As free agents, we have so many challenges to contend with on a regular basis: growing a client base or viewership, technological hurdles, cash flow, legal battles, industry disruption, rapidly changing trends, globalization, the rise of AI (no joke!)…the list goes on.
However, the biggest challenge I believe is not something that’s outside of ourselves but is intrinsic to our very nature, and that is maintaining proper emotional health. The capacity to embrace an authentically positive attitude, along with the ability to resist reacting negatively to the bad stuff that comes up in life, is not only something that’s possible to cultivate but feels like a superpower when it kicks into high gear.
The primary way I’ve developed this ability is through mindfulness exercises and spiritual development. But before you jump into how to solve a problem like ill emotional health, you need to know how to spot the warning signs. Here are a few I’ve come across:
Some people are naturally optimistic. Other people are naturally pessimistic. I suspect most people generally shift back and forth depending on circumstance. I’m not here to tell you what your personality should be like—however, what should concern you is if you know you are normally an optimistic person but you find yourself in an increasingly pessimistic state of mind.
Does the phone ring and you instinctively seize up wondering if it’s bad news? Are you avoiding certain difficult tasks or conversations because you just can’t imagine it going well? Do you wake up in the morning and wonder what’s going to go wrong today? These are all signals that your typical personality is being hijacked by abnormal mental patterns.
Anger is a valid emotion that we rarely feel equipped to deal with in a healthy, productive way. Anger is how we react when we feel liked we’re under attack or wronged in some way. The question to ask yourself is, do you feel angry only when you are legitimately being violated in some major sense, or are you repeatedly getting angry over trivial matters?
This issue was what finally convinced me I was struggling with depression in 2014. I was growing concerned and a bit baffled why things that seemed objectively like not a huge deal would set me off. The last straw was when I got unjustifiably mad at my wife and drove off to my office in a terrible huff, and then I quickly realized I was on a path to ruining our relationship. It was a clear sign I needed to reevaluate my emotional health.
You’re going along, doing your thing, minding your own business, and suddenly you feel it coming on: the dreaded panic attack. Your heart starts racing, you feel a knot in your stomach, the walls start closing in…and the crazy thing is you can’t come up with a logical reason why you’re feeling this way.
The long-term effects of chronic stress are finally starting to come to light via the medical community, and it’s not pretty. If you’re used to working in conditions that are typically stressful, it’s only a matter of time before your emotional as well as physical health is severely impacted. Mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, and symptoms similar to impairment from alcohol or drugs will start to invade your every day. If it gets really bad, you may even experience abnormal symptoms in the organs and systems of your body.
I’m thankful my stress reactions never got too severe, but I was definitely struggling in this area (which certainly didn’t help matters as I tried to get out from under my cloud of depression).
If you are dealing with any or all of these issues, I strongly recommend taking a course of action. If you do nothing and expect things to change, that is a dangerous road. Here are some of your options:
Emotional health is just as important as physical health, and making your health a top priority is key to achieving outrageous success in life and especially as a free agent. When your performance on the job is directly tied to your income or appeal as a creator, as it is with so many of us, the most important thing you can invest in is yourself.
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Us highly creative people, we thrive on the start. Creating something brand new is a heady elixir. Whether it’s a new book or a new business, a new site or a new song—life simply bursts forth in endless possibilities. The only limitation is what’s in our skulls.
The passage of time is where the rubber meats the road. Work slows. Ideas grow thin. The intense sensations of excitement and perhaps a little fear give way to tedium. Difficulties, deadlines, and delays zap away all the fun.
That’s when The Thought occurs. Maybe this isn’t working out. Maybe I suck at this. Maybe nobody cares what I’m doing.
Maybe it’s time to start something new.
That’s always the answer, isn’t it? That thing you were once so excited about…well, the love is gone, man. Gone. If you could just…you know…start over again and try something new, all those amazing feelings of euphoria would return in an instant!
Us highly creative people, we all go through this cycle. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. If you’re going through this existential crisis right now, hear me out:
This is normal.
The first step to climbing up out of this funk is to let go of your guilt. Guilt over letting yourself down and letting other people down. Great art doesn’t materialize out of guilt. Great art is born of passion. If you decide to bail on a project gone awry, that is your choice. Don’t be afraid to let go and move on. (Bear in mind I’m not talking about work for hire here. If you’re under contract to provide a creative service, then the show must go on!)
The second step is to rediscover your passion. Take a step back from the daily grind of your creative endeavor and search for fresh inspiration. If you’re stuck musically, try looking for some new artists in a different genre than you normally listen to. If you’re trying to write an app and are in a bind, play a game or read a riveting biography. Do something to shake up your routine.
