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Jennifer Novak's picture

One of the greatest struggles that I’ve had as a military spouse, harder than the separations, more trying than the unknowns, has been the act of leaving. Leaving family, leaving friends, leaving a home. For someone like myself who already struggles with opening up and allowing people to get to know me, the pain of becoming close and then losing a relationship is nothing but visceral. And yet, as I reflect on what has been the most tremendous barrier for myself over the past eight years, undoubtedly my career is near the top of that list. For a really long time, I found myself worrying, sometimes years in advance, what an impending PCS would mean for my job prospects. Would I be able to find a job? Would I have enough time to settle into a position? As a social worker, what would leaving mean for my clients? Twelve months ago, when my spouse and I were headed off for another adventure across the country, one that would only last for a year, I had resigned myself to putting my career on hold… or so I thought. I want to share with you my story of rejecting traditional employment and what worked for me (and didn’t) as I made the unexpected transition into freelancing.

A year ago, I never would have expected that instead of being unemployed that I would find myself with more work than I could reasonably take on, receiving a compensation that outpaced my prior full-time work, and offered a schedule that was completely flexible around my personal life. After my spouse and I relocated from California to Maryland, I had decided that I would apply for work (focusing solely on reputable telecommute options) and just taking my time to find something that I liked. While I enjoyed my time with my children and being a stay-at-home mom for the first time, the Horatio Alger bootstraps mentality that had been imprinted on me since early childhood reared up quickly, and I found myself stir-crazy with the desire to go out and work.

It didn’t help that the telecommute search wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. After some initial leads (and reaching final stage interviews FOUR different times without a job offer), I was sure there was something wrong with me. (I was actually rejected for one position for getting the “What brand do you admire the most?” personality question incorrect – talk about an ego killer). As I’ve written before, this was also my year to reflect on and work through my ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, and the job search was definitely not helping. But to feel fulfilled, I needed to be working, and to work, I needed to apply for jobs. Right?

In early fall, I found a different way of doing things. I’d been applying to full-time, telecommute work, but I’d also been reaching out to clients for contract opportunities as well. Although my background is in social work, I’d found I had a talent for writing, training, eLearning development, and social media management in my prior work, skills that were easily transferrable to telework and contract employment. While I continued my search, I also completed small contract projects and poured my best effort into creating high-quality work for my clients. I knew there was a potential to grow here, but I still assumed I’d eventually move back into the “normal” 9 – 5 world once I finally found a job.

But then, in January, things took off. I found myself being offered more and more work from my clients. After completing smaller, one-time projects, I’d receive an offer for long-term work. I was reached out to by employers I’d interviewed with to take on contract writing work (as I’d mentioned I had an interest in that during interviews). Within months, I found myself so busy with work that I’d structured my week around project completion – Sunday was social media management, Monday was recipe writing, etc. Although I was busy, I wasn’t overwhelmed – my work could be completed at anytime and from anywhere. This meant focusing on my kids when they were home and awake, and on my work when they were asleep or otherwise engaged. I’d found the best of both worlds – the ability to stay-at-home and engage in meaningful work of my own choosing.

Although making the switch to freelancing was a successful process for me, there are definitely some things to keep in mind if you are thinking about this yourself:

  • Know what you’re an expert in: Although my niche was in content creation and editing, I had never done these things as my sole professional focus, and I do not have a degree in English or Communications. When I decided to get serious about this work, I did my research: I read online blogs about contract writing, I took on “article farm” work to get more experience, and I started tutoring writing online to help reinforce the grammar rules so many of us overlook. When you freelance, you are the expert, so make sure you know what you’re doing.
  • You’re your own boss: You have to hold yourself accountable when you start freelancing. This means having effective time management strategies, knowing a reasonable workload to take on, and being able to review your own work. While clients will definitely give feedback on their opinions of you, you want your reputation to shine with everyone you work with, no matter the size of the contract. Make sure to always put forth your best effort and communicate with clients about anything that comes up along the way.
  • Expect to start small: No matter what freelance niche you reside in, if you don’t have a reputation with clients, it is going to take time to land paying contracts. When I started, I applied to whatever I could, as long as the pay rate was somewhat reasonable. As I look back on my earliest contracts, I would never accept the hourly rate I charged now – but at the time, with no reputation, I knew a sacrifice in my rate needed to be made.
  • Know where to look for reputable work and watch for scams: Unfortunately, the word of online freelancing isn’t without fraud, even on some of the most reputable sites. Watch for clients who only want to contact you directly or pay through PayPal – this can get your profile deleted from the freelancing platform you use, and likely the client as no intention of paying for the work.
  • Know what you’re worth: Although you might find yourself accepting lower pay at the beginning of your freelancing experience, you can and should increase this rate over time. Your experience and reputation are worth far more than some clients are willing to pay, and you’ll find yourself rejecting work due to this. And that’s okay! Don’t put yourself in a position of working for nothing – know your worth and make sure to charge it.

As I’m writing this, I’m in between completing two projects and starting another shortly. I’m working for a half-dozen regular clients and I no longer apply for work (although I did a lot of that at the beginning). It was a risk for me to dive into freelancing – it isn’t something I’d ever considered for myself. But now, I don’t see myself ever turning back to full-time work, at least while my children are still young. As a military spouse, the fear of relocation is one I no longer have to live with, and I know for at least the time being, I can count on my writing to help me fuel meaning into my life while enjoying the moments I’d missed with my children these past five years. For me, there was no better choice for my career and my family.

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