Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Serenity of Support

Serenity is a funny thing. One minute I'm feeling balanced and feeling that my behavior is in alignment with my goals; the next minute, deadlines are starting to overwhelm me.

The funny thing is, deadlines aren't what rob me of serenity. My judgments of myself and how I think my clients see me are the real culprits. They'll get me every time.

Of course it matters what your clients think of you. As Rachel Weingarten pointed out in a story I did on work gossip, your reputation is your stock in trade as a self-employed person. Projecting confidence and having the skills to back it up are what separate you from the competition.

But I'm always surprised at how human my clients are. I went into freelancing thinking that because I'm working remotely (and I have this reputation to protect), my job was to turn in a perfect first draft without asking my editor any questions.

The first part is true. The second part? Not so much. The longer I'm in this business, the more I know that editors want to help me draft the best possible story. They want to nip problems in the bud before they have to root them out themselves in the edit process.

So I've taken to including my editors in my process. This requires me violate my personal dogma that editors want to see me as capable, intuitive and, above all, perfect. They don't want me to be perfect. They want me to ask for help. And when I do, it inevitably leads me to a better story and a closer relationship with that editor.

Now, I'm not talking about asking for direction at every step of the process. That would be cloying.

Here are some examples of how I've done it:

* With one recent client, I was hunting for "regular people" to profile. My editor provided me with one name and when I contacted her, I learned she's going to be on the cover of the same magazine in a few months. Red flags waved in front of me but in the past I would have ignored them, assuming my editor knew about it and wanted this woman in the story anyway. This time, I told my editor and I was rewarded with both a "Good catch!" and a "You rock!"

* I'm working on another story in which the sources are too busy to call me back. My instinct was to keep badgering them and try to force them to call me back. Instead, I called my editor and asked for other suggestions and direction. She happily provided me with more sources and now I have most of the information I need to write that story.

* With a final client, I'm writing a summary of some survey results. When I sat down to start writing, I realized that I didn't have a key piece of information for understanding the survey results. I'd looked at this survey several times, but I figured I wasn't looking closely enough. Finally, I realized what the problem was and called my editor. She was kind and passed along a document that decoded it for me. Now writing it should be a breeze.

The key things to remember for my serenity are these:

Humility goes a long way.
Asking for help as a perfectionist and business owner is never easy for me. I have to swallow my pride. But enlisting my editor's help is actually a sign of professionalism and every client from whom I've requested it has appreciated it.

Cutting myself slack is always the right answer.
The thing that stops me cold every time is self-judgment. Should I know how to do this already? It turns out in all three of those situations, there were things happening that I couldn't have known. The more I expect myself to have the biggest brain on the block (not to mention ESP) the further my serenity dwindles.

I have to acknowledge my progress.
If serenity is a muscle, I have to recognize when I've flexed it. Asking for help is one of those times. Merely stopping for a second to tell myself that I've done something new and difficul--and it was the right thing to do--reminds me that I can ask for help in the future.

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