Career Development for the Freelancer

As I noted in my personal blog recently, I spent some time at the AIAA Space Forum with another aerospace communicator, speculating on how I might advance my career in the future. Professional development as a freelance technical writer is a bit more challenging than for individuals employed by others, but it is not impossible. Much of it depends on what your priorities and goals are.

What Do You Want Out of Life?

Having lasted as a freelancer for nearly five years now, I’ve discovered that I like the lifestyle. Among other things, I like being able to shop for groceries at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday or getting any other errands done when it’s quiet. However, free time is not quite enough of a motivator for someone who constantly needs a challenge to keep himself happy.

Some individuals are not interested in “advancement,” preferring instead to perfect what they are able to do within their current position, content to keep the bills paid by supporting a reliable client or set of clients. I’m a little too restless for that, so what is the aspiring freelancer to do?

Advancement in the Full-Time Employment World

As a full- or part-time employee, you advance through one of several predictable paths:

  • Promotion to more responsible positions within your current specialty.
  • Increasing the scope of your position at your current position or at another employer:
    • More challenging work.
    • More responsibility/duties.
  • Promotion to managing other people.
  • Starting your own company.

In truth, you can do most of these as a freelancer as well.

Paths Toward Advancement for the Freelance Writer

However, what if you want more and you don’t work for anyone but yourself? For example, in the aerospace business, my options might include:

  • Seeking work with additional clients that interest me.
  • Working on more challenging or exciting content, which for me would probably include space policy development or training & development writing for astronauts exploring the Moon or Mars.
  • Becoming a consultant and helping aerospace companies formulate their proposals or content strategy.
  • Starting a business that incorporates my skills and those of others (graphic designers, editors, etc.).

I could, of course, go back and take a steady, full-time job with a company that is doing cool things as well. However, I’d need to think very hard about that, because I like my less-than-40-hour weeks and my Tuesday morning grocery shopping. I could also consider writing a book about the space industry or my experiences within it.

In any case, you can be an independent contributor and still find a path toward “more,” however you define it:

  • More money.
  • More responsibility.
  • More challenges/depth/knowledge.
  • More freedom.

A good thing to know about yourself before you go out on your own is whether you want to work independently or create your own organization. I’m an individual entrepreneur but am not interested in starting a full-fledged company that would have other people reporting to me. I am willing to accept responsibility for my work and contributions and, to some extent, my own paperwork (though I have an accountant handle my taxes). As a result, additional responsibility of that type is not a huge motivator for me.

Instead of forming a business, I could shift from contracting (working on tasks that others assign to me) to consulting (identifying tasks others can do to improve their business). That is more of a long-term goal, as I am still learning–even in my upper 40s–how I best add value and improve others’ business. Also, while consulting pays better, it’s more hands on, time intensive, and patience testing.

I’m not driven by money, per se, though I do try to keep my rates at a level that will keep my bills paid and that might allow me to take a vacation or retire at some point. The bottom line for me is that there comes a point where I’m making the amount of money I want without killing myself with crazy hours. I strive to balance financial “security” with freedom, which I’ve come to value more as I’ve gotten older.

“Development” for me, then, means taking on increasingly challenging content. That could include working on stuff that’s on the cutting edge of the space industry or developing more high-level content that shapes the spacefaring future I’m helping to create. In the end, I want my intellect challenged, not my free time or my sanity. The key to advancement as an independent contributor is to identify how you define success and then take steps to make that happen. I’m now in the process of pursuing my own path.

May your journey match your ambitions!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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