Thursday, June 3, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Alisa Bowman faces the fear of the downturn

Alisa Bowman's website says it all: Pull it up and the tab will read "Alisa Bowman: Creates bestselling books." New York Times Bestsellers. Major national magazines. She knows what she's doing. And I don't mind saying that she's thoughtful, kind and helpful.

But is she confident? Alisa answered a few questions to explain how she got where she is now and where confidence plays a role there.

When you started freelancing, where would you place your professional confidence level, on a range of 1 (who me? I'll fade into the wallpaper over here) to 5 (I'm great! Let me tell you more!)? Why?

I started freelancing in 1990 and I didn't even think about my confidence or my writing abilities back then. I freelanced after a few years with a newspaper, a few years in book publishing and a few years at a magazine. Initially, I freelanced for people I knew--all of whom I'd worked with before. I knew exactly what they wanted, so the relationships were easy. Boy, I yearn for those days again! Anyway, I've never been one of those full-of-myself people. The day I tell someone that "I rock" will be the day the day I'm on some sort of wonder drug. So I won't give myself a 5, but I definitely didn't have as much to worry about back then. I'll say I was a 3.5.

Where would you place your professional confidence now, on the same scale?

Now I'm a 4, but for different reasons. My career is a lot more demanding now than it was 10 years ago. The freelance climate has changed. Editors have higher expectations of freelancers than ever before. I'm at a point in my career, too, when people have very high expectations of me. I've been a part of 6 best selling books, so authors come to me expecting miracles. Ten years ago, people just wanted me to put words together. Now they want me to make them rich, famous and happy. It's a tall order.

I'm also pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I'm writing on topics -- especially memoir -- that I am not as familiar with. So I feel shaky for the first time in years. I'm also learning how to promote myself, understand technology, and so on. These are things that writers didn't need to worry about 10 years ago. Now, though, I don't just write. I market. I maintain a blog. I delve into photography and photo editing. I'm learning video. I've posed for photos. I've been interviewed on TV. I'm giving speeches. I'm becoming a brand. That's all new to me, so the insecurity factor is higher.

If your confidence level has improved, what do you think made the difference? How did your confidence grow?

Confidence does not grow by staying safe and only writing about what you know. It grows when you push yourself, a little at a time, beyond your comfort zone. Whenever I've stretched in a new direction and did not die as a result, I got stronger and more confident. I was then able to look back on that experience and say, "If I could do ____, then I can do ____." There have been plenty of times in my career when I've wanted to hide under my bed. Whenever I've had that sensation, I've used it as a sign that I needed to face on what scared me JUST FOR THE PRACTICE of facing my fear.

What parts of your professional life still cause you the most insecurity? You told me about a recent bout of bad news that affected your professional confidence. How do you cope when those things happen?

Rejection and revisions still get to me. I am very good at taking feedback and I'm always looking to improve my writing. But lots of revisions generally cause me to blame myself. I think, "I really screwed that up. That editor hates me." In reality, we all get rewritten and edited. If we didn't, the job of "editor" would become obsolete. Also, as my good friend Julie Sturgeon says, we all get tossed into the toilet for a swirly every so often--even the best of us. It doesn't mean that we suck as writers. It means that the situation sucks. I know that, but I don't always feel that.

This may be another way of asking the same question but: Tell me about your demon. You mentioned him privately. What does he say, how does he say it and how do you wrangle him to the ground so you can get up and work again?

My demon says: "You always sucked at writing and you always will. You are a fraud. I can't believe you are still in this business. For Criss Sakes, why do you list those best sellers on your website? You know each and every single one of them was a fluke. You just got lucky. That's all. You suck. You can't write. You are a loser. Pretty soon every editor will know this and no one will hire you and you will eventually starve to death and so will your family."

He's pretty blunt. He's a real swell guy, eh?

How do you cope with those feelings of insecurity?

I write about them. When I am feeling really sucky, I'll post something about it on a writer's discussion board. Or I'll email a friend or post it as a Facebook status update. Or I'll blog about it. I try to use the insecurity as a lesson that can somehow help others. In this case, writing about my demon helps others feel normal and less alone. It also allows me to take the the focus off myself and put it on others. As soon as I do that, I feel better.

Plus, other writers are so supportive and can come up with the perfect pick-me-up. They are writers after all!

There was a time in my life when I did not do this--when I held it all inside. That was during my 20s and I ended up very depressed and in therapy. I've found that being frank, open and transparent has helped tremendously with all of life's little demons.

