How to Deal With the Unpredictability of Freelancing

Ryan Fan

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In the last two months of freelancing, I’ve made more money than I do my average month in my day job. But I won’t quit teaching for freelance writing for many reasons. One of those reasons is that income from freelancing is incredibly unpredictable.

To say that freelancing and blogging are unpredictable is a complete understatement. What few writers want to acknowledge is how algorithm-driven their success is. Oh, and you can’t control an algorithm. You can market and promote the hell out of your work, and you can produce beautifully written content, but you can’t control the algorithm.

That is why I will never rely on writing as my primary source of income. I don’t want to say you shouldn’t either, but clients come and go, freelancing platforms go down and have drastic changes. It’s not like a freelancer, you’re getting paid a salary, so the floor can be extremely low, even if the ceiling is very high. I might want to be a writer one day, after I retire from teaching if I can land a full-time salary at a dream publication like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or The Onion. But as a freelancer, your brand needs to be exceptionally well-established, and even the most successful freelance writers deal with insane unpredictability and fluctuations in income.

I think the unpredictability is exciting. Others find it stressful. Of course, it’s exciting because it’s going well for me right now. It’s not so exciting when it isn’t going well.

The landscape changes very frequently as a freelancer, and it really is a lot like the Wild West. There are no limits, but there’s also no security to your success. You can make no money, or a lot of money if you’re in the lucky select few. Success tends to be very algorithm-dependent. I am thrilled personally that I don’t rely on it as my primary source of income, and it’s just a fun side gig for me.

Last year, Jared Lindzon at Fast Company shared his salary as a freelance journalist over the previous six years. There are wild peaks and dips, but every year, his income rises substantially. Lindzon defended the unpredictability:

“While the wide swings between peaks and valleys might induce severe anxiety in some, to me (and millions of other freelancers out there) they represent boundless opportunity, complete autonomy, and believe it or not, job security. Okay, and maybe a little anxiety too, but it’s a small price to pay.”

Lindzon, however, acknowledges that 12 very successful freelancers could entirely cut him out of all his income. He acknowledges the difficulty of the pay instability but says that once you can deal with the instability, you enjoy greater job security, autonomy, and flexibility than your full-time working peers. These freelancers have a better work-life balance. A 2018 study from Upwork showed that income instability is the number one reason freelancers don’t go full-time, which I’m certainly in the category of.

For Lindzon, he got used to it by reframing his relationship with money. Part of dealing with the unpredictability meant accepting that his money wasn’t his — he had to be much more disciplined to avoid spending during income peaks. As an employee, he says that parts of his check went to sales taxes, income taxes, insurance, and overhead costs. As a freelancer, those were things he had to think about himself, and early on as a freelancer, he splurged after receiving big checks:

“I made the classic mistake of assuming the money was mine to spend, when it really didn’t belong to me,” he said.

Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, suggested that freelancers should charge more than they think they should, mostly because freelancers have pay for their own benefits. Also, when freelancers inevitably have their dry spells, freelancers would have saved enough as a form of self-insurance. Employers are willing to pay more for freelance labor as contractors since they perceive freelance work more efficiently than hiring someone long-term.

Lindzon also makes sure that freelancers know they have a new job that doesn’t entail being an employee: running a business. Just because a freelancer is pursuing their passion doesn’t mean they can ignore the business aspects of freelancing, like having clients in line to work for or “building a pipeline.” He argues that a freelancer should always be looking for more work because the well of clients and work can dry up very quickly.

Freelancing, by nature, involves an incredible amount of peaks and valleys. Its unpredictability is fun in the peaks, and incredibly anxiety-inducing in the valleys. Things will slow down for every freelancer at some point. That is why I will never write as a full-time job and other more personal reasons.

Instead, Lindzon urges freelancers to enjoy and accept the inevitability of the valleys. Treating the valleys as their form of breaks or doing different types of work. He likes to treat his valleys as rests, and perhaps many writers should do the same.

I will never make freelancing my full-time job for many reasons stated, but one thing that works very well for me is focusing on the process, not the results. It’s easy to refresh religiously every day to see your freelancing income, or obsess over a variety of things outside your control, like how many people are clicking on your articles, how many people are reading, and how the algorithm favors your work.

I leave my personal e-mail in case anyone has offers for paid work. For an article about the gig economy, a graduate student from a university just contacted me and offered to pay $30 for me participating in a one-hour interview.

Otherwise, I focus on what I control. I write. I read. I research. I edit. Above all, I learned that writing itself is king. The more you can improve and tinker with your product, the better it’s going to be. Also, by focusing on writing above all else, I stop worrying about the things outside my control, like clicks, reads, and income.

The ideal of every freelancer is to do what you love, so do what you love most. That way, you’re not beholden to your income. You might not get to the point where you can rely on freelancing as a full-time income. I can’t. I rely on my job not only for the income but inspiration and experiences. Perhaps it’s a privileged thing to say, but don’t quit your day job to write unless you have full confidence in your financial security. Being an employee is more stable than being a contractor.

With it as a side hustle, you get to choose where you focus your energy and effort. I choose to write — that’s how I deal with the unpredictability.

Originally published on September 8, 2020 on Publishous

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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