Lessons from 9 Years as a Freelance Writer

Today is the first day of my 9th New Year of working as a full-time freelance writer. Deciding to quit my corporate cubicle job to become a freelance writer was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. My dreams have come true. I make a good living, I work with AWESOME people all over the world, I’ve gotten to provide my family with a comfortable life and dream-come-true trips fo London, Paris, Prague, Tokyo and more, and I’ve done it all while working from home, at my own pace, on my own terms, following my curiosities and learning a little about a lot.

I could not be more grateful for my career, and the thrill of getting to do this for a living still has not worn off – even the little things like getting to go out for lunch with my family at 2:30 p.m. on a weekday instead of being stuck in a cubicle. Even though this life as a freelance writer can sometimes feel risky and lonely, even the hard times are still pretty good. I love being a freelancer and I want to keep doing this – or something like this – forever.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years of building my business as a successful freelance writer:

Focus on Relationships, Not Transactions

I’m proud to have established a lot of long-lasting relationships with clients and editors. I have been working for some of the same people and the same organizations for five years or more. Some of my clients have stayed with me even as they have moved on to new jobs or started new companies of their own. It’s always worth staying in touch with good people. Instead of trying to squeeze every last dollar out of every transaction, I’d rather preserve a longer-lasting client relationship and keep lots of dollars coming in over the years.

Elance Really Work(ed)…For Me! 

I got my start as a freelance writer in January 2009 by signing up for a profile on Elance, now known as Upwork, a project bidding site for freelance work. And I met some of my best clients on Elance, some of whom I’m still working with several years later. I had a good experience with Elance but I kind of gradually stopped using Upwork after they raised their fees – the last I checked, they were charging per-project commission fees of 20% of the first $500 you earned with each client (it’s complicated; I can’t remember the exact details so I could be mistaken) – but the point is, Upwork was no longer as good of a deal as its predecessor Elance used to be. The platform deserves to make money because they’re creating value for freelancers by giving us the opportunity to connect with clients – but 20% is ridiculous. Not even Hollywood agents charge that much. I’m not sure if Upwork is still as good of a proposition for new freelancers as Elance was for me back in January 2009; I’m not sure if I still would recommend it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Do Everything Wrong

I have weird ways of working that no conventional full-time employer would ever tolerate. I do everything wrong. I don’t keep regular hours, I don’t set an alarm clock in the morning, I don’t hold myself to a fixed writing schedule everyday, I don’t keep track of lots of things that I could probably be tracking to improve my efficiency. I probably have undiagnosed, unmedicated ADHD. I waste vast amounts of time on the Internet and on Facebook and just daydreaming and brooding and thinking.

But when I’m on? I’m ON. In my own weird way, as a freelance writer, I’m one of the best in the world at what I do. Even though I work from home and I tend to be reclusive and I wear the same pair of pajamas for days at a time. I probably don’t have the healthiest lifestyle but I manage to keep cranking out the work and meeting my deadlines and paying my bills, and that’s enough for me.

Money Comes and Goes 

Being self-employed can be tough. It can feel risky and lonely. There are times where you might not have enough work, might not have enough money coming in, when you might feel desperately vulnerable and alone. That’s OK! You have to learn to accept, and even enjoy, the ups and downs. There are going to be lean times of year. Sometimes projects fall through for reasons beyond your control. Sometimes your client might be slow to pay, for reasons beyond their control. Freelance writers need to build up resilience and learn to keep calm and carry on.

One of the best bits of advice I ever got was: “The thing that separates the most successful people from the rest is: they know how to relax.” I’ve found that to be true in my own life as a freelance writer. I used to be in a state of near constant anxiety, even when things were going well: “Am I making enough money?? Do I have enough work?? Am I making the right decisions with my business and my financial plans?? Is this all going to come crashing down at any moment???” Over time, especially as built up a bigger base of business, I learned to “let go and let flow.”

Another bit of advice that I got from a fellow self-employed friend: “Most of the things you worry about never happen.” It’s true – any one of us could be struck down by catastrophe at any time. But most of the time? Just keep working.

Define Success By Your Own Terms 

I’m not one of these people who’s extremely visible on social media as being an avatar of Internet Business Success. I kind of don’t care. I don’t really need to be a public figure or have a “brand” or speak at conferences or have a big audience or be a media thought leader or celebrity or influencer to be successful at doing what I do.

My business model is simple: I write things for money. Sometimes I ghostwrite articles for tech startup CEOs, sometimes I write technical white papers, sometimes I write press releases and PR pieces, sometimes I write blog articles under my own byline. Sometimes the stuff I write is creative and fun and a labor of love; sometimes I’m in it just for the money but I still put in an earnest effort on every project and I only work with people that I like and on projects that I believe in.