My premise for this challenge is that all creative people are insecure at some level. Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Yes, right on. All people are insecure in some way, but creative types even more so. In creative careers, what counts as "good" is so subjective. Edison knew he succeeded in inventing a light bulb when the dang light bulb lit up. But we writers never know for sure if our writing rocks. It's not as if a little computer bell goes off, "ding, ding ding!" to tell us that our work is awesome and that people are going to respond to it. We have to experiment. One way to do this is to blog. The communal nature of blogging gives you instantaneous feedback. You can learn, in real time, how your writing affected those who read it. It's quite powerful.

If you could offer any two suggestions for beginning writers on how to increase their self confidence, what would they be?

Blog. It's the best way to test your writing skills and see if your writing resonates with others.

Practice. I look at life as one huge practice rehearsal. That way, when I screw up, it's not a big deal. I was just practicing. Now I can use the screw up and I can learn from it and become a better writer. When you think of it that way, nothing seems terminal. All writers get better over time. Some of writing is talent, but a lot of it is skill--a skill that can be improved upon with practice.

Monday, May 24, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Kelly James-Enger is a Five!

Kelly James-Enger's name ought to be familiar to most freelancers. She's the author of the freelancing bible Six-Figure Freelancing and a prolific freelancer in her own right. She's been a full-time freelancer since Jan 1, 1997 and is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, in addition to Six-Figure Freelancing.

She also blogs about making more as a freelancer at Deadlines and Dollars. I asked her to talk about her own path to professional confidence. Here's what she had to say.

When you started freelancing, where would you place your professional confidence level, on a range of 1 (who me? I'll fade into the wallpaper over here) to 5 (I'm great! Let me tell you more!)? Why?

I’d say it depended on the day. I was fairly confident starting out, but that was because I’d had early success early on, selling my first two articles to national magazines. I had *no clue* about how challenging full-time freelancing would be, and even less of a clue (if that’s possible) about how I would actually approach it. I’d say, though, that I was a 3 or 4 most days, 1 on plenty of others…usually coinciding with receiving more than 1 rejection on that particular day.

Where would you place your professional confidence now, on the same scale?

With all modesty, I’d say 5 simply because I’ve encountered and overcome multiple challenges (e.g. having stories killed, losing steady clients, dealing with an unstable economy, having books going out of print). I really believe surviving those kinds of things has made me much more confident. For example, if a query gets rejected, I never think it’s because my query isn’t good enough (something I would have automatically thought early on). Now I just figure the editor didn’t like it, had something similar in inventory, or just isn’t smart enough to work with me. (Kidding!)

What parts of your professional life still cause you the most insecurity?

I think it’s having the time and drive to keep up with our changing industry. I’d resisted jumping on the social media bandwagon until quite recently… simply because I didn’t want to take the time to learn how to do it. Setting up my blog took me about 10 minutes. I’m not joking. I’m a luddite at heart but I know that to thrive as a freelancer, I have to embrace technology and know how it impacts my business and the publishing industry as a whole. And that’s always something I’m working on.

My premise for this challenge is that all creative people are insecure at some level. Agree or disagree?

I totally agree…and actually I think probably all people are insecure at some level. I think being a creative person, however, you’re taking a risk of putting yourself out there, whether it’s through a painting or short story or photographs, whatever. I can say that I am much more insecure (and take criticism much more personally) with work that I wrote for myself (I’m a published novelist and have published essays as well) compared to the work I do on assignment for editors. The latter is what I do to pay my bills. I’m much more attached to, for lack of a better word, the former.

If you could offer any two suggestions for beginning writers on how to increase their self confidence, what would they be?

Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. When you act confident, people think you are confident. Even when I’ve had my biggest slumps career-wise, I didn’t post on message boards or blogs bemoaning my existence. (I did vent to my husband and close friends, but I didn’t put it “out there.”) It’s really important for freelancers to remember that they’re running their own businesses, and clients want to work with people who are confident and successful.
Oh, and another tip—keep an “inspiration file.” That’s what I call a folder I have of happy notes from editors (e.g, “you did a great job on this piece"), “fan mail” from readers, awards, whatever. It’s a reminder that I am good at what I do, even when I doubt myself (which again everyone does sometimes!)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: When you are not the genius

And just for a fun Sunday afternoon, enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant take on genius. It has everything to do with confidence. After all, we put pressure on ourselves to be the genius. But what if we weren't. Gilbert is amazingly articulate and compassionate. That's reason enough for a revisit of this post.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Practice, practice, practice

Yesterday, novelist and writing craft coach Elizabeth Stark shared the basics of her creative and professional confidence. Today, she'll share the ways she teaches her clients to build confidence.

It's my theory that all creative people are insecure--it's the nature of putting something that really matters with you out into the world. How do you feel about that? Is that true for you, and if so, how?

Yes--I think you are right. It's amazing to work with successful writers. Of course, success as a label is so whimsical, so dependent on a bit of a particular kind of luck: Your film gets picked for a festival, your book gets published, reviewed, noticed . . .

