The Freelance Mindset, With Joy Batra
Freelancing can be your path to a great adventure, satisfaction, and happiness as you build your life that aligns with your passions and aspirations. That path will challenge your traditional “nine-to-five” mindset, allowing you to embrace the opportunities and benefits freelancing has to offer. In this episode, Joy Batra, the founder of Quartz Consulting, delves into her book, The Freelance Mindset: Unleashing Your Side Hustles for Better Work, Play, and Life. The Freelance Mindset may not be your ultimate freelancing manual, but it’s a treasure trove of insights on how freelancing can revolutionize your approach to work and life. Consider it a mindset shift before you dive into the practicalities. Joy’s tips will guide you into building a fulfilling and meaningful life. Join her in unlocking the secret to turning your inner spark into financial fuel.
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcast/joy-batra
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The Freelance Mindset, With Joy Batra
Freelancing Veteran and Author of The Freelance Mindset: Unleashing Your Side Hustles for Better Work, Play, and Life
This show is brought to you by PathWise.io. PathWise is dedicated to helping you be the best professional you can be, providing a mix of career and leadership coaching, courses, content, and community. Basic membership is free, so visit PathWise and join. My guest is Joy Batra. Joy is the Founder of Quartz Consulting, a freelance consulting firm that has advised startups, venture capital firms, and Fortune 500 companies. She previously worked at Goldman Sachs, Gunderson Dettmer, and briefly as a Hollywood actress. She is the Head of Legal at Syndicate Protocol.
Joy has lived or worked in India, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE, and the UK. She splits her time between New York City and Boston. She holds a JD MBA from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s from Boston College. Her book, The Freelance Mindset, was featured in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Oprah Daily.
Joy, welcome. Thanks for joining the show with me.
Thanks for having me.
We’re going to focus on freelancing, but let’s start with your background. From reading your book, I know you’ve had a range of professional experiences. You began as an analyst at Goldman, a pretty traditional start in the scheme of things. How did you decide to do that?
I came of age at an exciting time in the financial world. It was 2009 when I graduated from school, which meant I was recruiting in 2007 and 2008. Many of your audiences and you would remember what was happening in the financial world at that time. It was super eventful. I was very focused on it as a student. I thought it was the most exciting place in the world.
I got to New York and it turned out to be the most exciting place in the world. I loved my job there. After two summers and a year of full-time work there, I got into Harvard Law School. I thought that I would go to graduate school, come back as an associate, and maybe stay at Goldman for my entire career like some of my colleagues had done. It seemed a great option.
Once I got to school, I started to meet people from different paths of life. They started asking me questions about what I wanted to do with my one wild and precious life. I started to think about the answer both professionally and also personally because my dad had passed away. I started to wonder, “Could I make a decision to stay in one place without having sampled anything else?” We wouldn’t be here talking about freelancing if the answer was yes. I ended up taking a path of a little bit more adventure and tried quite a lot of different industries and professions before I picked the one that I’m in now.
In the book, you mentioned having moments of doubt even before you went to law school and before your father died. You talked about this with him at the time about whether that was the right course for you. You had a little bit of that sense that maybe you were destined to go do something different even before you ended up going to law school.
I started to get shadows of doubt. I worked in compliance at Goldman, which was a great department, but it tended to recruit people who used to work at a law firm. A lot of people had practiced as lawyers and decided they wanted to do something that was maybe law adjacent but not practicing law. As I was getting ready to go to law school or getting ready to apply to law school, I started to hear from people who maybe thought that law was not a lifetime vocation the way they had imagined it to be. I started to wonder if maybe I would also go to law school or maybe go to a law firm and then also find one day that this was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my career. That made me antsy about even deciding to apply to law school.
As I talked about in the book, I brought this up with my dad. We always, as a family of immigrants, had a very clear plan. I would go to college, find a professional trade, whether that’s law, medicine, or engineering, and then commit to it for my career. As I was having these doubts, I brought this up with my dad. He said, “I don’t think that this is the right path for you. You had the whole life plan set up.”
Admittedly, he was on his deathbed and had more important things to think about than my career and changing it at the last minute. I knew how important it was to him that I go to law school and have some sort of professional vocation so I applied not necessarily knowing what would be on the other side of it. I was thinking that I would go back and do what was familiar, which was to go back to finance.
I know you did some internships with some law firms. Did you do that more from the perspective of giving it a test that you do get when you have those summer internship opportunities?
When I started graduate school, I was fed this belief or absorbed this belief from the world around me that if you don’t go to a law firm right after graduation, you can never go to a law firm. I had this curiosity about what it would be like to be at a law firm and also a little bit of fear that if I didn’t try this now, this opportunity would go away.
Both of those things combined to make me try two different kinds of law. I tried East Coast New York M&A law and then West Coast startup VC law. I found that I did like the work a lot. I did wonder about the hours and lifestyle, but I wanted to be able to sample and make an informed decision before I decided to go in one route. In the end, I accepted a job at one of the law firms, which was the West Coast startup law, thinking that it would be dynamic and fun. It was as an intern, but then life took me in a different direction.
