You're going to have to find a skill that you enjoy in order to be a happy, successful freelancer. This post will help you how to find that magical but elusive skill.
First read The Work Equation.
You should now understand how a freelancer makes money: Through gaining education and experience, they turn themselves into a value-producing system, by becoming proficient with a skill, or set of skills, to the point that they can create value for other people: business owners and consumers. These business owners and consumers need to feel or know that they are getting value for their money in order to pay for your services.
All of that is going to be a lot of hard work. From learning a skill, to figuring out how to sell it as a service when the world is full of competitors who are better than you, to making sure you pay the right amount of tax to the government - freelancing is not easy. This is one of the reasons that there are more employed people than self-employed people in the world. If it's going to be hard, you had better enjoy it at least!
And unfortunately, There are no shortcuts.
How to Find a Skill You Enjoy:
First, what do I mean by skill: It's something you learn to do, a task or series of task, that you get better at with repetition. To narrow it down further, we're after marketable skills, skills that society finds useful because they can produce something of value. So there is a balance to be struck here: You need to enjoy it, but it has to be something that a business or consumer will pay for. In general, I encourage you to place more importance on what it is that you enjoy. But you also need to be realistic about your chances of making a successful career out of it; after all we are talking about your livelihood here, the way in which you are going to pay your bills and your rent, go on holidays, and possibly start and look after a family down the line. If you're in doubt about your odds of starting a career out of a certain skill, turn to the internet for advice, and find people who are practicing this skill as a career and talk to them.
With the definition out of the way, here are some methods.
1: Find what is at the core of everything you enjoy.
Grab a pen and paper and write down everything you enjoy doing. Everything! Skills, activities, hobbies, pastimes, anything you spend time doing that you enjoy. Think back into the past too and write down things you might not do anymore but did in the past and got enjoyment from. Ideally, work on this a few times a day over a few days, so that your subconscious can chew on it for a while. Ask close friends and family to help you with your list as they will likely spot a few things that you missed.
With your list assembled, here is your challenge: to find the one thing that links them all. There might not be one thing for all of them if it's a long and/or diverse list, in which case you want to find something common between most of them, or maybe just between the most important ones.
As an example, here was my list:
- Music - singing and drumming.
- Acting: Dramas, plays.
- The internet, IT, computers, coding.
- Design: Graphic design, web design.
- Videography and photography.
- Playing multiplayer video games and board games
- Climbing, exploring nature, swimming
- Business and entrepreneurship.
What I found was common to most of mine, especially the ones most relevant to business, is communication. Communicating a song to an audience. Communicating the emotions and feelings of my character on the stage of a musical. Communicating brand values through a new logo. Communciating a businesses offerings through a new website.
Indeed, what I now do for my work mostly involves communicating information in an effective and value-producing manner:
- I communicate to business owners that they can benefit by getting a website made or improving their existing one.
- I communicate to them how the website building process will go, what’s in the contract they have to sign, and what they can expect as the end product. This minimises misunderstandings.
- I build a website that communicates to visitors what this business is about, what it sells, why it is good at what it does, etc.
I communicate information by using my technical knowledge to set up a fast and secure website, by using my design knowledge to make it look appealing so that people will stick around to be communicated to, and I communicate information to the website’s visitors effectively by structuring the content clearly and concisely so that they can easily find what they want.
Put the effort in
You need to spend the time working on this because you are a complex human being - we all are! If we all knew what we liked and disliked, what we wanted to do as a career, the world would be a much simpler place. But we don't, so we have to put the work in. You literally need to pick up a pen and start writing. Your brain is a system, and to make an accurate decision, a system needs more useful information. So when you are done writing, you need to add more information to your decision making system by going out into the real world and actually doing the things you are considering doing as a career
If your list doesn't contain anything that you would consider a business skill, or a sellable skill, check again or ask someone to look at it - there are multiple ways to turn any given skill into something you can sell. Consider being a musician. You can
- Play gigs for money
- Teach others to play the instrument, in person or via an online course
- Sell stock music/tracks/loops online
- Become a session musician or musician in an orchestra
If your list doesn't contain anything you would consider a sellable skill, then try to use what's at the core of them to work out some skills that you might be interested in.
After a few hours, or days, you should have a list of possible skills. Don't consider it fixed/static, you can always come back to add to it.
2: Whittling down the list.
You now need to make your list smaller, to reduce it to a couple of items, maybe three to five.
To start with, put your list somewhere you will see it a lot - an A4 page on a door, bigger if possible. Maybe in a notebook you read regularly. I got some whiteboard sheets that you can stick on a wall and write on - I put it on my bedroom wall above my desk and wrote out my list, which looked like this:
- Graphic designer
- Web designer
- IT security
The idea here is that you will see this list, once a day but ideally more, to get your subconscious working on it. Spend some time each day actively thinking about the list too, imagining yourself in these various roles, playing it out in your mind. Stike off items one by one. As you go about your day you will find your subconscious mind making judgements on these options as it thinks them through.
When you’re down to the items you can’t strike off just by thinking through them, you need to go out into the world and learn more about the remaining options. Get onto YouTube and find videos about what the remaining careers are like. Find people in these careers who are willing to answer some of your questions by email, meet you for coffee, or bringing you in for work experience. As mentioned earlier, you need to make more information available to the decision making systems in your mind, by giving them more facts and experiences. If you’re interested in graphic design, start sketching with pencil & paper, and play around with some free graphic design software. Digital skills like graphic design, web design, copy writing, video editing, etc, are easy to start trying out because there’s a wealth of free software available online.