The recent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to a book which could not find a mainstream publisher is a perfect example. Paul Harding is categorically a success--even though many folks reading this blog probably still haven't heard his name. But who cares? He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book! Yet no writer says to herself, I just wrote and published this great book. I can really trust myself going forward.

Instead, writers are constantly reinventing themselves, imagining ways to change themselves into something better.

When you're working with writing students, what are the areas in which most people lack creative confidence?

People lack confidence every step of the way:
  • How do I begin?
  • Is what I have to say worthwhile?
  • How to I organize a bunch of ideas, images, characters into something as large as a book?
  • How do I write it?
  • How do I silence the critic who keeps telling me how bad every sentence is?
  • How do I know if the book is good enough?
  • How do I approach agents and editors?
Even after a book is accepted for publication:
  • How will I make sure my book is noticed?
  • Will it sell?
  • What's next?
This is why I've created The Book Writing World. We all need a team. Olympic athletes have a team and coaches. No need to go it alone.

Setting goals publicly is a key to success. Deadlines. Guidance. A feeling that practicing is worthwhile. Writers are the only artists or athletes who think everything we do should be the show-stopping performance. What about rehearsals? Muscle-building? Of course, I tell brilliant writers these things every day, and then when I sit down to my own work, it's hard to remember them . . .

What would you say are the biggest barriers to creative confidence in the craft of writing?
How do you help your students face and overcome them?

The biggest barriers to creative confidence in writing are the blank page and the fact that we are not taught to enter the void and fill it. It never gets easier, in certain ways. Our job as writers is to ask ourselves questions whose answers we do not know--questions that matter to us deeply--and then to answer them. That's it! Who wouldn't be terrified?

In a way, if you are not terrified, you probably aren't tapping a vein. Conversely, you have to take these brave and daring actions not when the mood hits you, but habitually, every day. It's hard enough to jump blindfolded into your own imagination. And it's hard enough to commit to a daily practice. But a daily practice of jumping blindfolded into your own imagination? That's a lot to ask of yourself.

On the other hand, (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) what else do you want to do with your one and only life?

Friday, May 14, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Are you faking it or are you giving up?

It's one thing for me to tell you that all successful journalists and writers are insecure. It's another to hear it from their high-achieving mouths yourself. So I've asked some writers I love and whose work inspires me to answer some questions about professional confidence. We start with Elizabeth Stark, a novelist and writing craft coach whose online writers community, Book Writing World, just launched. This is just a preview. Elizabeth had such amazing things to say that I'll continue her Q&A tomorrow.

I chose you for this q&a because you are a successful novelist--or at least I would qualify you as such: You've written a book,
Shy Girl, that I loved and that was nominated for two book awards. You have an MFA from Columbia and have taught writing and continue to teach creative writing through your site, Write Angles. From the outside, I'd guess that you're very confident in your craft and your career. How true is that?

This is going to be a more challenging interview than I originally thought. My public persona (authentic but only one part of a contradictory whole) is confident. And I would say that I am most confident as a teacher. I've practiced editing, responding to and guiding writers more extensively than I've practiced my own writing, and as a result, I've become most confident in those areas.

No matter what, creative practices are harder to master. I strongly feel that I am always a beginning writer. When I wrote my first book, the novel Shy Girl, I told myself that this was my "learning-to-write-a-novel novel." Imagine my surprise when it turned out that each book must be imagined from scratch, and learned from the beginning.

This is the curse (and blessing!) of creativity: you can't rest on your laurels, your experience or your knowledge. You have to flail around. So just like everyone else, each day I face the blank page, I face the terror that I do not know what I'm doing, that I will fail. And in a way, a first draft must fail, so there is no escape, no reassurance. You build upon the failure, improve the mess . . .

I find that I am less confident when I am in the middle of writing--but I am happier. The distance provides a veil; I can remember a set of skills without putting them to the test.

What parts of your career are you most confident in?

See above: I feel good about my ethics and principles in how I respond to others' work and guide them through the process of writing a book. Of course, even here I have moments of doubt, because, again, the creative process requires adherence to a set of guidelines ultimately created from within. I cannot dictate these for other people. With publishing in crisis and a million writing courses out there, I want to be sure I am offering something valuable and meaningful to my clients and students.

Where do you feel like you need more confidence professionally?

I've just undergone a radical shift. For a long time, I would say, "I don't want to be a Julia Cameron." She's the author of The Artist's Way and many other books to guide creative folks along the path. I had this idea that to be known as a teacher rather than as a creator was a sort of failure or carried some sort of shame associated with the crass world of popular success. Hmmm . . .

At any rate, I looked more deeply and learned that Julia Cameron is actually a very productive writer of plays, fiction, screenplays. It's the fault of the market that her teaching books are more widely read than her other work--but she is living a balanced life. And also, now that I have kids, a family to support, I feel like I'd be incredibly lucky to make an impact like Julia Cameron has made.

