Spinning the Freelance Wheel: Maintaining momentum throughout your creative career
You stand before a large stone wheel. Towering above you, it sits pierced by a rusty iron spoke. It clearly hasn’t moved in a long time. You’ve been told that the key to what you’re after is in being able to spin it a full rotation. Can something this heavy even move? Reaching up as high as you can, you grab an edge with each hand and pull downwards. It barely moves. You roll up your sleeves, find purchase on the stone once again and throw the wheel with all your might. A single flake of rust lands between your feet as you watch it turn an inch further than your last attempt. Before it completely stops you grab the wheel mid-spin and launch it again. The momentum works in your favour and the wheel turns a great deal more than your previous spins. You swear it even felt easier. More work must be put in to see a full rotation, but the progress gives you confidence that you’re on your way.
This is how a career as a freelancer begins. We create work, share it with the world and watch in hopeful anticipation as these actions one day bring us a client. These three steps make up the Freelance Wheel—Creation, Promotion and Acquisition. More on them later.
Early in our career our efforts don’t push the wheel through a full rotation. We create, promote our work and see no return in the form of paying clients—so we must try again. But with each spin we are strengthening our creative muscles. Our work improves, audience grows and today’s spin rotates a bit further than yesterday’s. One day a message lands in our inbox asking if we’re available for a project. It’s nothing glamorous, but witnessing this first full cycle of the wheel validates all the false starts.
From now on the wheel spins easier. It may be some time before we see another full rotation, but we have shaken loose the rust, developed our abilities and as long as we don’t wait too long between spins, we’ll always have momentum working in our favor.
While the typical freelance career begins this way, there comes a point when enough momentum is built that we don’t have to focus on the steps of the wheel anymore. We create work, share it and watch as jobs reliably come our way. The goal we worked so hard to achieve the first time—landing a gig— becomes automatic by the tenth. The speed of our wheel increases with each rotation and our freelance career becomes something we can depend on. If momentum continues to grow this way, it’s safe to assume that our career will only get better and better. It’s here however, where the wheel often hits a speed limit.
Ever notice how some plateau in their careers while others don’t? We’re all following the same three steps yet some end up producing the same level of work, for the same clients, for the same rate for years on end. Meanwhile, others create each piece better than their last, work on evermore exciting projects and get paid so much that work seems optional. Is this luck? Most will agree that it plays a role but there must be something deeper going on. Why does the wheel of one stop improving while the other sees an increase in momentum spin after spin after spin?
We know the steps of the Freelance Wheel. Work is created, work is shared and after enough false starts, jobs are found. Each step is more nuanced than this but it’s undeniable that you cannot find jobs (Acquisition) unless what you do is known (Promotion) and what you do can’t be known if it doesn’t exist (Creation). We all must start off in the same way, nudging the wheel over and over until it finds a rhythm. But once this momentum is found we begin to operate in one of two ways. To understand these approaches, let’s meet two artists.
The Expedient Artist
Identified by his inability to turn down an opportunity, the Expedient Artist aims to have it all by taking on any job that comes his way. He believes work is scarce, competition fierce and that by saying no to an offer he will kill all momentum his wheel has gained over the years. Operating from a quantity over quality mindset, the Expedient Artists finds himself stressed often, satisfied little and with only ever enough time to make mediocre work. His clients fit him poorly, he undercharges and little improvement in his abilities can be seen with each turn of the wheel.
Expediency; the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral.
The Patient Artist
Where the Expedient Artist thinks in the short-term, the Patient Artist considers the long road ahead. She understands that to truly excel in her field she must narrow her gaze. Every opportunity that comes her way is carefully evaluated; Will it make her better? Will it bring her closer to her goals? The Patient Artist understands that the path to better jobs and higher pay is through giving every project her all—even if that means saying no to many others. Every time the wheel turns the Patient Artist finds herself in a better place. Her latest work is her best, a following begins to form around her and as her rates increase she is able to put more time into each project—including ones of her own design.
By examining how these two artists approach the Freelance Wheel we can identify which actions lead to limitless growth and which keep us stuck right where we are.
Step 1: Creation
Whether it’s for a client or ourselves, at the foundation of every turn of the wheel is Creation. Not only because we need something to share if we’re ever to find work, but because this is the only place we can improve in our craft. How we operate here, more than any other step, determines the results we get from the Freelance Wheel.
