moment when they are in an elevator with a potential client for a mere half-minute. They are a captive audience, but only for a short time, so the idea was to have a pure, concise script memorized and ready at a moment's notice.

You may not ride an elevator, but you still have need of this if you are a freelancer today. You'll constantly meet people and have to explain what you do. They might not even be potential clients – perhaps they are simply friends of the family or strangers in a café – but the more clearly you leave them with an impression of what you have to offer, the more likely they are to remember you and how you could help solve a problem for them, even if it's a few days, weeks or even months down the road.

Spend some time this week and write your elevator speech. Trim it to take up less than a minute, and memorize that nugget for the future. The first time you use it, you'll be glad you cared enough to write it.

First Impressions

I am a firm believer that first impressions matter. I try to look nice for in-person client meetings. I speak professionally and with humble authority (as best as I can). And I make sure I'm clear about my value to a client's business. Bad first impressions frighten clients away. Good first impressions instill trust.

Maybe you don't leave your office. Maybe your profession doesn't require you to be in-person at events or meetings. But you send emails and take phone calls. You have marketing material of some kind. You have contracts and forms and the work itself. Those things speak about you to the other person. You may not intend it, but they do.

Curate your presentation and craft your image. Do so with care, and your business will respond.


I can juggle three objects at once. Tennis balls, wooden blocks, even apples. And if I'm juggling apples, I can take a bite out of one while maintaining the other two. The kids love it. And I think a lot of people wish they could juggle because it's so cool to watch. But juggling should never come into the office with you. Don't try to manage email, a web design layout and listening to a podcast all at the same time. Your brain can't handle all of that and still keep the quality level high. It's a myth that successful people multitask all day. They don't; successful people focus on each task sequentially, pour everything they have into the job, and then move on to the next item.

Juggle for your kids, sure. But when it comes to your client's work, don't juggle anything. Grab one item, focus, and do your best with it. That's how you succeed.

The Middle

The best place to be is right in the center of the spectrum. Not a neat-freak and not a slob. Not a thinker and not a feeler. Not apathetic and not obsessive. Not a pessimist and not an optimist.

The middle is flexible. The middle has longevity. The middle connects more things together. The middle refines our extremes.

Aim for the middle.

Hack Your Disappointment

I have two very simple rules when it comes to managing my business finances. These rules keep my disappointment and mistakes to a minimum.

First, always err on the conservative side when forecasting income. In other words, be pessimistic about how much money you hope to make.

Second, always err on the liberal side when forecasting expenses. In other words, expect things to cost more than usual.

These rules help me reduce expenses and live within my means. A business that bleeds is a business that dies.

Passive and Active Followers

There are two types of followers: active and passive. They are both followers, but for very different reasons. And understanding their differences can help you avoid disappointment and failure.

Active followers do things in response to your requests. They buy your product, read your posts and enter into dialog with you.

Passive followers, in contrast, do very little. They don't buy, or read, or comment. They are on your side in one sense, but you can't count on them to pull your project or business forward.

(Obviously, because you are reading this post, you are an active follower. And I thank you for that.)

My best guess is that roughly 5% of your total followers are actually active. I know from experience and confirmation from friends that this is about right. It seems pessimistic, but it's the truth.

What does it mean for you? Well, if you have 3,000 followers and hope to launch an ebook for sale, don't expect 3,000 copies to sell. Or even 1,500. No, you can expect maybe 150 buyers. Go into it expecting every follower to buy and you'll only experience disappointment. Expect 5%, and you open up the possibility that you might be pleasantly surprised.


I've been thinking lately about what it is that pulls an audience together. Some people can talk and talk, yet no one listens. Others, though, draw huge crowds. Why are some more successful than others?

One reason I have settled on is the idea of authority. Most people have finely-tuned crap-detectors. They can spot inexperienced fakes a mile away. It's when a true expert appears that crowds gather and wait for new truth to be preached.

The lesson here for freelancers is that we can attract more clients – clients who have a higher level of trust in our ability to solve they're problems – when we present ourselves as an authority in our field.

You can't fake it, but it certainly makes a noble goal to pursue truthfully. Become an expert in your field, and then speak from that place of power.


This may go without saying, but the more timely you are as a freelancer, the more success you will have. Remember that your goal is to delight your clients and solve their problems. The less they have to wait, the better.

If you can't be on-time to a meeting, whether in person or online, you aren't being timely.

If you can't respond to a request from a potential client within 24 hours, you aren't being timely.

If you can't send the client an estimate within 24 hours, you aren't being timely.

If you fail to meet the client's deadline, you aren't being timely.

Get the point? Being timely isn't optional as a freelancer. Timeliness is essential to success. Get your act together, set up whatever systems you need to guarantee it, and commit to it.

Be timely.


The only way you can guarantee that you'll still be running your freelance business in a year or two is by making yourself as valuable as possible to your clients. But what makes you valuable?

You aren't valuable because of your experience. You aren't valuable because of your competitive rate of pay. You aren't valuable because of your connections.

No, freelancers become valuable to their clients by doing one simple thing: solving their problems.

Learn to offer the right solutions to your clients when they call for help. That's how you become indispensable. That's how you build a career that lasts.

Take a Break

Do something crazy this weekend: don't work. I know, insane, right?

Every car needs to refuel occasionally, and so do you. Take a break, relax, and wait until the weekend is over to start cranking again.

Trim the Fat

Financial experts will tell you that the best way to keep your finances healthy is to know where your money goes. When you actually see how much you spend each month, it can open your eyes to all the ways you can improve your money habits. It's easy to forget about a few trips to the ice cream shop, but when you see their impact on your credit card statement, the truth is evident. And convicting. I treat my time the same way. At the end of each day, I look over my day's plan to see if I failed to complete any tasks and why. I also look for tasks that took far longer than I had expected. I want to see how I spent my time, and if there are missed opportunities to tighten up my spending. I want to squeeze the most of out each day.

If you are planning out each day the night before (and of course you are, right?), then you are fighting half the battle. The other half is reviewing your behavior and refining your decisions.

Trim the fat from your budget and discover a new level of productivity.