This shifted my confidence. I used to feel impatient that my work as a writer seemed to inspire others to jump into the fray. Now I acknowledge that this is a gift. And I am learning more about outreach, about marketing--for my own business and to help all my writers to promote their books. My biggest challenge is fitting in my own writing with the nurturing of The Book Writing World (my business) and taking care of my kids. Juggling. I need confidence to say I am doing enough in each area, when each one could happily demand all my time and attention.

What has increased your confidence as a writer and an instructor?

Practice, practice, practice. You really do have to do anything that's important to you every day. Writing. Reading. Teaching. Being with your kids. There are successful writers who do not write daily--but very few.

I think it was easier for me to take myself seriously as an instructor much earlier than I took myself seriously as a writer. When you take yourself seriously, you make time and put in the practice.

You take the next step--practice and promotion.

You ask to be taken seriously, by people in power, by your family and, most importantly, by yourself.

You ask not only in words but in actions.

Now I'm creating an online membership site for writers: coaching and craft for folks writing book-length narratives (fiction, non-fiction, memoir). This is a giant step. I am also writing what my writing group (and secretly, I, too) thinks will be a "break-out" book. It's big and ambitious and risky and exciting. I have had the idea in mind for fifteen years! I've been too scared to just do it. Now I've committed to write this big book.

It's not so much that I have more confidence--I'm just committing to take myself and my occupations seriously, to "fake it until I make it." I think even people with a ton of success have that feeling of faking it often. The difference is: are you faking it or are you giving up?

More tomorrow!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence and cash

I asked many of my favorite freelancers to tell me how their professional confidence grew. Katrina Ramser-Parrish, a friend of this blog and of this blogger, shared the following:

For me, my professional confidence grew when I said 'no' to a particular freelance job offering payment far less than what I felt was acceptable or what I was looking for. It was a very nerve-wracking, face-to-face situation with about four employees from the owner to the head editor (and just one of me).

When the team dropped the price for the long-term assignment they had just spent an hour describing to me, I countered with a number that doubled the amount. Complete radio silence followed. They stared at me like I had horns growing out of my head. Instead of recoiling or stammering -- my former negotiating behaviors -- I realized something wonderful:

We both had different ideas about my worth. And that is was nothing to be embarrassed about. Or that anyone had the right to convince me of different or make me feel bad because I wanted more.

I really needed that job, too! But it set the bar for me and I went on to land great assignments with great clients at the price I wanted. It is nothing for me now to say 'no' -- it just means a match isn't there.

Sounds easier said than done, doesn't it? It doesn't have to be.

The point is that your professional confidence can only grow in accordance with how much you believe your work is worth. When I started freelancing, I was earning 15 cents a word on publication and was happy to have it. But if I had stayed there, I wouldn't be happy or confident in my work now. It was taking the risk to query a $1/word publication (then a $1.50/word and then a $2/word publication) that built my professional confidence.

Having work builds confidence--but not if you're shortchanging yourself. It becomes an unpleasant negative feedback loop: You work for less, you feel more hurried, you do sloppier work, you feel worse about it. And when you get the check, you feel even more discouraged.

The good news is you have the power to interrupt that cycle at any time. You have the power. Take it.

Photo by bigburpsx3.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence Killer #3 Avoidance

You may have noticed that this space has been blank for a few weeks.

That's because, much as I love this blog, I've been wading through the deep muck of avoidance.

You know the feeling: Those urgent matters, or at least the important ones, are tickling at the edges of your consciousness. But with all your considerable brain power, you're focusing on.... Facebook. Or email. Or your child's dance recital costume. Or that story that's easy. Or those emergency edits.

What you're not doing is taking care of the stuff that needs taking care of. What you're not doing is building confidence.

Why do these go together? The best explanation I can give is to answer that question with another question:

When you've been practicing avoidance, how do you feel at the end of the day? Heavy, right? Lethargic. Maybe a little ashamed. And usually very overwhelmed with the growing to-do list you'll have to tackle tomorrow.

Now switch it. When you've done the scary stuff and faced down those tasks you were avoiding, how do you feel at the end of the day? Chances are, you feel lighter. You feel energized. Strong. Proud. Confident.

This week, my goal for each day has been to face the tasks I've been avoiding. It's painful sometimes. I'd really rather surf the web than work on a story assignment that's more idea than angle. Trudging through the embarrassing and sometimes demoralizing process of narrowing down an amorphous idea into a sharp, concise story isn't high on my priority list, especially when I'm already feeling down. So how do I make myself do it?