Work is scarce in the mind of the Expedient Artist so he says yes to it all. He may know that time to experiment is required for great work, but he has three projects due Friday so great work will have to wait. Each revision shakes his world, his weekends and evenings become forfeit and he wouldn’t dare waste time trying anything he hasn’t done before. Much of his work isn’t good enough for his portfolio and those that are don’t improve much over the last. Over time he builds a reputation for quick and dirty work and that’s all that ever finds him.
The Patient Artist understands that the key to her success is in creating her best work every time. To do this she makes space for exploration, practice and unexpected hiccups in each project. She must take on less projects but this is a sacrifice she is willing to make because she knows that the more value she can provide her clients, the more she can charge. As time goes on she can afford to take on less and less, allowing her to dedicate more attention to making each one better than the last.
The Expedient Artist is only concerned with completion. The sooner this job is done, the sooner the next one can begin. Surviving on a diet of many small, low-paying jobs, this is how he must work. This doesn’t stop him from imagining greatness with each new project but inevitable complications, demands and revisions compromise the dream. He may know how to save a project gone sour, but why fight for it when the pay is low and his time so precious? Instead he checks out of this job and sets his sights on the next, blaming the client that greatness wasn’t achieved.
The Patient Artist refuses to settle for less than the best. She knows that each project comes with hurdles and she has prepared for them by setting aside time at the onset. When the client makes a request that might compromise the final result, she swallows her fear and speaks up. Not from the selfishness of losing a new portfolio piece—she has enough of those—but because it’s part of the value she provides. The Patient Artist doesn’t dare rush even a single project because she knows that how she behaves in one thing, she will be in others. She takes full responsibility for every project, taking pride in the victories and dissecting where she can improve in the failures.
The Expedient Artist views personal work as necessary at the beginning of his career and a waste of time after. Personal projects don’t pay bills! Instead he does piece after piece of unfulfilling work, secretly hoping that one day the project of his dreams falls into his lap. But no one has seen him do this work, why would they ask him? When a quiet period occurs the Expedient Artist is either scrambling for more work or recovering from the burnout of his 7-day work weeks. The passion that brought him into a creative field withers and when he speaks to his Expedient Artists friends they tell him he’s only arrived in the real world and he best get used to it.
The Patient Artist understands that no one is going to hand-deliver the work of her dreams so she creates time outside of client work to pursue it. Another paycheck may serve her short-term needs but her sights are set further than the end of the month. With each personal project she produces her abilities skyrocket and a better understanding forms about the direction she should take her career in. She knows personal projects will lead to great opportunities down the road but doesn’t mind the wait—she’s already doing work she loves. The passion from her personal projects overflows into her freelance work and her clients have taken notice.
The momentum of the Expedient Artist’s wheel stops the moment he starts taking on more than he is able. He is scarred from how hard getting work was at the beginning of his career and is terrified of going back there. So he says yes to every project knowing full well he can give none of them the attention they deserve. Mediocre work begets mediocre work and his dream of a fulfilling art career dies as the work he most desires never finds him.
With each rotation of the wheel the Patient Artist sees improvement in her abilities and portfolio, leading to better clients, higher pay and more time to reinvest back into herself. She can take her time, commit herself to work she loves and watch as with each cycle more breathing room is created in her life.
|Expedient Artist||Patient Artist|
|Gives each project just enough time.||Gives each project more than enough time.|
|Waits for dream projects to arrive.||Schedules time to create dream projects.|
|Creates each project as good as the last.||Creates each project better than the last.|
|Says yes to most opportunities.||Says no to most opportunities.|
|Doesn't have time to learn on the job.||Ensures there is time to learn on the job.|
|Isn't willing to fight for a project.||Speaks up when the project requires it.|
|Has a habit of rushing work.||Avoids rushing at all costs.|
|Sees personal work as a waste of time.||Sees personal work as vital.|
|Blames the client for poor results.||Takes responsibility for every project.|
Step 2: Promotion
Whether it’s curating a social presence, building a portfolio or showing our latest piece to friends, how we manage the next step on the wheel determines whether we see a full rotation or not. At a time when there is a never-ending supply of methods for self-promotion, do we thrive or fall victim to them?
The Expedient Artist wouldn’t dare miss out on an opportunity so he shares every piece he makes in every location he can. He spends more time doing this than in Creation, believing that if sharing on one platform didn’t work he will have success on the other ten. With little idea of his niche, he hedges his bets by creating a portfolio with a little of everything. Since he doesn’t know his focus, prospects viewing his work certainly don’t. As a result he is only ever contacted to do what he’s proven he can—little bits of everything.
