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Table Of Contents  The Online Freelancing Guide
 >  Introduction - Online Freelancing Overview, Options, Opportunities and Challenges
      >  Handling the Psychological Challenges of Online Freelancing

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Maintaining a Positive Attitude and Avoiding Bitterness
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Standing Up for Yourself - Being a Professional, Not a Patsy
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Avoiding Emotional Decision-Making

A sad reality of the business world is that a large percentage of small businesses fail within the first year or two. What’s even more unfortunate, though, is that so many of these failures didn’t have to happen. Many people assume that businesses fail because their owners didn’t work hard, or the concept behind the business was poor, or they didn’t have customers. But many close despite having great potential because of bad management, which often takes the form of emotional decision-making that leads to other problems.

The impact of poor decision-making is felt across nearly every type of business in existence, even ones that are completely different. To give you an example, I’ll confess to a guilty pleasure: I like to watch the television show Kitchen Nightmares. As the primary “chef” in my family and someone with an interest in management, I find it entertaining to watch firebrand chef and businessman Gordon Ramsey go into failing restaurants and try to turn them around. Even though the proximate causes are obvious in nearly every episode—usually substandard food and service leading to customers staying away in droves—what’s much more interesting is the root cause, the reasons why the food and service are poor in the first place. More often than not, the real problem is the attitude of, and decisions made by, the owners of the restaurant. Rehabilitating these businesses requires Ramsey to spend more time playing psychologist than either chef or businessman.

I see exactly the same thing happen all the time with freelancers. Here too, the immediate problems with unsuccessful freelancers are always the same: not enough projects, too much time spent for the amount of money earned, and so forth. But underlying these surface issues, the root cause is often emotional decision-making that hampers the freelancer’s efforts and makes achievement difficult or impossible.

Ironically enough, poor decisions can be caused by both excessively negative and exces­sively positive emotions. Here are a few examples of common emotion-based mistakes that I see in the world of freelancing:

  • Leaping Before Looking: You see a project listing and it seems like a fun job, and the client has a reasonable budget that means you can make a lot of money in a short period of time. You dive in with a proposal, win the project, and only then realize that you completely misread the requirements: it’s going to take you 20 hours to do the work instead of the five you thought it would when you placed your bid. Been there, done that...

  • Ego Overload: I have seen many freelancers never get off the ground because they pick a number that they decide represents what they should be paid on an hourly basis, and stubbornly refuse to work for anything less. They usually have unrealistic ideas of what their services are worth, and are unwilling to accept that they are now in a new environment where wages may be lower, and where they must prove themselves. They actually get upset at suggestions that they be flexible in their bids in order to establish a feedback record; they make comments indicating how “insulted” they are at the rates clients are offering. Some of these folks could eventually work their way up to charging what they initially wanted, but due to their overconfidence, they end up quitting freelancing before even getting a single project.

  • Pigeonholing: Some contractors get into trouble because they define an extremely narrow scope of work that they’re willing to do, and refuse to accept anything else. They put themselves into a box and are unwilling to consider bidding on projects that are a bit different than they’ve done before, even though they are perfectly capable of doing them. They’re afraid of failure and convince themselves of limits that are entirely in their own heads.

  • Not Listening to Clients: I’ve encountered freelancers who win a project and forget that the client is the customer and that the freelancer’s job is to do what he or she wants. This sometimes happens because once the contractor gets involved in the project, he or she starts to think that he or she has better ideas about how it should be done than the client. Well, that may actually be true, but the client is the one paying for the work. If you think your way is better, convince the client. If you can’t, then your idea, by definition, isn’t better for that client. Engaging in a battle of wills over project requirements is never productive.

  • Being Manipulated by Clients: This is the opposite of the preceding point and also quite common: contractors who allow themselves to be pushed around because they are afraid of standing up to clients that are either unwittingly being unreasonable, or are intentionally abusive. See the next topic for a more complete discussion.

  • Blaming Others for One’s Problems: I occasionally run across freelancers who have multiple bad feedback ratings from past clients, but steadfastly refuse to consider that they might be responsible: all you hear are excuses and attempts to blame the other parties. It’s normal for experienced freelancers to run into a client who gives an unfair review, or even to have a bad experience where they get an odd bad review that they deserve. But if you are getting many negative reviews, and in particular if the complaints follow a pattern in what they complain about, this is a sign that you need to change how you do business.

  • Taking Things Too Personally and Responding Emotionally: There are a lot of frustrations associated with being a freelancer, most caused by clients, but very few of which are anything personal, and none of which justify an emotional response. They’re just part of doing business. The client who tries to get you to lower your bid, or tries to play your proposal off a competitor to see if you’ll do it cheaper, or who disappears without awarding the project even though he said he liked your proposal—they are just acting in their own best interests. It may not be the best way of conducting business, but it’s not personal. Getting angry will never solve anything, and could lead to embar­rassment later on. (Nothing puts egg on your face quite like chewing out a client for not replying to emails, and then finding out he had a death in the family. And no, that one is not a personal story, fortunately—I’m glad I don’t have to learn everything the hard way. :) )

  • Penny-Wisdom, Pound Foolishness: This is a very common one: the freelancer who tries to “economize” in the worst ways imaginable. They refuse to buy monthly memberships on freelancing sites because they “aren’t sure it’s worth it”, saving a few dollars at the cost of severely restricting their bidding ability; they decide not to bid on a project because they might “run out of bids”, even though it costs less than a buck to buy another; they skimp on gear or software that is necessary to do their work, hamstringing themselves in the process; and so on.

Yes, I realize not all of these points are entirely due to emotion-based decision making—some are just people being flatly dumb. :) But you get the general idea.

What’s particularly insidious about emotional decision-making is that, by its very nature, it is hidden. People often don’t realize they are engaging in these behaviors, nor see how it is harming their freelance careers. Ironically, it is easy to see these actions in others, and not realize that you are doing them as well. This is why it’s important, when you’re having a problem, to take a step back and try to figure out what if anything you could do differently next time.

Let me be clear that I don’t think emotions are bad. They are neither good nor bad, really, they just are: what’s important is what you do with them. Getting excited about a new project isn’t a problem—bidding on it without exercising due diligence is. Having high standards for the projects you take and the rate you’ll work for is no big deal—unless this means you get so few projects that you get frustrated to the point of giving up. Saving money is great—but not to the point where you miss out on hundreds of dollars of projects to save ten bucks a month.

Finally, there’s one emotion that I think you should pay special attention to, and that’s “gut feelings”—especially if they are negative. If you’re going through a negotiation with a client for a project, and the entire time you’re doing it something “feels wrong”, it probably is. I realize that this may seem to contradict everything that I said above, and I’m not suggesting you should always follow these instincts, but you should listen to them. I’ve done projects where my gut was telling me to run away, and I ignored it and the project turned out alright. But more often than not in these cases, I regretted disregarding what my subconscious mind was telling me. Over time, you’ll get better at listening to these cues, and deciding which ones to listen to and which ones to set aside.


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