Get aware
The first part is always coming out of the fog of avoidance and into the stark and sometimes uncomfortable reality of awareness. Maybe you've sunk into Facebook so far you can't see your email list. When you come out of that denial, expect to feel overwhelmed, ashamed and stuck. It won't last, but remember the feeling. Want to avoid feeling that way? Avoid avoidance!

Accept it
What most of us naturally do is start berating ourselves for losing a few minutes, hours or days to avoidance. How could we be so stupid? How could we have fallen into that trap again?

Well, we do it because we're human. Lighten up on yourself. If berating yourself worked, you'd be winning Pulitzer Prizes and accepting that Nobel Peace Prize right now. It doesn't. All it does is make you so uncomfortable that, guess what? You slip right back into avoidance.

Skip that whole trap. Just practice telling yourself, "I accept that I lost X minutes/hours/days in avoidance. Yep. I did it again. This is part of being self-employed." Like the weather, it comes and goes. Try not to turn it into a referendum on your worth or professionalism.

Take action
Welcome to the hard part. That stuff you've been avoiding? It's staring you in the face. Choose one of those things. For me, it was email yesterday. I used to be so good at clearing out my email. I was an inbox-zero girl. Yesterday, I had 355 emails in my inbox. Overwhelmed? Oh, sure.

So I just started. I sat down and spend some time clearing them out. I found an email from an editor that needed replying to. I sent her three story ideas. I started feeling better about myself.

Let it snowball
I kept going. I found some news reports on subjects my editors follow and forwarded them as a courtesy. I got bolder. I followed up on an outstanding invoice. That felt so good that I sent three invoices that needed sending. Finally, I did the big thing I'd been avoiding for a week: I called the source I needed to call for a story I'm working on.

Don't ask why I was avoiding it. I don't know. The important thing is that I did it. I went to bed feeling better about myself, feeling in control of my life and my business, and confident that today could be just as good.

And you know what? It has been.

How do you fight avoidance?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.
Mark Twain

Photo by

Monday, April 19, 2010

Surviving a failure gives you more self-confidence. Failures are great learning tools.
Jeffrey Immelt

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Join Me for Some Free Coaching

Spring is a good time for renewal. Why not consider renewing your career:

If you're in or around San Francisco, I'll be offering free speed coaching at the Journalism Innovations Conference on Saturday, May 1 from noon to 4:45 p.m.

Here's how it works:
  • Register for the conference, which is being held at the University of San Francisco
  • Sign up in them morning (Saturday) for a slot with a coach.
  • Ask for me when you sign up.
  • Bring your biggest career questions or even a query.
We'll only get 15 minutes, but you'll get some one-on-one advice and direction. And I'd love to meet you!

Photo by stylianosm.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

You have to pretend you're 100 percent sure. You have to take action; you can't hesitate or hedge your bets. Anything less will condemn your efforts to failure.
Andrew Grove

Photo by
-= Bruce Berrien =-.

Friday, April 16, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence killer #2 Isolation

Last week, I wrote about how comparing ourselves to other writers makes us miserable and is the fastest way to kill our confidence.

Today, let's talk about another confidence-killer: Isolation.

It's an occupational hazard: If you're self-employed, you're spending a lot of time by yourself. And if you're lucky, you're spending a lot of that time working. But there's the rub: Especially if you're newly self-employed, you've got more time than work, and that alone time, with all those doubts and insecurities nagging at you can wear you down to the point where you're doubting everything:
  • Doubting your skills ("Everyone else out there has more talent/more tech skills/is younger/better connected than me")
  • Doubting your ideas ("Everyone else out there probably has better story ideas and it's easier for them to generate them.")
Before not too long, you find yourself doubting your career path ("Everyone else has always been focused/knows what they're doing/is going to be more successful than me") and then to your very place in life ("Everyone else knows what they're doing with their lives. Oh my God, what am I doing with my life?!?").

And bingo: Paralysis.

No work is getting done. No queries are being sent. No effort is being made to find new clients or expand your creativity. How could it? You've decided it's all pointless.

And you're certainly not talking to other freelancers about your doubts, because you've already convinced yourself that everyone else has it all figured out/has it all together/is wildly successful, while you slowly decompensate into a mass of quivering insecurity.

So how do you cope with the fear, especially when being alone is a part of the job?

Here are a few ideas, and please share your own in the comments:

Go to writers' events
I know they're scary. I know you feel awkward. I know you don't know any of them, but that's the point. You have to get out there and meet freelancers and build a network of other creative professionals you relate to and you can call. Don't go with making the goal of getting work. Go with the goal of meeting other creative types and trying to find out about social get-togethers, potential co-working set-ups and people you might want to have lunch with and talk shop.