The Patient Artist knows what work she is after and doesn’t pursue anything else. She has taken the time to identify her audience, learn where to find them and therefore must only make a few calculated shares in a select number of places. Her consistent body of work makes it obvious to potential clients what she is suited for and what she is not. As a result she is saved the time of reviewing offers that are a poor fit and becomes ranked high on the lists of those who seek her unique offering.
Hiding behind the phrase shameless self-promotion, the Expedient Artist’s desperation for work has him share with only his own needs in mind. The necessity to find his next job has him come off as needy and inexperienced to would-be clients and hiring him feels less like an opportunity and more like a favor. He believes that a successful career depends on growing follower counts and pours most of his time into tricking others into increasing his. The Expedient Artist finds Promotion to be a constant uphill battle and routinely is frustrated by the lack of results his hours of effort produce.
The Patient Artist understands that the more value she provides for others, the more opportunities will come her way. Letting go of her own needs, she only shares what she thinks others will benefit from or enjoy. She champions the work of others, shares her trade secrets and takes time to send jobs to fellow artists when they are better suited to the task. Her generosity leads to a natural growth in attention and a willingness from her audience to share what she does on her behalf. Promotion becomes enjoyable, fulfilling and effortless.
The Expedient Artist thinks more is better and opts to spend much of his time posting to every platform in existence. He may know his time is better spent creating, but the false sense of productivity that comes with each social post keeps him from it. It’s far easier to milk old work than create new. When the Expedient Artist complains about not having enough time in the day he fails to recognize that this is where it all went.
The Patient Artist understands that while Promotion is important, it’s Creation that drives the wheel. She sets aside time to share in the few places that are necessary but only after she has created for the day. With this clear set of priorities the Patient Artist watches as her work continues to improve and less effort must be made for it to find an audience. Eventually Promotion takes care of itself as previous jobs lead to referrals and the quality work she shares gets passed around by all who see it.
Promotion is a slow and frustrating step for the Expedient Artist. He has little confidence in the work he makes but spends hours sharing it everywhere because he must. With every turn of the wheel he must put forward the same amount of effort to maintain his collection of small, one-off jobs. He views Promotion as a means to an end and expects a payoff from every action he takes. When he doesn’t get them he becomes cynical. Rather than connect with and support the artists around him, he resents them for having the career he feels he deserves.
With every cycle of the wheel, Promotion for the Patient Artist gets easier. Because she is mindful of where she puts her time, this step hasn’t cost her the ability to grow. Her work is ever-improving, clearly displays her specialty and her confidence that she will be alright allows her to focus on others in her sharing. She organically grows an audience so large and devoted that Promotion becomes effortless. When she isn’t leveraging her position to help others she reinvests the newfound time back into her craft.
|Expedient Artist||Patient Artist|
|Shares anything and everything.||Shares only the best work.|
|Shares everywhere possible.||Shares only in the few places that matter.|
|Prioritizes Promotion over Creation.||Prioritizes Creation over Promotion.|
|Shares out of self-interest.||Shares with others in mind.|
|Feels entitled to better results from Promotion.||Understands that to receive more, more must be given.|
|Too busy to enjoy Promotion.||Takes the time to enjoy Promotion.|
|Constantly chases likes and follows.||Doesn't worry about metrics.|
|Sees Promotion as a necessary evil.||Sees Promotion as fun and rewarding.|
Step 3: Acquisition
Once enough work is put into honing our craft during Creation and spreading our work through Promotion, we will be rewarded with the opportunity to have our next spin of the wheel begin with client work. But not all jobs are created equal. The number of opportunities we choose, how they align to our goals and how we manage projects all contribute to whether we see exponential growth in this area or merely create a trap for ourselves to continue to relive.
The Expedient Artist is always selling himself. Each social interaction is viewed as an opportunity for personal gain so he won’t forget to stuff business cards into the pockets of all he encounters. Believing work is in short supply he must work day and night to make sure it arrives at his doorstep and not at those of his competition. The Expedient Artist lacks confidence in his abilities and must overcompensate by selling himself hard and often. People are not dumb—they see through this and view the Expedient Artist as needy and unprofessional. In the unlikely scenario that they hire him, it will be for something simple that can’t be screwed up.
