Friday, May 22, 2009

Persistence at the Wrong Thing

Recently there's been a lot of discussion on a freelancers' board I frequent about bidding sites such as elance and Suite101. A new freelancer asks whether they were worthwhile.

This got me thinking about persistence. As in: What if you apply all the tools in your toolkit, and follow all the suggestions on this blog--but to the wrong thing?

What if you persist and persist and persist at work you hate, or in job markets, like elance, that will never pay you enough to live on?

Goal Confusion

They always say, "Keep your eyes on the prize" when they (whoever they are) want us to keep focused and keep going despite obstacles.

The problem, it seems to me, comes when you identify your goals too narrowly. Sure, elance might keep you busy. But will it keep you solvent? Will it keep you contented in your work? If your goal is to be busy, then mazel tov--you've done it. But I'd like to suggest that your goal deserves to be bigger than that--and that you can learn how to be capable of such goals.

Any market or editor or freelance bidding site is the object onto which you unleash your persistence: You query them monthly for years, ever refining your queries until you find one that works. You show up every day and do the work, with faith that inevitably, if you keep querying you'll get more work.

But that's not the goal. That's a step in the process to reaching your goal. At least for me.

The goal, it seems to me, is to support yourself doing the kind of journalism you love. Or maybe it's to reach a specific level in your career. Whoever you're querying has to fit into that goal. The step is not the goal.

Changing the Prize

That's the problem, it seems to me, with places like elance and Suite101: They encourage you to confuse busy-work with accomplishing goals and working like a dog with supporting yourself as a freelancer. As I've said before, in order to achieve any level of serenity in your work life, your job has to be sustainable.

Hoping to be the lowest bidder on a job is insane if your goal is to support yourself as a freelancer. Spending time writing SEO articles is crazy if you really want to write for The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

So we can spend good persistence technique after bad goals if we confuse the method (I'll query this market or that) with the motive (I want to be a high-paid freelance writer who writes narrative nonfiction).

Keep Going, but Change the Road

The good news is that persistence is such a valuable skill that once you turn it in the right direction, you'll get much further, much faster. It helps in this case to have a business plan. That way you know what you want to earn, and how you'll get there.

The fact is that places like elance are sites for people who want to be a freelance writer but don't want to step outside their comfort level enough to start querying individual magazines with individual stories. There's something to be said for steady work, but not when it goes against your financial and professional goals.

It may sound like I'm coming from a place of privilege, but I'm not. What I'm doing is acting on faith:

I believe there's enough work out there for me to have steady client that pay well. I believe in my story ideas enough to keep working on them and sending them out. I believe that my goals are attainable.

And I believe that anything that's set up to have us bid against each other automatically puts us at a disadvantage. With the time you spend creating proposals and hoping (!) to be the lowest bidder, you could build a Web site, create a LinkedIn account, start sending letters of introduction and meeting editors face-to-face.

All of those will yield more work, longer term, than elance or Suite101. Those sites feed off insecurities, sure, but they also feed off that mistaken belief that marketing is a shameful activity that should be done with as quickly as possible. I hate that. Have more faith in your skills and your unique approach to your work. Get excited about what you do and share it with editors who might need a writer like you.

Photo by borman818.

1 comment:

Lisa Zamosky said...

Thanks for this, Heather! Great post. It's helpful for us freelancers to be reminded that our bigger goals are always worth pursuing, even when work is slow and insecurities are on the rise...