Get an action buddy
Now that you've met some people, start asking them if they'd be up for. Tell them what you have in mind: Daily or weekly phone check-ins on your progress and how you're doing. The key is that both of you need to participate. That way, you'll hear the struggles of another writer and be reminded, perhaps daily, that you're not the only one with those doubts.

Join a writer's group
I've suggested this before, but I'll tell you that it's my lifeline. Getting together with a group of freelancers and talking about successes and challenges, and checking in on goals gives me a built-in place where I can talk about my doubts. It also reminds me that everyone has doubts, that everyone struggles. It's incredibly freeing.

Have lunch
Whether you meet them through writers events, Facebook or other organizations, you'll inevitably find freelancers who might want to get out of the house regularly and meet face-to-face with a real-life human being. Get together. Have lunch. Make a goal of doing it once a month, and you'll be out of your house and away from those running thoughts more often.

The key is to interrupt those spiraling fear thoughts.

How do you break the isolation and the downward spiral?

Photo by chad_k.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
Charles Darwin

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Monday, April 12, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence at conferences

I don't know what it is about April: It's tax month and it's the month of conferences and reunions. This month alone is the American Society for Journalists and Authors conference, the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, the Power of Narrative Conference (the replacement of the Neiman conference), and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

It's enough to make your head spin and your stomach lurch with a whole season's worth of butterflies.

For us freelancers, conferences can be something of a culture shock. We go from working alone in front of our computers (with occasional forays out to interview people in real life) to being at a hotel surrounded by dozens to hundreds of other writers and editors. We go from working in casual clothes to having to wear "fancy" clothes--that is, professional attire.

Suddenly we have to make small talk. We feel the pressure to network--and most of us haven't a clue what that actualy means. And if we want to get anything at all out of a conference, we have to speak up, ask questions and join in the debate.

For most of us, that can be overwhelming. Here are some ways to bolster your conference confidence:

Think before you go

I don't mean "think twice before you go to a conference." It's my experience that conferences can energize your work and renew your commitment to it. By all means, go. What I do mean is that before you see a single person at the conference, come up with two pieces of information you can roll off your tongue when the time is right.

Summary of your work
When someone asks you, "What kind of journalism do you do? Who do you write for?" you need to have an answer. As freelancers, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that what we're doing isn't enough, and when people ask, we say, "Oh, I'm just a freelancer." Banish that from your vocabulary. Instead, think about the kind of journalism you love to do--your best work, your goals and aspirations--and come up with a mission statement you can tell writers and editors when they ask.

Something like, "I write about a lot of things, but my favorite subjects to cover are health and real estate. I especially enjoy writing about chronic illnesses and how people cope with them."

Whatever it is, know what you love. And share it readily. A happy freelancer is an attractive freelancer.

What you're working on
Sometimes this question can flummox us. Either we're embarrassed because, again, we don't think what we're doing measures up, or we don't think what we're doing now represents what we can do. In essence, we feel inadequate and may shy away from the question.

There's no need. I can tell you that as a newspaper reporter, I covered a lot of dogs of stories: Late night planning commission meetings, bake sales, etc. It wasn't my best work, but it was part of my job. Everyone understands that. Freelancers are no different. What makes us professional is that we don't always love every part of our jobs, but we still do it.

So think about what you've been working on lately: It counts. Think about one or two stories you've worked on in the recent past that you were excited about and talk about those.

"I just finished a story on how the healthcare reform package will affect working class people in my state." Or, "I just finished a story on needle phobias in kids with hemophilia," sounds interesting, whether the person you're talking to knows much about hemophilia or healthcare reform or not. All they want to know is, "Are you doing work?" and "Do I have anything in common with you?"

Look for connections

And that's the whole point. Conferences are a great place to have the water-cooler chats we don't often get to have as freelancers. I remember going to a conference last April and having a great time talking to other freelancers about the frustrations of trying to reach doctors, or the general health insurance system, etc. I shared my own personal experience as well as mentioning stories I wrote on the subject.

Many months later, one of the freelancers I was talking to about it emailed and asked if I would take over a story for her, since she had a family tragedy. It wasn't calculated on my part to get an assignment--and I would prefer not to get assignments under such circumstances--but still, it happened because I was open about my experience and background.

Take it easy

The main thing I found at the conferences I've attended is to remember that being around that many people for that many hours is exhausting. I gave myself permission to leave the cocktail hours early if I needed to--though I made myself face my fears and go to them in the first place--and visited the hotel gym. I got in my exercise to keep myself feeling balanced, and I realized that I needed to just be myself.

You know, mom always said it and it's true--but when you're insecure it's hard to believe it. You don't have to go to a conference prepared to tap-dance for your colleagues or potential clients. You can be yourself, and trust that your professional interest in the topic (that's why you're there, after all) and your general friendliness (you're a reporter--you're used to talking to people) will shine through.