The Patient Artist knows there is plenty of work to go around—especially for someone as skilled as she. Networking is something that happens naturally. She meets new people throughout her day, enjoys the encounters and if the possibility for work presents itself, trusts it will occur organically. When she is asked to take on a role that isn’t a good fit, she uses it as an opportunity to refer another who she believes will do the job justice. As a result, even the clients she doesn’t take on see her as valuable. Would-be clients meeting her notice her confidence and professionalism and are more than willing to offer high pay and creative control in order to attract her.
The Expedient Artist doesn’t discriminate between jobs. Work is work and in a world of scarcity all opportunities must be seized. With disregard for his goals or schedule the Expedient Artist takes on work he is a poor fit for—and lots of it. His fear of dry spells leave him cultivating an overflowing plate that sets up the next Creation step to be stressful and without room for growth. Even clients that clearly are not ideal for the Expedient Artist are kept because it’s better to have a bad gig than none at all.
The Patient Artist can become more picky with each revolution of the wheel. She knows that there is plenty of work out there, especially for someone like her, so she is willing to wait for the gems to arrive. Clients that aren’t a good fit are discarded, opportunities that would cause her to rush are declined and as a result she sets herself up for a fruitful Creation step.
Stemming from the Expedient Artist’s lack of confidence and scarcity mindset, he consistently undercharges. Increasing his rates is not worth scaring away work so he chooses not to. As a result he must take on more jobs just to keep himself afloat. Seeing his low rate as the indicator of an amateur, the Expedient Artist’s clients treat him as one. They are slow to trust, make requests well beyond the project scope and art direct every creative decision. It is no wonder that the Expedient Artist spends much of his little free time complaining about clients.
The Patient Artist understands that for clients to respect her time she must respect it herself. She set her prices high, saving her from wasting time talking to clients who would be a poor fit. When a client comes along who sees her value they are more than happy to pay a handsome sum for her services. They treat her as an expert, give her complete creative control and constantly make efforts to keep her happy throughout the project. As the Patient Artist creates better work with each turn of the wheel it is no surprise that she is able to consistently increase her rates. When her high prices prevent her from landing a job she views it as a bullet dodged—not an opportunity lost.
With each revolution of the Freelance Wheel not much changes for the Expedient Artist. His body of work stays the same and so too must the effort he puts forward. He lacks confidence and fears his pool of low-paying jobs will run dry at any moment. As a result he says yes to everything, is unwilling to negotiate for higher pay and creates no space in his future to have the next cycle go any different. His lack of value for himself causes others to treat him the same and he grows bitter with each passing cycle, believing he is cursed with a streak of bad luck.
As with the rest of the steps, Acquisition becomes easier with each rotation for the Patient Artist. Great work and an endlessly growing audience lead to bigger and better opportunities. Her freedom and clarity allow her to turn down most offers, only leaving room for those that will lead her where she wants to go. Her rates climb ever-higher and as confidence in herself grows as does the confidence her clients have in her. She is given more responsibility, freedom and money—setting herself up for yet another fruitful Creation phase.
|Expedient Artist||Patient Artist|
|Views every encounter as an opportunity to sell.||Views every encounter as an opportunity to connect.|
|Constantly talks up own abilities.||Let's the work do the talking.|
|Too afraid of losing an opportunity to negotiate.||Willing to risk a job to get a good arrangement.|
|Takes on every job.||Only takes on jobs that will lead towards goals.|
|Keeps prices low to attract most clients.||Keeps prices high to detract most clients.|
|Accepts as many projects as possible.||Accepts as few projects as possible.|
|Holds onto bad clients.||Ends partnerships that are a poor fit.|
|Blames clients for poor results.||Takes responsibility for the final product.|
Just as the Patient Artist prospers through a cycle of personal improvement, better jobs and a growing audience, the Expedient Artist often becomes trapped in a pattern of stagnation, mediocre work and a dwindling audience. This is an Expediency Loop.
The problem with Expediency Loops is that escaping them isn’t as simple as adopting the behaviors of the Patient Artist. The path of the Patient Artist asks you to say no often and carve out considerable time for developing your craft. Most stuck in an Expediency Loop can’t afford this luxury. How then do we break free?
Escaping the loop
The biggest mistake to make when trying to escape an Expediency Loop is being expedient about it. Over time we have formed habits that shape our career. This could mean rushing work, focusing on too many things at once or making decisions based on fear of running out of work. When in an Expediency Loop, ends are often just being met. This means that even the smallest of changes can cause more harm than good—so a complete restructuring of how we work is ill-advised. Escaping the loop isn’t a romantic, sudden turn of events. It’s a collection of small, well-placed actions over time. The good news is that every one of these little pushes increases the momentum of our entire wheel. The bad news is that we’ll have to be more patient than ever before—giving us the namesake of our second artist.
