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Does professional development apply to freelancers? We say yes.

There are a million and one opportunities floating out there nowadays, but how do you keep from getting overwhelmed by them? How do you know which ones are worth your time (and usually money) and which aren’t?

 It’s honestly pretty cut-and-dry. The things that will always be worth your time, no matter where you are in your career are: mentorship and workshops with creatives you admire. Though, it might help for me to separate out my advice for newer vs. more seasoned freelancers.

New Freelancers: What is Worth Your Time

What does it mean to “grow” as a freelancer? It’s not as simple as if you were to start working at a company where you could receive promotions and move up the ladder. The best way to know how you are improving is to always be re-evaluating your work and who you are working with. If you feel the quality of work you’re doing is improving, then increase your rates. If you are working with an increasing number of clients or more “impressive” clients (think Vogue or The New York Times), that is a good indicator that the outside world is seeing the work you are putting in, and you are improving. And, yes, you should increase your rates to reflect that.

  1. Mentorship

I really want to highlight this one because the knowledge and experience your mentor has is invaluable. Listen to their life story, their career trajectory, how they got to where they are today. This is the kind of one-on-one attention you wouldn’t be able to get at a seminar or probably any online development session. I recommend you come to them with questions ready and take notes. You won’t want to forget what they say.

  1. Workshops

This is the time in your freelancing career where it is a necessity to fine-tune your style and skills. This is also a good time to narrow in on what you want to make your “thing”. You can (and should) always try new things, but if you have a strong interest in something, it’s a good idea to strengthen your portfolio on that subject, rather than hopping around between vastly different ideas.

  1. Conferences

Now, I have never been to a conference where I actually learned anything during the seminars, but in every single industry, the best way to get to where you want to be is by networking. And the main reason to go to a conference is to network. Most of the seminars you’ll attend for a conference in a creative industry will just be people figuring out 1,000 different ways to say “you have to grind”. But when you talk one-on-one with fellow creatives, you’ll be able to learn from their mistakes and smart choices, all while planting the seeds of new relationships and possible mentors.

Beginning a career as a freelancer can be a scary thing. You’ve probably heard many people call it a risky endeavor because it does not follow the traditional path of getting hired by a large entity and working there for an extended period of time. I get it, especially in the United States where your healthcare is in jeopardy if you don’t have a full-time job, it can be scary to freelance for a living. My best advice is to diversify the work you are doing, in order to create a safety net for yourself. The more you are able to do, the wider variety of work you can get, giving you more options to pursue or fall back on if one of your client relationships ends.

Established Freelancers: What You Might Be Overlooking

  1. Mentorship

I will be honest—at this stage, this is likely not going to help your craft, but that doesn’t mean it won’t help you to grow personally. There is the overly common phrase teachers say: “I’m not teaching [the students], they’re teaching me.” Hopefully that isn’t entirely true or those teachers would get fired, but mentorship is a much more mutual relationship. What you will get out of mentoring is far more emotionally and spiritually valuable than it is tangible, but it’s something I think everyone should try nonetheless.

  1. Workshops

The best way to improve is to always be making or working on something. You’ve figured this out by now, but it always bears repeating. And you probably already know that feedback is an invaluable resource, but I’m still going to put it in writing. Go to workshops. Improvement is a life-long journey.

  1. Retreats

Creative vacation? Yes, please! Retreats are pretty much the lovechild of conferences and workshops, but you usually travel to some abandoned New England mansion or castle off the coast of Spain. They aren’t all in locations that cool, but if you’re going to go through the work of paying to go boost your creativity somewhere, you might as well get to go somewhere exciting as a part of it. Plus, you’ve a little R&R.

  1. Courses on specialized skills

SEO. Simple CSS. Project management. Need I say more? Society has tried to convince us for a very long time that tech-savvy and creative people will always be mutually exclusive. But the reality is that our world is run by technology, and if you want to become more marketable or bolster your existing toolset with related skills, the best way to do that is to figure out what kind of knowledge would help you the most. At this point, you’re a good freelancer. You’re confident. You know where your talents lie. So, maybe it’s time to strengthen your portfolio with some new skill sets.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to professional development, but this list manages to cut out the B.S. that is always being sold to us under the guise of being “life-changing” or “revolutionary” for your career. These are some of the main things that help people at all stages of their career. The key points you should keep in mind when pursuing professional development as a freelancer are: connection and improvement.

Jessi Quinn Alperin

Jewish educator, podcaster, writer.

Jessi is a published writer with bylines at Environmental Health News, Twentyhood Mag, and more. Jessi focuses primarily on identity and culture in their writing. They have also worked for a variety of nonprofits focusing on food insecurity and Jewish communities. Jessi currently is the Springboard Fellow at Oberlin College.