I’m still grateful for every project and every paycheck. I started out doing projects for $30 an article (I charge a LOT more than that now) and I built a new full-time income for myself, $200 at a time. Just getting to be successfully full-time employed as a freelance writer, on my own terms, is enough for me – for now!

Find Joy in the Work

The ultimate success as a freelance writer is in the work itself. What really motivates me? It’s not just the money, it’s about that feeling of creative flow that comes from bringing a well-crafted piece of writing into the world. The work I do is not always glamorous, but it’s always meaningful if I can do it with sincerity and earnest effort. In my own small way, I’m trying to use my talents and my brain power to help make the world a little bit smarter and better. I care about all of my clients. I find meaning in the process of creating good content, making the words flow better, bringing compelling ideas to life, and being part of a team of creative collaborators who are having fun and learning together.

Being a freelance writer is the best job I’ve ever had. I hope to keep celebrating many Happy New Years in the years ahead.

5 Mind-Blowing Epiphanies I Got From Quitting Facebook (for 24 Hours or So)

Actual photo of Ben Gran being bombarded by addictive digital clutter on Facebook

I have a complicated relationship with Facebook: Facebook is the bane of my existence, and it’s also one of the best things to ever happen to me. I’m addicted to Facebook, it destroys my productivity, and it’s also been the source of some of my best friends and favorite experiences. Facebook gives me inspiration for creativity and it gives me ideas for new stories and new ways to be productive, and it also drags me into other people’s negativity and depression and hateful political troll fights. I’ve met some of the very BEST and some of the very WORST people in the world on Facebook.

And I post on Facebook A LOT. Facebook is kind of my primary social outlet, because I work from home and I tend to be socially awkward in real life – Facebook is ideal for me because I’m a freelance writer who is good at building relationships with writing. And I’ve gotten lots of great things out of Facebook! I’ve built up a bit of a side hustle as a standup comedian – hundreds of people in Des Moines have come to my shows, and I’ve had video clips of my standup act licensed for money, all because of contacts I made via Facebook. I’ve done fundraising comedy shows for progressive causes – I’ve raised $3,500 so far in 2017. I’ve made amazing new friends in my own home city and all over the U.S. and overseas, and I’ve stayed in touch with old friends who I otherwise would have lost touch with – and that’s wonderful, because my family and I got to go visit some of these friends in Europe this summer. Facebook has in many ways broadened my horizons and given me a more expansive sense of what I can offer the world; it’s helped me make friends and be influential in ways that are deeply meaningful to me, that might never have been possible without social media.

So I’m grateful to Facebook! But I also hate it.

Clearly, something needs to change in the way I relate to Mark Zuckerberg’s stupid website, right? How can I get more of the “good” stuff from Facebook without ruining my whole day in the process?

I’m in the midst of working with a business coach and making some big moves behind the scenes in the way I manage my career. Ever since Labor Day, I’ve cleared my calendar. I’m barely leaving the house. I’m not going anywhere or doing anything or seeing anyone; I’m not watching TV or going to movies or going to bars. I am 100% LOCKED IN on work right now – and that’s good! It feels really good and I don’t regret or resent a thing I’m doing right now, because it’s all for ME and my family’s financial well being. So as part of that newfound sense of focus, I’m trying to re-evaluate the way I relate to Facebook.

So I decided to quit Facebook. For 24 hours. Secretly, silently, just for a day. Some people go through a big show of saying that they’re going to quit Facebook, and they’re going to deactivate their account, etc. and then they come crawling back. Some people just go ahead and disappear from Facebook for days or weeks or months at a time while leaving their accounts active. I decided to take a different approach: I tried to go 24 hours without posting any new posts on Facebook. Here’s what I learned:

I Don’t Have to Post on Facebook to Be Happy

Did you know: Facebook will go on without you! The chaos and clutter and human misery of the Internet WILL continue, whether or not you contribute to it! Facebook doesn’t “need” you at all! No matter how funny that joke was that you wanted to write on Facebook, chances are, thousands of other people already had that same thought and posted it without you. The Grand Ballet of the Human Experience will go on, even if you don’t contribute.

And that’s okay! That’s wonderful! Just spend some time living in your immediate world instead of constantly grappling with the infinite gushing fire hose that is the Internet!

I Feel More Focused

Facebook is an interruption machine. It chops up your day into hundreds of useless pieces as you feel like you have to keep “checking in.” And I don’t even have Notifications on my phone – I still check Facebook 900 times a day even without the stupid little Notification bubbles popping up on the front of my phone. If I can just go 24 hours without posting on Facebook, I don’t get sucked in to as much of that sense of neediness – I can just focus on my actual real life in the real world instead of getting distracted by 1,000 pieces of impersonal online content! Amazing!