Be in your body

You don't have to be "on" all the time. If you don't feel like smiling, don't smile. If you don't feel up for chatting, don't chat. But at least put yourself in the position to enjoy yourself. Go to the cocktail hours. Maybe talk to one person. If that's all you do, that's a success.

The key, to me, is to stay in your body. When I get very nervous, I err on the side of trying to see myself through the eyes of the person I'm talking to. It's a bad habit and only serves to make me more nervous. After all, when I do that, I start thinking that how that person sees me is more important than how I see myself. But when I stay in my body and check in with myself--how am I feeling? Am I tired? Hungry? Overtaxed? Excited? Engaged?--and then act accordingly, I don't have to worry how the other person sees me. I'm taking care of myself. I'm only doing what I feel comfortable with.

It's a huge relief. And for me, it built my confidence to speak more, to talk to more people, and to know that when I was done, I could go back to my room.

Enjoy your conferences!

Photo by AndyRob.

Friday, April 9, 2010

I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endevours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
--Henry David Thoreau

Photo by Rich Moffitt.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Try, try again

This is an oldy but goodie: Maya Angelou reciting her poem, "And Still I Rise."

The point for this challenge is that there are always second, third and fourth chances--whether you mess up, whether you could have done it better. So get up this morning and try again. And rise.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence Killer #1 Comparison

During this challenge, I'll be giving you lots of hints for how to boost your confidence--ways to focus on what works.

But before you can focus on what works, you have to let go of things that don't work.

So I'm aiming to do one post a week targeting confidence killers--those behaviors we don't even realize we're doing that are undermining our professional confidence.

Today's confidence killer? Comparison.

I see this every day. Almost every time I talk to a new freelancer, she's mired under a metaphorical pile of magazine articles and newspaper articles that are Better Than Her:
  • That writer over there is nominated for a National Magazine Award.
  • This writer has been published in Big Name Publication.
  • This other writer is prolific--so much more prolific than I.
It goes on and on. Some writers are so hampered by this comparison thing that they spend hours in the name of "research" looking at other writers' Web sites, or following one writer's byline. There's an easy way to understand this, at least with many women: How many times have you found yourself comparing your body to someone else's? Don't you imagine that other woman's love life is better, her life easier, because of her body? If you asked her, I'd be willing to bet she has the same problems as the rest of us.

Regardless of whether the struggle is bodies or bylines, with every minute spent, you feel further and further away from your goals. Chances are that the goal isn't really to be published in this magazine or that--though that's always appealing. This magazine or that award is a symbol--just like having a certain body is a symbol. It represents the life you'd like to have: You'd like to have happy relationships and respect, and you think the body is a way to get there. It certainly seems easier than learning relationship skills and making mistakes and being assertive enough to correct people when they treat you poorly.

Likewise, this award or that byline is a symbol for doing the kind of work that feeds your soul and fills your bank account. Fixating on this publication or that award is a sign that we're getting professional success, that we've burned through some of our fear and are realizing our true creative potential. That's what we really want, deep down.

That crazy voice in the back of our heads (Seth Godin would call it the lizard brain. Steven Pressfield would call it The Resistance) gets louder and louder, informing us that that other writer has some essential spark we lack.

It's exhausting and keeps us further and further away from trying.

This tendency exists completely separate from reality. I can let myself get into this mode if I'm in a certain frame of mind and pick up a New Yorker. I think, "I'll never meet my goal. I should just give up. I should stay where I'm at now. Best not to risk it and humiliate myself."

The ironic thing is that looking at me from the outside you wouldn't expect it: I went to the best journalism school in the country. I have years under my belt working for newspapers. I've won a few awards. I've been supporting myself as a freelancer for years.

There's an old saying, "Don't compare your insides to someone else's outsides."

But I actually would take that one step further: Don't compare your own insides to your own outsides.

Because chances are that your work intimidates someone else. Chances are that someone else looks at you and says, "I could never do that!"

Believe it.

The fact is that we are forward-looking. We're ambitious. Which often means that as soon as we've accomplished something, we disregard how hard it was, how much of a risk it was to try, and what courage and confidence it took to do it.

So try this, when you find yourself seeking into compare-and-despair:

Make a ta-da list.
Sit down and make a list of all the things you've accomplished--today, this week, etc. Include things like sleeping enough and being kind when you were irritable. Include showing up for your job. Include one risk you took.

I know it sounds beyond New Agey and ridiculous. But you need facts to counteract what your crazy doom-and-gloom voice is laying on you. You need to remember that you have accomplished things--maybe more than you ever really expected.

Step away from the computer.
... or the newspaper or the magazine. If you're in that frame of mind where you're feeling insecure and comparing your accomplishments to someone else's, no amount of reading or muscling through will help. Take a break and come back to it after the ta-da list, after you've renewed your confidence.

