“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” - Malcolm Gladwell
This month marks my four year anniversary - or as I like to call it, my freeversary - as an independent creative. Four years feels monumental because it’s a self-enclosed time period for achieving something big. Four years is also the approximate amount of time that it takes to reach 10,000 hours - the “magic number” for getting enough practice to become a world-class expert at any one thing.
Milestones are a time for reflection and they can quickly turn to a time of self-evaluation. What do you have to show for yourself? In hindsight, were did you slack off, where did you falter, where did you get distracted? I remember applying for college and feeling like a wet turd when I had no school clubs to put on my application. I had a 4.3 GPA and a beautiful art portfolio, but goddamnit what was I thinking not joining ASB or Yearbook? It was so much easier to focus on what I hadn’t done than what I had done. And I had achieved a lot. But when you measure yourself against other people’s standards, it will never be enough.
One of my biggest lessons this year is learning to redefine my own standard for success.
People focus so much on the moment that you go freelance as “the big scary jump.” But once you jump off the cliff and arrive in your new encampment of freelancehood, old models of success can still haunt you. They did for me. In fact, they still do. I'm coming to terms with the fact that even though I diverged from the path, forging a narrow side trail to get to that batch of foxtails, I have carried with me the old guidebook. I have consulted the glossary to identify wildlife along the way, to read the stars, to find water. The path was different but the manual was the same. And I became imprisoned in my own abusive relationship of employer-employee. Only this time I played both parts.
Now I'm learning that it's not just about making your own path. It's about writing your own guidebook, too. The old rules don't work out here. They take you back to the same old miserable place of "keep your head down and get it done," and "put your time in," and "work your way up the food chain." Self-limiting beliefs that keep me in a box, that keep my creativity bridled, that keep my heart just far enough from my work to make it feel like work.
It's scary starting out. We cling to our handbooks for a sense of security and structure. But what I've found out here in the wilderness, is that the signs are all around me. The universe sends me signals to confirm or deny that I've made the right decision, and decisions are being made every day. Lead flow dries up. Lead flow goes through the roof. Clients give raving feedback and highlight where I added value. The work feels easy or it feels incredibly hard. These are the signs that I'm using to write my own manual. The guide to the uncharted territory that is my completely unique creative landscape.
I've gone off the traditional employment grid, but I've been too scared to veer completely from my old protestant ethic. The one that says, this is how you work. These are the hours. This is the business model. This is the marketing. These are the big ticket clients. This is the safest bet for long-term financial stability.
“If you believe that you have something special inside of you, and you feel it’s about time you gave it a shot, honor that calling in some small way — today.” – Elle Luna
Yes, it's totally natural to do anything you can to survive. Especially when you're out on your own. But I'm starting to question, is “following the money” really the best way to survive? Playing it safe can earn you a safe income and a safe pat on the back. But is anything really safe? What if I really did let myself experiment, stray from the old standards, invite the side of me to come play that has been standing at the trailhead waiting for the "go-ahead," the side that is the beautiful intuitive creative counterpart to my logical thinking surviving lizard brain?
My new mantra: define success on your own terms.
Working for yourself is a great place to start. But still, it's not the employment model that sets you free. It's the limitations we put on ourselves. Limitations like, "I don't have time to write outside of work." Well guess what? Since January 1, 2014 I've written at least 300 words every morning. I've been trying to give in to my heart just a little more, to experiment going one step down that new path each day.
The rewards have been astounding. And as I get nearer to my 10,000 hours as a self-employed creative, I realized it’s not just the writing and marketing practice that counts. It’s 10,000 hours of learning to trust myself. Of building enough confidence in my new guidebook to let go of the old one, burying it beneath the poppies.