And that’s about as much advice as I can give you here. You now need to go out into the world and find something that you’re passionate about – passionate enough to climb the mountain of learning required to turn the skill into a value-producing activity. Only you will be able to decide which skill is right for you. Be inquisitive, be explorative, really dive in to each of the remaining skills and find out which one you enjoy the most. It's best to get as close as possible to the right skill, right now, instead of down the line. Down the line you will have invested time and money into it. That being said, there is always room to change in the future, to pivot into something similar, or completely different. For example, User Experience Design is a part of web design, but it is a whole field in and of itself, so it would be pretty easy for me to go into it from web design.
Barriers to Entry
It’s worth considering how high the barriers to entry are for your chosen skill. Learning about the barriers to entry of a skill you are considering will help you to work out the time & financial investment required, as well as long you can expect to be studying & gaining experience before you can support yourself working as a freelancer with that skill.
These are attributes of the industry related to the skill that can make it difficult to begin earning a profit from it. As an example, being a carpenter has a high barrier to entry in the form of the thousands of euros of equipment that you need to start producing high-quality products. Being a graphic designer, on the other hand, requires less money to be spent on equipment.
Industries that require a degree have a high barrier to entry in the form of having to study in college for several years. Most accountants and engineers need to have a college degree - such is the nature of the industry. Becoming a doctor or surgeon, in many countries, requires a very high level of intellect, as the exams are often very difficult, due to the nature of the work – operating on people.
Becoming a professional athlete requires you to have a very high level of physique and athleticism – this is a barrier to entry.
Do your research and find out exactly what would be involved - how much time and effort it will take to become a profitable freelancer with your chosen skill.
Keeping up Motivation
One of the difficulties in trying to learn a new skill online, or physically, on your own, is keeping up motivation and momentum. A big advantage of going to college is that being in a class with other students, having a scheduled timetable, and (hopefully) learning from enthusiastic lecturers, helps you to progress through the course. You have a course plan set out over several semesters, and the momentum of being in a college where everything is constantly moving makes it easier to progress and learn.
On the other hand, learning a skill yourself brings with it less momentum. You can take a day off, a week off, a month off, and there’s no one to stop you. Sure, you can do this in college too, but the time & financial commitment, and being with a group of other students, makes it easier to stay on the straight and narrow.
You can counteract this by finding a friend who is also working on learning a new skill, and keeping each other accountable. There’s a reddit group, GetMotivatedBuddies, where you can look for people online to become your ‘accountability partner’, pushing each other to work on your goals.
Or, you might already have the self-discipline to do this already. Either way, you need to find a way of keeping up momentum and motivation - the better you are at this, the sooner you will be able to make a living from your chosen skill.
Following a Learning Path
Another benefit of college is that you have an entire course of content, tests & projects set out before you. You are learning specific material, in a specific order, that has been designed by experts in that particular field. If you follow this path diligently, you should be employable in that field by the end of your degree.
Learning a skill online is a little harder; there isn’t a clear path set out. There will be, however, suggested paths that people have followed and put online, that you can search out and follow.
As part of figuring out if a skill is going to suit you or not, you should look into what's involved in learning it. You should be able to figure out a rough plan, a basic 'table of contents' of what's involved turning that skill into a profession. Again, you have YouTube videos and many websites & blogs at your disposal. You can reach out to people who are already working in this area with any questions you have about what's involved in learning it. If the skill is taught in college, you can look at what those colleges are listing as the curriculum for these skills
There are also websites for learning online that set out such a path LinkedIn Learning is one of these. The price is around €30per month (varies by country), so it's more expensive than popular platforms like Udemy but their video tutorials are very high quality, the instructors are motivating, and they have Learning Paths for studying entire skills, here’s a sample of some of them:
- Become a Digital Marketer
- Become an SEO Expert
- Become a Manager
- Become a Small Business Owner
- Become a Digital Illustrator
- Become a Graphic Designer
- Become a Photographer
- Become a Video Editor
- Become a Data Scientist
- Become a Front End Web Developer
- Become a Full Stack Web Developer
A nice feature is that when you complete a course, it’s added to your LinkedIn Profile.
If cash is tight, Udemy has a great selection of courses, usually €15, and once you buy access to one you get to keep it, whereas you lose access to LinkedIn Learning once you stop paying the monthly fee. But if you can afford the €31 a month, I recommend LinkedIn Learning, as the quality of teaching on it is very high. I was using LinkedIn Learning back when it was called Lynda.com, a separate company. LinkedIn bought it, probably after asking 'What is the best online learning platform we can buy?' It sold for $1.5 billion, which is a good indicator of how good their content is!
The main advantage of these paid options is that a professional is laying out a learning path for you. You can learn most skills by following a variety of free online tutorials, on YouTube and other websites, but this is more difficult to do as you might not be learning the most up-to-date information, or learning the material in the right order.
Again, this brings us back to improving your decision making. Ultimately, you are alone in your endeavour to learn a skill and use it to produce value. But many have come before you who have already done so. They have made mistakes, found the best tools, and sought advice from those wiser than them – your job is now to learn from them to avoid the mistakes they made and to do what has worked well for them. Read what they’re advising, learn why they are advising it, and use this to improve your decision making in order to reach your end goal faster.
Actively participating in such a community can help with the previously mentioned difficulty of keeping up momentum.