Working For Yourself Pt.2: Choosing a Skill to Learn
In Working For Yourself Pt.1: How To Earn Money From Other People, we learned that in order to become a freelancer, we need to turn ourselves into a value-producing system, by learning a skill, getting experience with it, and using it to add value to other businesses, in a way that earns them more money than they’re paying you.
The next step is to choose the skill you’re going to learn, get experience with, and eventually become an expert in.
We touched on two important lessons in Part 1:
1: There are no ways to easily make money, get rich quick, or ‘get to the top’ without hard work.
The only way most of us will put in hard work, is if we’re doing something that we’re passionate about.
The next step on your journey to becoming an independent freelancer is choosing a skill to excel at; one that you’re passionate about.
There is a lot on offer in the 21st century. You can book a plane ticket online right now and be almost anywhere in the world within 24 hours. You can watch any kind of content online that you want, and there are over 20,000 types of tea to try.
There is far too much to do on this planet in one life time. This includes skills that you can enjoy and master. Most people looking to learn a skill will fall into two groups; They can’t find a skill that they want to master, or, they can’t choose one skill to master from the many that they enjoy.
Let’s look at some methods for either finding the one, or narrowing it down to one.
Find what’s at the core of activities you enjoy doing.
Follow along with this exercise.
Begin by opening a blank document on your computer, or getting a pen and paper. Write down all of the activities that you enjoy doing. Try to get at least five down on paper; the more the better.
Here’s mine from a few years ago:
- Web design
- Graphic design
- Playing the drums
- Listening to music
- Playing video games
- Exploring nature
Take a few hours of coming back and adding to the list, or even a few days; once you spend some time at this, your subconscious will work through your memories and every so often an activity you hadn’t thought of will rise up into your conscious.
Once you’re happy with your list, your next challenge is to find a common theme to as many of them as possible.
Here’s what is common to mine: Communication.
Communication is at the center of most of those activities. What I do for my career is now largely communicating, 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 company offers, and the value they will get by buying it.
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.
There are other skills involved in my work, but this is at the core.
Once you know what’s at the core of what you enjoy, you can start exploring skills & careers that make a lot of use of it.
Looking at potential careers
Next, create a list of careers, a mix of ones that involve activities you enjoy, and the skill (or skills) at the core of those activities. Again, take as much time as you need, and take periods of rest to do other things in order to let your mind mull over this task.
Once this is done, your next task is to narrow down the list. I got a whiteboard sheet, stuck it on my bedroom wall, and listed out all the careers on it that I was considering doing.
Every morning, I spent a few minutes thinking about it, and every couple of days, I’d cross an item off my list, having given it some thought.
When you’re down to the items you can’t strike off, you need to get more information to strike off more. 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 even bring you in for work experience. As mentioned in Part 1, you need to make more information available to the decision making systems in your mind, buy giving them more facts and experiences. If you’re interested in graphic design, start sketching with pencil & paper, and try out 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.
AlternativeTo is a great website for finding free alternatives to paid software.
And for anyone looking to start out in photography or videography, most modern smartphones have a good enough camera to get you started.
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.
Barriers to Entry
It’s worth considering how high the barriers to entry are for your chosen 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. 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.
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 & working before the skill can support you on its own.
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, make the momentum easier to keep up.
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 should plan to spend a certain amount of hours each week working on your new 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.
There are also websites for learning online that do set out a path.
LinkedIn Learning is one of these. The price is around €19 per month (varies by country), 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, here’s mine:
If you can afford it, and have the disciple to use it every day, I think LinkedIn Learning is worth it. You won’t have to hunt around online figuring out what to learn and how; this takes care of that for you.
Another option for online learning is Udemy.
While I haven’t used this myself, I’ve heard great things about it from people who have.
It is cheaper than LinkedIn Learning; you buy a course once and have access to it for life, as opposed to paying monthly for access to all content that you lose when you stop paying. This is an advantage; with so many courses available to you on LinkedIn Learning, it’s easy to branch out into a lot of courses. Udemy narrows your focus to just the one you spend money on.
The main advantage of these paid courses 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.
At the end of the day, it’s down to you to work out how you want to learn. A good option is to find online communities of people learning, or who have already learned, the skill you’re interested in; online forums, Facebook groups and reddit subredddits. Ask these communities how they learned the skill themselves, what online resources they found to be of help, etc.
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.
The Next Steps
Take however much time you need to settle on a skill to learn; one you are willing to commit to six to twelve months of learning & practicing, and another twelve months or so of building a reputation for great work and building a network of happy clients.
This is an estimate of how long the process might take if you’re diligently working on your skill for about two hours a day, five to six days a week. It could take longer or shorter depending on your existing experience, how quick you learn, and how high the barriers to entry are.