We learn how to strategize thanks to a variety of methods. Sometimes we learn by reading (Sun Tzu’s Art of War), by trial and error (playing chess), or by mimicking others who came before us (creating plays for our recreational football team). But if you’re like me and you’ve never read Art of War, can’t play chess worth a damn, and just embarrass yourself in any sport involving throwing, running or catching, where are you to turn?
Enter TV’s favorite burned spy, Michael Westen.
He’s spent the last four seasons of the hit TV series Burn Notice trying to get back into the good graces of his former job at the CIA. Along the way, he’s taught us ordinary folk at home how to be prepared for anything. Some hear his tips as just another fun-loving asset in a pulp TV show aimed at lending a bit of veracity to the action-drama’s premise. But not me.
Over time, I’ve taken some of Westen’s words to heart, not only to weather life’s unpredictability, but to also prepare my freelance business for another year of challenges and growth. Here are just a few lessons I’ve learned:
Assess the Crisis Before You Act.
Threats come and go, and, sometimes, your speed and agility are the only things that get you through a tough period. But acting without a full assessment of what’s happening around you and why, can easily lead you to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Freelancing has its hairy times too. (Nothing life-threatening, I hope.) Last-minute changes, eroding client relationships and unforeseen errors can easily get the best of us. Even though it’s always best to respond quickly, sometimes it’s best to pause, review and brainstorm before you act. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse. And sometimes it’s possible to take a chaotic situation, turn it around and then use that experience to move closer to where you need to be.
Create a Go Bag.
Medicine, food, warm clothes, batteries and water are important items to have readily on hand should your mission fall apart. There may be times when you need to fall back and regroup.
But if you don’t have these items on hand should everything go to hell, remember the most valuable asset you have is you.
In the freelancing world, your “Go bag” includes the bare essentials you need to stay on your feet should your business fail through no fault of your own. Some freelancers create very distinct lines between their business assets and their personal assets; however, no matter how distinct those lines may be, if your business fails, it will affect your personal life. So make sure you have your necessities (food, lodging, healthcare, electricity, etc.) financially cared for should misfortune force you to close your doors.
Current events, politics, technology, novels and nursery rhymes all come in handy in the most unlikely situations. Not just when you have a mission to accomplish. According to Westen: “Nothing helps you recruit an asset more than information.” Absorb information from a variety of sources and in different formats. Don’t be afraid that you’re not reading the right things. All information can be tapped in the future for one purpose or another.
Information is the backbone of the creative freelancer’s business. Researching your client’s company and industry can help you ascertain what will work best for that new website design. A friendly anecdote about what sparked your article idea can help put a potential source at ease and open the floodgates to details that might’ve gone unsaid. Of course, if you hope to stay afloat in the 21st century, you have to dedicate time to learning about new software, new theories, new perspectives, etc. It’s unlikely you’ll know everything worth knowing about any one topic, but if you build relationships with people who devote their careers to knowing everything about one topic, you’ll make your job a lot easier.
Spies spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for an assignment, waiting for a window, waiting for the right detail to fall into place. Planning, acting and waiting are the 3, 2, 1 of espionage, and everybody has to do it. So your most important skill is patience. If you rush an operation and move ahead without the proper data, you can have a potential disaster on your hands.
It seems patience is rarely exercised in the world of freelance because our to-do lists seem never-ending. But quite the opposite is true. We have to be patient when dealing with vendors, clients and, yes, even colleagues. We must be patient when trying to decipher why our code doesn’t produce the result we need. We need to be patient developing, sending and awaiting responses to queries and proposals. Although my to-do list goes on and on, I know patience will carry me through, if for no other reason than I can’t do everything at once.
The differences between a career in espionage and a career in creative freelancing are far greater than the similarities, but that doesn’t stop me from taking Michael Westen’s spy lessons to heart. Granted, I don’t think I’ll need to tail another car or escape a military standoff anytime soon. However, I welcome any advice Michael, Sam, Fiona and Jesse may share on how to stay alive (read: open for business) a month, a year, a decade from now.