Freelancers in Different Industries Agree on What Skills Are Critical for Success

You may be aware of the 3 distinct challenges that freelancers can expect to encounter:

These challenges are often unforeseen by freelancers when they start their independent careers, so being aware of them helps protect aspiring freelancers from being blindsided. That’s part of the equation for success, but just being prepared isn’t enough. You also need the skills to adapt to and overcome challenges, because they tend to be persistent in nature.

Fortunately, the freelancers we interviewed and surveyed also shared with us their insights about the specific skills that were critical to their success. We’ve highlighted 7 in particular and aligned them to CCL’s Compass competency framework:

  1. Flexibility: Anyone entering the freelance world with the notion that they can “plan their work, and work their plan” is in for a rude awakening. Where you start is without a doubt not where you will end up. And more often than not, the choice to deviate from the path you set won’t be yours. The needs of your customers, and sometimes events beyond your control, will eventually lead you in new directions. Those who stubbornly resist and try to stick to a chosen path set themselves up for frustration and risk falling behind the marketplace. Only a lucky few succeed by “Doing it my way.” On the contrary, most freelancers welcome the opportunity to pursue new paths. As one explained: “I cannot stay in my comfort zone!”
  2. Learning Agility: People who are learning agile excel at gleaning lessons from their experiences. They then take the lessons they’ve learned and adapt them to succeed in new situations. Put another way, they’re talented at knowing what to do when they don’t know what to do. That pretty much sums up the life of a freelancer. One approach favored by learning agile freelancers is to adopt a rapid prototyping mindset. When faced with situations that are initially confusing, they jump right in and start trying out different approaches. By engaging in an ongoing set of small-scale experiences, they get a better sense for what works (and what doesn’t) and develop confidence over time.
  3. Relationship Management: Many are drawn to freelance careers by the opportunities for freedom and being your own boss. But being on your own doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. Unfortunately, for some, freelancing can be a lonely pursuit. Instead of relying only on yourself, try proactively engaging with others and building a diverse community of relationships. A rich and thriving community can be a source of many things for a freelancer.
  4. Resilience: Just about anyone will tell you that freelancing isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires grit, discipline, stamina, and composure to deal with all the ups-and-downs, uncertainties, and head-spinning changes that come with the territory. Inner strength and calm are necessities even when things are going well. Then there are the inevitable bad times. That’s when resiliency really shows its worth. Resilient freelancers tackle failure head on. They don’t brush it aside or seek to place blame. They look at it as a necessary (albeit painful) part of the process of being successful. By taking a clear look at their actions and opening themselves up to new insights, they seize negative experiences as an opportunity for growth.
  5. Risk-Taking: Being a freelancer is essentially one long exercise in risk-taking. The decision itself to become a freelancer — especially if you’re coming from a more traditional work background — is a risk. No longer are steady paychecks, designated roles. and corporate goals a part of your day-to-day. One veteran freelancer put it this way: “Risk is the biggest thing. You have to be comfortable with that. You can’t get hung up on things like ‘When will I get my next paycheck?’ or ‘Who will I be working with on this project?’” Living the freelance life leaves a lot to chance, but framed differently, it opens the door to taking risks and coming out ahead. 
  6. Self-Awareness: A big part of being a successful freelancer is being able to effectively sell yourself and what you have to offer. A key element of selling yourself is projecting authenticity. A big part of being authentic is knowing yourself. For many, becoming a freelancer is a transformative experience. One freelancer observed that, “You need time to figure out who you are when you’re not working full-time for a company.” And given the dynamic nature of their work, many freelancers find that the answer to “Who am I?” is a constantly evolving one that requires constantly taking a fresh look. Savvy freelancers find ways to transform a keen sense of self-awareness into a compelling personal brand.
  7. Tolerating Ambiguity: Life as a freelancer can be like sailing on an open ocean with no land in sight. The rolling waves, the faint horizon, the occasional blanket of fog; it can all make it difficult to determine where you’re going, let alone how to get there. Not surprisingly, some people find themselves paralyzed in the face of uncertainty. Successful freelancers accept it for what it is and try not to waste precious energy fighting it or wishing it away. They tune into the compass they carry inside of them and trust their intuition. They also bring others in to help them chart a path. As one freelancer put it, “No doubt that if you are facing a challenge, someone else has had that same experience and you can learn from it.”

This is a selective list, so by no means is it exhaustive or definitive. Explore the more than 40 additional competencies contained in the Compass framework to see what insight and guidance they can provide.

Learn more about how you can be a successful freelancer with our webinars about cultivating a leadership network and building a stronger personal brand.

2 thoughts on “7 Competencies That All Freelancers Need

  1. Kaylin Larson says:

    I love how it talks about how it can be scary to take risks. You may not know when your next paycheck will be, but it opens new doors that can help you get to something better.

  2. Emily Larson says:

    I love the part in relationship management where the author says,”Being your own boss doesn’t always mean you have to do it alone”. There are always people there to help you.

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