You didn’t go back to Goldman. You didn’t go into a law firm. You went to Bollywood.
Tell us about that.
If I had told my dad that on his deathbed, I don’t know what he would’ve said. He would’ve started laughing. Bollywood, to me, was always an extracurricular. From college onward, I was on a dance team and enjoyed it. The captain of our dance team after college went to India. She became a Bollywood actress, and then she became a professional dancer. All through law school, I would see her videos on social media. She’s dancing under palm trees and I’m carrying these heavy case books into the snowy fields of Boston. I wondered what it would be like.
After I graduated from grad school, I took the bar exam and then had a little vacation. I went to Mumbai, India where my family lives and also where this friend lives. I caught up with the friend and was like, “How did you do it?” She told me she had an acting class at one of these schools. I went to the school, ended up taking the class, and got an audition. In the end, I got a talent management agreement to act.
This one was where I had to reckon with that fear of, “If I don’t go to a law firm right out of grad school, will this door close forever? Will I be destroying my career for the rest of my life?” I was scared, but at the same time, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go act. It felt like this big adventure. I didn’t know what would happen next if I took this path. Luckily, I had a few friends who had my back and nudged me to take the risk. I ended up taking that risk and moving to India. We have a story and a completely different career and life path than I could have imagined.
Not everybody does something like that, something so non-traditional. I have some friends who have. They look back on it and say, “I am glad I did that when I was younger. I will always have that experience. I didn’t go right into the office world.” I hope you feel that way about it. You then came back. You did not become a longtime Bollywood actress. You came back to the US and started freelancing. How did you get into it, and what were those early days like?
I started freelancing when I was in India because having given up the law firm job, I had six-figure student loans and I needed cash fast. My auditions were few and far between. When they paid, it was in rupees. My loans were in dollars. The math wasn’t math-ing. I initially started on one of these platforms. At the time, it was called Hourly Nerd. Now, it’s called Catalant. I pitched for any project that was available.
Eventually, a startup hired me to help them write their business plan and then we were off to the races. I was able to do some strategy consulting for startups, investment funds, and eCommerce companies that were operating in Asia. At the time, it felt like this amazing blend because, in the mornings, I could spend my time freelancing, and then in the afternoons, once I’d finished my work, I’d go do my other work. I would put on my makeup and my costume, go for my auditions, study acting, study Hindi, and do all that I needed to do.
It was ridiculous at the time because I didn’t realize that this kind of work-life balance could exist or this type of career could exist. I didn’t realize that I could choose what I wanted to work on and that even when I was freelancing, I could sample so many different industries, skillsets, and functions at the same time. It was mind-blowing.
I had given myself a deadline as a freelancer because I knew I had to come back and pay these loans. On the day of my deadline, I ended up getting cast in a music video and also getting selected for one of these consulting projects. There was no remote work at the time so I had to pick one or the other. I ended up picking the consulting project because I thought, “I can always figure out how to fit these two together, but this seems like a great opportunity.” That brought me back to New York. It brought me back to a full-time job in the States and a rebalancing of my life and career portfolio. It was for the best as I was changing and the market was evolving.
I never knew that I could step off the career ladder and then step back into a corporate world, and even potentially look at going to a law firm. Sometimes, we think our decisions are irreversible when we don’t know what comes ahead for us. It’s that failure of imagination that gets in our own way when many more things are possible than we might have thought at the moment.
You’ve gone back and forth between freelancing and being in full-time jobs since coming back from India. What does your mix look like now? What’s ideal in your world?
I’ve been a full-time freelancer three times in my career. Other times, I’ve worked full-time. I’ve freelanced nights and weekends. At the moment, I have a full-time job. I am the Director of Content at TechGC, which is a professional network for senior general counsels. I freelance on the nights and weekends a little bit. I have a couple of companies that I advise in different industries related to creators, blockchain, and other fields that I’m passionate about.
The pandemic changed a lot for me. I was working remotely for many years before the pandemic. It worked when the rest of the world was analog, but when everything went remote, I started to feel that isolation and loneliness. For me, it started to become very important to be part of a team and I work on something much bigger than myself.
2021 or so was when I made the decision to leave freelancing and look for full-time work. I ended up joining a company and have been mostly full-time ever since then. The ideal mix for me is to have some sort of platform, which is a full-time job, and then keep my hand in some other projects, whether that’s as an advisor or a contractor.
I find that having a few extra projects allows me to build my network and develop different skills that I’m not developing in my day job because we can only focus on so many things at one time. It gives me the freedom to work on creative projects without necessarily having financial constraints on what I consider my art. My art is writing, but at times, it’s been acting or dancing. I have been all over the gamut, but having that stable base allows me to be more creative.Having a little bit of extra projects really allows you to build your network and develop different skills. Click To Tweet
What prompted the idea of writing a book?