The third step is to come up with a list of reasons why you found this particular project so interesting in the first ploace. What initially drew you to blogging, or vlogging, or designing logos, or data-driven market research, or…? What was it that got your heart pumping? Write some thoughts down and shift your mindset.
If none of these techniques work and your enthusiasm remains elusive, then that’s a tell you should probably call it a day and move on. But if you find yourself feeling reinvigorated and rife with fresh insight, then you know you’re back on track.
Artistry doesn’t flourish under a microscope or on an assembly line. Give yourself permission to ride the ebb and flow of the creative process. There will be times when you’re leaping to crank out awesomeness, and there will be times when you’re dry. It’s OK. Understanding your strengths and limitations is a key milestone along the path to true mastery.
The greatest myth of striking out on your own as a freelancer or independent creator is that you’ll automatically escape the monotony of the 9-5 cubicle dweller. We think the relentless sense of pending doom and total lack of meaning in Dilbert, or The Office, or some satire of corporate business culture, won’t apply to us the moment we book our first client or post our first video on YouTube.
The truth is more nuanced then that. I’ve had fun, rewarding, meaningful moments working for the man. And I’ve had days of boredom, frustration, and discouragement working as a free agent.
However, the benefits of self-employment can’t be denied, and that is you have the ability to choose your own work. When you’re stuck in a job you hate, your only recourse might be to quit—easier said than done! But when you’re independent, if you feel stuck in a contract you hate or are flailing in the type of content you’re creating, you can mix it up at any time. Find another client. Try launching a new creative project. Take your business in a new direction and pivot, as they say in the Valley…(Silicon, that is).
My career as a freelance web designer and developer has gone through many such ebbs and flows over the years. There have been days when I’m ready to throw in the towel—more than I care to count. But I’ve grown to be extremely thankful for the freedom to control the destiny of my working life and the meaning and fulfillment I find in my career. When I help awesome clients accomplish great things for their organizations, it gives me a sense of purpose. I’m doing work that matters. We might not be saving the Arctic or curing cancer together, but we’re contributing to society in positive ways.
To me, that’s what success looks like.
What does success look like for you?
Well, it’s 2018 folks. Another full revolution around that giant nuclear fireball in the sky. Which means…a full refresh of the Pygmy Nuthatch website!
This brand new planning tool that my wife Rosemary and I developed will help you achieve fabulous success in 2018. It’s simple (only one page!) but very effective. The best part is, I’m providing it to you at no cost! Check out the link above to get started. I think you’ll love it.
However you plan out your new year (and you should), I hope it brings you happiness, prosperity, and a deeper sense of connection to the people close to you.
As I dive deeper into formulating marketing plans and writing sales copy for upcoming Pygmy Nuthatch projects, I’m becoming more keenly aware of the fact that there’s a LOT of spammy sales lingo out there. Even people I generally respect in the world of business and creativity fall into this trap sometimes.
For example, I won’t name names but I just deleted an email out of my inbox that started with this:
Something must have went wrong… Because we still need you to confirm your address for your FREE 6-part video <Insert Product Name Here>.
No sir, nothing went wrong. You don’t need me to confirm anything. I never requested this from you in the first place. I don’t care if your 6-part video is free. I’m just not interested in your product. Sorry!
Now I get why people send stuff out like this. I get why people put up landing pages with this kind of spammy sales lingo. They work! So do popup email subscription forms that websites thrust in your face and make you click X to close. Over and over again studies show that email signup popups convert very well.
But the question is, at what cost? Sure you might convert 2%, 5%, even 10% of your audience. But what if you’re also turning off 5% or 10% of your audience? What if you’re pissing off some of the very same people you’re trying to attract? What if your disrespect for your audience’s intelligence and your disregard for good user experience is actually working against you?
I know that I could start employing tactics on this blog right now that would bring me more email subscribers. I know I could start using my mailing list in certain ways to convert leads into customers and make real money. But I’m just not willing to go there.
I’m not comfortable with compromising my values to make a quick buck. It’s just not worth it. There are other ways to make an honest living. I would rather grow my audience and subscriber base organically and honorably. I would rather be known as the guy who is respectful of his audiences’ time and attention and who prizes good user experience over annoying sales techniques. And if that hurts me in the pocketbook in the meantime, so be it.
What are you doing in the pursuit of success as an independent creator? I’m not here to judge. But I encourage you to think through the decisions you make for your marketing strategies and how the ramifications of your ideas will affect real people.