Sarah Townsend: Survival Skills for Freelancers

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Sarah Townsend is the author of Survival Skills for Freelancers, a bestselling guide for self-employed people worldwide, and has been a freelance copywriter for 22 years[ST1]. 

She helps companies stand out from the crowd with powerful and persuasive content. In 2020, she published Survival Skills for Freelancers, which provides an honest, friendly, and realistic perspective of self-employment and has already helped thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs across 20 countries worldwide.

What is the focus of your book?

I set out to create a book that dealt with the mindset challenges of self-employment because they’re not covered in most books. I start by telling my personal story for context. It’s important for readers to see why I should be the person to tell this story and how I’ve earned the right to share this advice.

The freelance community features heavily in the book, in the form of quotes, tips, and small case studies from over a hundred freelancers from various sectors and backgrounds.

I also talk a bit about the fundamentals of freelancing and the things you should know before deciding to work for yourself – things like how to stay focused, manage your time, and work from home effectively. I follow that by busting what I consider to be the eight myths of self-employment. Things like ‘going solo don’t mean going it alone and why networking, community and online connections are so important.

How do your readers perceive Survival Skills for Freelancers?

The feedback I’ve received has been astounding. People get in touch to say Survival Skills for Freelancers has transformed their freelancing lives. Some even say it’s given them the confidence to become a freelancer when they’ve been thinking about it for years but haven’t had the courage to take the leap.

One woman told me it had given her the confidence to view herself as more than simply a mother doing a bit of work on the side, and people regularly say reading the book is like having a comforting arm around their shoulder giving them reassurance and the courage to continue, and to do things better.

Not only does it provide readers with an insight into the mindset needed to become successful in self-employment, but many also keep it on their desks to dip into again and again. 

What advice do you have for aspiring or seasoned freelancers?

Firstly, the community is vital. We often feel isolated as freelancers, and there’s often a fear that we’re alone in struggling with the challenges we face, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. However independent or self-reliant you are, everyone needs that support and human connection. As Brene Brown says: “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering”.

Some freelancers choose to keep ‘the competition’ at arm’s length because they’re afraid these individuals will steal their ideas or poach their customers. Yet the people who do the same job often make the best community. They face the same challenges as you do and understand what you’re going through because they’ve been through it themselves.

Being part of a community of like-minded freelancers and entrepreneurs can be a real game-changer. I have a group of copywriter friends with a thriving WhatsApp group. We support one another with everything – personal and professional. With community comes support, advice, reassurance, collaboration, and often the chance of work, as others get to know you and your strengths and skills.

Another of the myths I bust in the book is based on the phrase, “if you do a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. It’s nonsense. We think that because we chose to go freelance – and because we love what we do – we shouldn’t have bad days. Yet the highs and lows are inevitable. We all get bad days, and we all struggle with self-doubt and imposter syndrome from time to time. You’re not alone, and it’s perfectly normal. The key is to know how to deal with it – and that’s where the book comes in. 

You mentioned imposter syndrome. Is it common in the freelance community?

Imposter syndrome is incredibly common. Thoughts like, “I don’t deserve my success”, “I feel like I’m faking it”, and “I’m afraid I’ll be discovered for not being good enough” can feel big and scary when you work alone. (If it’s any comfort, I’m rereading On Writing by Stephen King, and even he admits to these feelings!)

Everyone I spoke to in the process of writing Survival Skills for Freelancers – male and female, young and old, experienced, and inexperienced – had imposter syndrome at one time or another. The daft thing is, if we realised how common it is we’d find it a lot easier to deal with. Talking about it helps to normalise the feelings – and is just one of the six strategies I share in the book to beat imposter syndrome. 

What is one of the biggest things you’ve seen evolve in the freelancing industry recently?

One thing that stands out is a greater sense of acceptance, and why it’s more important than ever to be authentically yourself in business.

When I first went freelance – and for many years after – I tried to be ‘professional’ in a way that simply wasn’t me. I dressed a certain way, spoke a certain way, and acted a certain way. As a result, I never felt accepted for who I was – and I think people sense that.

In recent years, I started to embrace who I really am – my quirks, my idiosyncrasies and the things that make me who I am. As a result, I began to attract clients who wanted to work with someone exactly like me. Ultimately, your clients choose to work with you not because you’re the best at what you do but because they like you, you make their life easier, and you make the process enjoyable. You’ve got their back, and they can rely on you to do a great job.

Some people fear that being true to themselves will put people off, but that’s ultimately the aim of any marketing – to attract the right clients and to repel the wrong ones.

How should freelancers deal with competition?

Fear of ‘the competition’ comes from a scarcity mindset. When you’re confident in your ability, and you believe there’s plenty of work out there for everyone, you can embrace the competition. Make them your community. Learn from those who have gone before you. Learn from experienced individuals in your profession who are excellent at what they do. Learn from them, draw inspiration from them, but don’t compare yourself to them. We’re all at different places on our journey.

President Theodore Roosevelt was right when he said: “comparison is the thief of joy”, and Anne Lamott said: “never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides”. Social media isn’t real life – it’s edited highlights. Stay in your own lane and don’t get distracted by what others are doing. And remember to celebrate your own achievements along the way!

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