Talk to other writers.
This touches on another tip I'll be giving next week, but you need to run your doom-and-gloom voice past others in your field. Ask them: Do you ever feel this way? You'll be surprised to learn that even the most accomplished writers are insecure and worry about reaching the heights for which they strive.

Then, when you're done: Try. Just try. Do one small thing that's intimidating and then give yourself credit.

Photo by Marc Lippe.

Monday, April 5, 2010

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I can take the next thing that comes along.'
--Eleanor Roosevelt

Photo by Kables.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Become a Facebook Fan!

God bless Facebook.

It's the security blanket of many a procrastinating, insecure freelancer. I've got hundreds of fabulous freelancers on my Facebook page, and we talk about everything from gearing up to write that 6,000 word article to the weird press releases we receive (I got one from the American Association of Nude Recreation the other day--seriously) to kvetching about late payments.

But it's also a place to get inspiration. I'd love to share more of my inspiration with you on there. So become a fan of Serenity for the Self-Employed on Facebook and get updates on this blog, upcoming events and links to news articles and videos pertinent to your freelancing sanity.

All right there, along with status updates on your friends' kids, video clips from The Daily Show and links to The Onion.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Quiet the Lizard Brain

Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain from 99% on Vimeo.

For your weekend enjoyment, check out this longish video of marketing expert Seth Godin. You may have heard a lot about him this year. He's the newest guru. But ignore that. For our purposes, Godin talks about something very important in terms of building confidence: Quieting the fear.

Now, confident people aren't free of fear. That's a myth. You can know this is true because you probably look confident from the outside, too. But on the inside? Fearful, insecure, doubtful and future-focused. Among other things. Godin's talking about something that increases serenity tremendously. He's talking about not muscling through the fear, not ignoring it, but acknowledging it, and then doing the work anyway.

That's how you gain confidence. And that's how you send your brilliant work out into the world. And that's how your work becomes better so you can become the writer you want to be.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
--Rita Mae Brown

Photo by notsogoodphotography.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

30-Day Confidence Building Challenge: Professional confidence is a work in progress

Confidence imparts a wonderful inspiration to its possessor.
--John Milton

To start this challenge I want to do something that's kind of arrogant: I want to question the esteemed Mr. Milton.

Now, I'm sure it's true. And I know it to be true personally. When I'm confident in my work, I'm more inspired, I'm freed up, I'm on fire.


Here's the thing: When I started freelancing, I thought I had to be confident before I sent the query, made the phone call, brainstormed story ideas. I was obsessed with what the editor would think on the other end of the email and what the source would think on the other end of the phone call. I needed them to choose me. I needed for them to hire me so I could get the confidence.

And since I believed that I had to be confident first, I was stuck. Paralyzed.

I see this with my clients all the time. Especially freelancers who are new to journalism, but also freelancers who've been in the industry for years, we believe that confidence is a prerequisite. We don't understand that you get the confidence by doing the work.

That's what this challenge is all about. With all due respect to Mr. Milton, it might be easier to be inspired when you're confident, but you can find your way to inspiration and action before the confidence kicks in. Then, by doing the work, by doing the thing you're scared of, your confidence grows. Then you get assignments. Then inspiration comes a little easier.

So I want to challenge you for the next 30-days to consider the possibility that confidence isn't an essential state. You aren't either born confident or your screwed. You gain confidence by doing things you didn't think you could.

You gain confidence by:
  • Querying a market you've always dreamed of querying. (It's nice when they email you back.)
  • Writing up the query for the story you've been dreaming of writing for three years.
  • Walking up and introducing yourself to the editor at the conference.
  • Having lunch with that freelancer who intimidates you, to whom you're convinced you could never compare.
What you find is that the editor, the freelancer and the person on the other end of the email are just people. You find that you can do things you didn't think you could. You change your mind about yourself. You aren't stuck and paralyzed.

You're inspired.

Photo by
J.J. Verhoef.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Challenge: 30-Day Confidence Building Challenge!

So this is it: New astrological year, last year's taxes are about due, and we need a new perspective. I know I do. The end of last year and the beginning of this were tough personally for me. I won't get into it here, but it meant that this blog went on hiatus.

But now it's back, I'm back and I think after a financial year that ravaged many of us, we could use a little confidence boost. That's why I'm going to start a 30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge in a few days. That's right. We're going to tackle simple steps you can take to increase your confidence with:

  • Marketing
  • Craft
  • Brand
  • Interviewing
So lay it on me: What are your biggest confidence-drainers when it comes to your business? Does your personal life leach confidence from your personal life? How about vice versa? We'll have some great guest bloggers and q&as with writers and other creatives who started with their confidence in the dumps and found ways to climb out of it.