5 lessons I'm still learning about freelancing in my twenties

Emma Levin
Written by Emma Levin
on March 07, 2022 6 minute read

If I had chosen to go freelance sooner, I could have saved myself a few headaches. After college, I assumed I needed to make the “safe” career choice. One with a clearly defined path and an annual salary (a measly one at that). 

To my surprise, I received a lot of mistreatment and borderline abuse at the hands of my bosses. To this day, I often think about what I went through. Apparently, being good at my job meant I was a threat. The horror! 

Many of my superiors took every opportunity to remind me of my place in the hierarchy. I was berated for the wildest reasons. I was accused of going after my boss’ job, of “embarrassing them” for answering a question in a meeting, and countless other offenses I didn’t know I was making. After four years, I was done. There’s only so much indignity one person can take.

Going solo has always been a dream of mine, even before the workplace toxicity. Writing is my passion, and I didn't see a reason to put it off any longer. Freelance has given me the power to make my own schedule, choose meaningful projects, and answer to no one but myself.

But I would be lying if I said it hasn't been a struggle. Staring at a computer all day has made me go blurry-eyed, I’ve managed to get carpal tunnel, and my bank account is frighteningly low.

I might not be a superstar freelancer with a write-up in The New York Times, but there are a few things I’ve learned so far. I’ve learned there’s no magic recipe for success. Occasionally (or often), you’ll wake up at 5:00 a.m. to meet a deadline. And I’ve learned it’s only you who can define your level of success.

If you’re also over the grotesque size of your boss’ ego, then there might be another choice for you. As you take time to think about it, I can offer the five lessons in freelance I’m still learning today:

1. This isn't a get-rich-quick scheme

In the era of the Great Resignation, there are stories everywhere about making money online. I swear every day there's a new article about some freelancer earning $10,000 a month from Fiverr. Every time I open TikTok, people are spinning a tale about doubling their corporate salary in three months. 

Those success stories can put a lot of hope into your heart. You might even think, "Maybe that could happen to me!" The truth is, overnight success is reserved only for the chosen few. There's plenty of hard work and years of effort hidden behind the scenes. 

For me, there are early mornings, late nights, and an unhealthy amount of nail-biting. This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme (if one even does exist). I am hopeful one day I will replace my old 9-5 salary. But I don't doubt I'll make a few left turns along the way. I’m learning to embrace the hard work, the missteps, and the small but mighty incremental pay wages. Freelancing is hard work 一 don't let anyone sell you on anything different.

TLDR: A freelancer's monetary success can take years of experience, hard work, and smart marketing strategies. Do not let these get-rich-quick schemes fool you. You’re allowed to take time to build up your career, and possibly even work a second job to pay the bills at first.

2. So, what exactly do you do all day? (Learning to live with outside judgment)

Oh, you’re a freelance writer? So, you binge-watch Schitt's Creek all day? These types of questions or irritating assumptions make my head spin. But if I’m honest, I often find it difficult to explain what I do every day. I’m still learning how to be confident in my elevator pitch and turn a blind eye to judgmental looks.

Sometimes, it can feel like the judgment is hitting you from all sides. Whether it be an old coworker, best friend, or even your own family member. I don’t exactly blame them, freelance can be a difficult concept to understand. 

When people ask what I do, I tell them I play all the roles of marketer, accountant, writer, office manager, assistant and many more. This is usually the point when their eyes bulge out of their head.

Some people like to think freelancing is synonymous with “free time.” But those of us on the inside know all about the blood, sweat and tears that go into our profession. Our hours are blurred together, and sometimes I'm writing a late-night email to a client half a world away.

I’m still learning that there’s no reason for me to feel defensive, and that outside judgment has no place in my business at all.

TLDR: Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether the judgment is real or fake. Do your old coworkers secretly wish your downfall? I don’t know, but whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter. Those people are not the ones living your life. You have to learn how to be secure in your decision-making. Own your freelance job! Which can mean setting boundaries with friends or frienemies who don't respect your decision.


3. They don't call it feast or famine for nothing

Nothing could have prepared me for the feast or famine that's so common with freelancing. Some days, I’m drowning in work.  Others… well, I guess the fridge needs cleaning? Your paycheck is not guaranteed, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. 

Many days, I'm anxious about how to land my next gig, and then out of nowhere, three new clients slide into my inbox. Now, I have no time to clean the fridge, and my days are jam-packed. 

Even when times are good, it's hard not to feel like the goodie bag won't run out. I’m still working on overcoming my poverty mindset. 

If I was a betting woman, I’d learn that every time I think I’m an utter failure, two new gigs land in my lap. I’m still testing this theory out. Please wait on incoming data.

TLDR: Don’t throw the whole prospect of freelance away for fear of the feast or famine. Consider taking the time to build up a safety net or a backup plan. Maybe even barista a few mornings during the week. Also, you don’t have to clean out the fridge every time your inbox is empty. Learn a new skill, take an online class, or finally set that website you've been too overwhelmed to start. You got this!  

4. The slow turtle wins the race

When I dreamt about choosing freelance, I fantasized about being in first place right out of the gate. I assumed I’d work with dozens of clients and earn $5,000 a month within my first three months. Oh, sweet summer child, in what universe? 

A major learning curve is realizing there’s a learning curve. Who would have guessed? I’m still learning that everyone has their own timeline, and it’s okay to not be in first place. 

I used to assume my number of clients and published works equated to my success. But there’s only so much we can control in this industry.

Freelancing can be really sloooooow. Some clients take forever to give me feedback, and others take their sweet time before publishing my work. Patience is a virtue — or at least that’s what I’ve been told. 

I’ve learned that if a project takes me eight hours instead of four, I can’t beat myself up over it. You learn to go at your own pace and how to take time off. It’s easy to forget that we schedule our own PTO days, and that rest is just as important as productivity. So, take that afternoon nap. It won’t make or break your business, I promise.

TLDR: Success takes time, and you can’t run like a warhorse 24 hours a day. Have savings in the bank to bring you some peace of mind. Better yet, start your freelance business while you still have a 9-5 and take all the time you need. Don’t forget about taking naps!  

5. Learn to surf the wave

Just like in regular old life, there are highs and there are lows. Even though we all know life would be better if we stayed perched on the mountain top.

One day, I can land a big-name client and feel on top of the world. And then the next, a project takes longer than expected, or my carpal tunnel flares up, and I'm lower than ever before.

It’s not easy to deal with the inevitable crash that is all too common in freelance. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that the lows are as certain as the highs. Good times always return, even when you’re convinced they won’t.

I’m learning how to trust my decision-making and brace myself for the next flow of abundance. So, be gentle with yourself and scan the horizon for the next wave to surf.

TLDR: Apologies to the organized planners out there (not me), but freelancing is not a clearly defined path. Meaning you can't control every tiny little detail the way you might like to. Flexibility (and breathing exercises) will get you far. Keep moving forward and one day, you'll reach stability amongst the lows and the highs.

Emma at Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Emma is currently traveling through Europe while working as a freelance writer.
Here she is taking in the sights at Pena Palace in Portugal.

About Emma

Emma is a freelance content writer living a nomadic life. She enjoys writing about spirituality, her travel mishaps, and women who rule the world. When she's not sitting behind a computer, she's chugging coffee, falling off her skateboard, or exploring whatever new location she's currently calling home. She uses Xolo Go to invoice her clients in the EU. 

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