With Creation as the foundation of the Freelance Wheel, we will begin there. The better your craft the easier it will be to find an audience. This leads to better opportunities and therefore a stronger Creation phase. Remember that each phase of the Freelance Wheel feeds into the next. So, by targeting one, we improve them all.
Not only does Creation offer the most potential for improving the Freelance Wheel, it does something vital to our mind. By pouring time into this step and seeing growth in our abilities, we become confident. As you may have noticed, confidence is essential for the Patient Artist. With confidence work feels less scarce, trust in our skills grows and it becomes easy to say no to good jobs because we can be certain that great ones are on their way. But confidence isn’t something you can just turn on—it must be built. So let’s create room to do so.
How do we find more time for Creation when Expediency Loops keep us with an overflowing schedule? By finding where in the Freelance Wheel we are not using our time wisely and reclaiming it—one hour at a time. This will be different for each of us. If you can afford to take on one less job, that’s an excellent way to create time to make your other projects better. Likewise, if you can extend the deadline of a project, more time can be spent making it great.
It may feel counter intuitive to spend a lot of time on a project that pays low, but remember that this isn’t about short-term results. This is about creating a habit of using each project as an opportunity to develop yourself. There will be a time when you are compensated well for the time you put in but it won’t be until this habit of excellence is cultivated. Once you consistently are doing your best in all you do, great work and confidence are a natural byproduct.
Exercise: Reclaiming wasted time
If it isn’t obvious to you where in the Freelance Wheel time can be free’d up and channeled back into Creation, use this exercise.
For each step of the Freelance Wheel (Creation, Promotion and Acquisition) list every action you can think of that you take in your career. This may include drawing, researching, emailing clients, posting to social media, etc. If you’ve done it even once, add it to your list.
Next, highlight the actions that have the biggest impact in progressing your career by asking “What few actions produce the majority of results?” Remember that not all actions are created equal. Which is bringing you closer to your dream career: The five hours you spent updating your LinkedIn profile or the two hours of deep work? Be as ruthless as possible in narrowing down these actions to the best of the best.
All that’s needed now is to ensure your time is spent on the highlighted actions with as little possible effort being put into the rest. Many of these actions may need to be done once in a while—which is fine—but knowing what takes priority will ensure that your limited time is well spent.
Often when we aren’t getting the results we’re after, we think the answer is more. Not enough time in Creation? I’ll just borrow it from my weekends, evenings and sleep. Be very wary of this thinking as it is once again an expedient solution. Pushing yourself during weekends and evenings may sometimes be necessary, and can work for short periods, but eventually you will burn out and lose much more than you gained. Remember that the goal is not to do more, but to use your time wisely. As small steps are taken towards creating better work you will be able to change how you operate in all areas. You will find that you can share less, take on less and reinvest the gained time back into Creation. In fact, make that your goal: Free up as much time as you can in Promotion and Acquisition so that it can be put back into Creation. Everything else will take care of itself.
It can feel hopeless watching our fellow creatives bring in jobs with ease while we struggle for the smallest of gigs. In many ways it’s because of this hopelessness that when we finally leave these early stages of freelancing we are so frightened of returning to this point that we stifle our growth. The path of the Patient Artist leads to a career of constant improvement, better clients and more space for exploration. But when our actions are driven by fear, we operate as the Expedient Artist does; we spend an unnecessary amount of time selling ourselves, take on countless low-paying gigs and see very little improvement from project to project. We all slip into expedient ways of being from time to time, so give yourself grace when you do. Just know that regardless of your situation, the path of the Patient Artist is available to you. It will mean fighting back urges that we’ve submitted to in the past, but small step after small step in the right direction will amass to a huge difference.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. The ideas here took a heavy dose of inspiration from Jim Collins and his Flywheel Effect. I’m merely trying to capture what I’ve learned from him about running a business and repackage it for creatives with freelance careers. You can learn more about the Flywheel Effect (and other insightful principles) in his book Good to Great. I’d also like to thank Anna McCarty and Ryan Garcia for helping me make this article the best it could be.
If you found value in this article, I would love to know. Understanding whether or not this is helpful will effect how often I create more. If you have any questions, I encourage those too. Finally, if you’d like to be notified of what I create next, sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of this page.