Visual depiction of Ben Gran’s mental state within 12 hours of quitting Facebook

I Feel More Calm

(DISCLAIMER: I absolutely despise Donald Trump – you should know that about me; not to get all “political” on my “business brand” website, or whatever, but I really really hate Donald Trump and everything he represents, I think he’s the worst thing to happen to this country since the invention of Slavery, and I don’t want to work with anyone who loves Donald Trump. So if you love, support, or even “mildly like” Donald Trump, stop reading this and go away and never contact me.)

Facebook is an anxiety machine. Especially since the election, I had started to follow lots of political sites and local progressive activist groups, and all day long on Facebook I was getting dozens of increasingly hysterical headlines and ACTION ALERTS to CALL YOUR SENATORS and COPY AND PASTE, DON’T SHARE and it all creates this constant sense of low-lying anxiety and dread, like the world is ending, and you have to stay glued to your screens – it makes you feel simultaneously helpless and transfixed, like there’s too much to do, like it’s all happening too fast, it’s all too late, but here, you have to sit here and watch the apocalypse unfold in real time.

And I don’t want to live like that! So I’m changing the way I relate to political activism. I’ve quit and unfollowed most of my groups on Facebook. I’m still going to be involved and give money and maybe even do another fundraiser comedy show in 2017 or early 2018, but I can’t bombard my brain 24/7 with too much distressing news. You can’t stick your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on in politics, but you also can’t let yourself get deluged by too much alarming information that you’re helpless to do anything about. Manage your information diet; no one else gets to decide what goes on in your own mind.

I Make More Money Without Facebook

I’m not like most people with office jobs, who get paid to sit in a cubicle and screw around on Facebook all day – I only get paid for DELIVERING WORK. I know, this is a radical concept, but I have to WORK to GET MONEY, and the more work I do, THE MORE MONEY I MAKE. So I can’t let myself get paralyzed by Facebook, because it’s literally COSTING ME MONEY.

This is how much money Ben Gran made by quitting Facebook for ONE day

Facebook Is An Unpaid Part-time Job

One of the things I dislike the most about Facebook is how you get dragged into lots of other people’s crap. Everyone has to comment on your posts, and then you have to sit there and decide whether/how to reply to their comments. It’s insane. It’s like an unpaid part-time customer service job, where the new Customer Support Tickets just keep coming in. Sure, it can be fun to have lots of conversations with people all over the world who are smart, funny people who have worthwhile things to say, but lots of Facebook is just useless clutter. I block people on Facebook all the time because they annoy me. I don’t have time! Why should I let some random jerk on the Internet waste 45 seconds of my life? I had to block a guy one time because, even though he posted funny stuff and was smart in lots of ways, he kept coming on my posts with negativity and cynicism, and I said to him, “Your cynicism and hostility have grown tiresome. Good luck in life!” and I blocked him.

That’s the thing: NO ONE ON FACEBOOK is PAYING YOU MONEY to be there. We’re all just on there making more money for Mark Zuckerberg. You are under ZERO obligation to tolerate any nonsense or negativity from ANYONE. Banish all toxic people from your life – online or offline. As a freelance writer, my only true “stock in trade” is my time and my positive mental energy – anyone who wastes my time or tries to drag me down into their cesspit of cynicism is taking bread out of my children’s mouths.

Lots of media commentators have bemoaned the rise of Facebook because they think it’s making people more isolated and lonely; like real-world interaction is being shortchanged because of all the time we spend on Facebook. I totally disagree! Facebook hasn’t made me more “lonely,” it’s made me feel spread too thin! It’s almost given me too many people and causes to care about and worry about; I only have so much mental bandwidth and sometimes it gets overwhelming to see all the distressing news and GoFundMe fundraisers and heartbreaking stories about people dying of cancer and everything else. Sometimes I have to disconnect and just take my mind off of the never-ending stream of updates that make me feel like I’m living inside of thousands of other people’s heads.

Because that’s the thing about Facebook and social media and The Way We Live Now on the Internet: at it’s best, you have the reassurance of being constantly connected to great people who can make your life better. But the downside is, it gets overwhelming and you have to be able to give yourself permission to take a break.

I don’t think I’ll ever “quit” Facebook entirely – it’s too valuable and I really love the friendships I’ve made and maintained because of it. As a writer, it’s a wonderful way to put your ideas out into the world and make an impact. But we’re all living inside of each other’s heads now! We’re living in the future! We’re just a few steps away from becoming a telepathic global hive mind! And I don’t think we’ve fully grasped the magnitude of that; the technology has outpaced our ability to cope, and it requires new standards of etiquette and new methods of self-care and setting boundaries that lots of people are still figuring out.

I love the Internet, I love living on the Internet, it’s given me so many wonderful experiences and relationships. But sometimes you just need to shut off your phone and go for a walk.