Every time you turn around, there’s an article out there telling you “specialists do it better.” As creative professionals, our businesses are often a work-in-progress. It takes time to figure out where you want to go, but the process of getting there may make the destination look very different from what you imagined. In the end, it all amounts to how you want to define your freelance self.
In the past few weeks, I’ve worked through Summer Pierre’s The Artist in the Office and Emilie Wapnick’s The ‘Undeclared For Life’ Manifesto and I’ve reached two conclusions. I realized that 1) there are plenty of people out there like me who have no interest in having only one focus in their freelance careers, and 2) even though you share a similar outlook on life and vocation, you can be complete opposites in philosophy and execution.
I’m never going to be a specialist or have a niche. Not because I’m scatterbrained or can’t pick just one area of focus, but simply because I don’t want to. I have a knack for interpreting and re-interpreting pharmaceutical research and medical technology information, but I would never want the majority of my business to rely on that for my bread-and-butter.
I love the arts scene and everything that comes with it: theatre, dance, fashion, poetry, museums, film, literature, music and more. However, anything dealing with the entertainment industry can be emotionally exhausting.
Then, there are the topics I fancy that I have yet to tackle professionally: gender-issues, race and ethnicity, fitness and diet, and the intersectionality of gender, race and health as it is portrayed in pop culture versus reality. And I won’t even go into the Gonzo subject matter that runs through my brain on any given day. Ultimately, I want to cover it all.
The typical reaction to my revelation is that no specialist ever truly specializes. Those with a primary focus in their freelance work occasionally take one-off jobs or side projects unrelated to their specialties. The problem is I don’t want any of my writing or editing projects to be “one-offs” or “side projects,” and I don’t feel they should have to be.
It’s akin to telling an actor that she’s only a comedic actress or he’s only an action star. The reality is most true actors (not movie stars) can do it all. They can do comedy, drama, action, horror, family, war, etc., but it’s the industry and the public that insists that Denzel Washington can only do drama or that Amy Poehler can only do comedy.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean our talents and interests should be limited to only one focus. Just as Diane Burrell is incredibly successful focusing her genius and skills on a specialized area, Emilie Wapnick is just as successful billing herself as a multipotentialite who explores a host of topics where her knowledge and talent are evenly matched.
As I’ve mentioned many times here on my blog, I am a firm believer in doing what works best for you. Yes, listen to those whom have a wealth of experience, but remember it is their experience, not yours. Your path need not follow their path.
Some freelancers switch specialties every 3 to 5 years, but that is still much too static for me. In Pierre’s book, she asks the reader to envision their ideal life, and from the freelance business perspective, my ideal includes a vibrant mix of assignments. In one month, I saw myself handling projects such as:
- Writing two blog posts per week covering new medical technology for the in vitro diagnostic industry
- Producing a playbill for a local indie theatre troupe
- Editing a conference paper on the importance of diabetic education in South Asia
- Penning web copy for a Brazilian/Ethiopian fusion restaurant
- Proofreading a poetry anthology for an independent press
- Writing a 1500-word feature on patriotism in American communities of color.
To many people, my ideal freelance life is a fantasy unattainable by any current definition of success. Why? Because they insist no one will hire you unless you maintain a limited scope, marketing yourself will be a nightmare, and any potential clients will be confused about who you are and what you can do for them.
However, I’m not convinced that a potential client is only interested in a freelancer whose work is focused on one or two topics. Potential clients simply want to know if you can deliver what they’re looking for. Have you ever written a 20-page white paper before? Do you have any clips related to biotechnology? Can you produce enough research for a 2000-word article on the Tlingit tribe’s marriage customs? Potential clients don’t run the other way because you write, design or produce other projects unrelated to what they’re scouting for.
Unfortunately, plenty of people out there will tell you there’s only one way to be successful and the blueprint usually matches their own. So if I define myself as a content creator with the editorial tenacity of a literary Ron Swanson, I will certainly be destined for failure if that content isn’t one note. Well, I refuse to believe that, and it’s nice to find others who share my perspective.
One of the biggest attractions to the world of freelancing is never feeling constrained to follow someone else’s rule book. We’re all free to define ourselves and our businesses and no one definition is supreme. Whether you define yourself as a generalist or a specialist or a multipotentialite, success will come when you craft your business as a true reflection of your talent and passion.
What projects would your ideal freelance life include?
Does your business accurately reflect your skills and interests?