It was strange. As a student, I did not like writing. It was weird because I was getting good grades at it but I didn’t enjoy it. I associated it with all-nighters and a lot of stress. When I went to India for acting, I was taking Hindi classes and had to write some stories in Hindi. The stories turned out surprisingly well. The weirder thing was that they were fun to write. I started to realize, “Maybe I don’t like writing because I’m not choosing what I’m writing about and I’m not writing it necessarily when I want to be writing it.
It’s been almost ten years since I started this writing journey. It started with this horrible magical realism novel that nobody shall ever see again. I spent some time writing that. I trotted it out to conferences and got very deserved noes on that document. I then went back to the drawing board and thought, “I like to write, but I also need to write something useful.”
It started to dawn on me that this freelancing journey was something that more people were becoming curious about. I had friends who were leaving their jobs or trying to change their careers. They were asking me, “How can I add a different career into my life mix? How can I get a new skill? How can I shift?” I was coaching them through it individually.
The pandemic happened and a lot of people were displaced and had to look for freelance work. I started to think, “Maybe this is how I can be of service.” I compiled everything that I had learned in those almost 10 years of freelancing and then interviewed 50 freelancers to find out what everybody else was doing. I then packaged it up to give that back so people don’t necessarily have to make the same mistakes that I made.
What is the freelance mindset? How would you describe it?
The freelance mindset means not just thinking like a freelancer but thinking of yourself as a company would. In the old days of my life, I don’t know if everybody was fed this story, but I and many of my friends grew up thinking that if you study hard, work hard, and get a good job, you’re set for life. Maybe you stay there for your whole career or maybe you don’t, but you are taken care of.
The freelance mindset is the opposite of that. It means you take care of yourself. It’s self-care and self-reliance. As a freelancer, you are responsible for thinking about everything you need, whether that’s income or revenue, benefits, time off, a broader network, more leadership opportunities, or different skillsets and training. All of that is holistic, but you need to be managing that proactively as a person and not necessarily depending on a company to take care of it for you.
Even within a company, many of us do have full-time jobs. Even within a company, you still have to know how to advocate for yourself to be able to reach for what you want and move in the direction of your goals. Thinking like a freelancer becomes very helpful whether you’re freelance or have a full-time job because it allows you to steer your ship in the direction that you want to go.
In that sense, and you make this point in the book, freelancers are entrepreneurs.
For a long time, freelancers haven’t necessarily gotten the credit that they deserve. A lot of times in our society, we look up to entrepreneurs, and rightfully so. Entrepreneurs are incredibly talented and achieved a lot of impressive things, but they have the same skillset that a freelancer has. A freelancer needs to come up with their own product or their business model. They need to maybe develop a team and learn how to articulate it in a sales pitch.
They need to negotiate the contract, set their rates, know their product placement and competitive strategy, execute the work, do their taxes, do their legal agreements, and everything else. Freelancers are so self-reliant. They don’t get credit for the amount and the skill that they bring to the work that they do in order to make it in their industry. We should be thinking of freelancers as entrepreneurs. We should be thinking that everybody is a freelancer because we are.
We all have some sense of entrepreneurship in us. Some of us exercise it in different ways. Probably the negative connotation that goes with freelancing is the person bounces from job to job. There are all sorts of negative connotations about it that are unfair, but you have to do everything for yourself. You not only have to do whatever you’re good at. You have to sell whatever you’re good at. You have to do all of the administrative stuff.
For people working in a company, that gets done for you, like payroll, collecting bills, and all of those kinds of things. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what freelancing is. You got into some of that through these interviews that you did. How did the research process help you crystallize what you wanted to cover in the book?
The research process was driven by looking at a very broad range of freelancers. We had people in the arts. I opened the book with a story of a man who started his own circus. Sometimes, freelancing feels like a circus, but it isn’t always that. We went through the knowledge workers. Some of them are engineers who are also dabbling in the arts on the side. We have people who are more in the skills and tactical areas. Those are people who are baristas, music teachers, contractors, and roofers. We looked at the gamut.
What I wanted to understand was why are people freelancing. The misconception that comes up about freelancers versus entrepreneurs is that when we look at an entrepreneur, we know very clearly what metric they’re solving for. We know they’re trying to maximize the valuation of their company or revenue. It’s easy to say who has succeeded and who has failed because you can say, “This company continues to exist. It’s profitable. It’s a unicorn,” or whatever you may say. With a freelancer, there are three different reasons that a person might start freelancing. One of them is income, but the other two are things like time and creative fulfillment, which are much harder to measure.
From the outside, when somebody doesn’t necessarily know why a freelancer is transitioning from project to project, it gives space for people to make their own misconceptions about what that freelancer is solving for. It may not be a reflection of the freelancer’s talent. It may be a symptom of the person optimizing for a greater life purpose and a greater life goal. That was something I uncovered through my research. I tried to understand the arc of what drew people to freelancing, what encouraged them to stay, and why they shifted out of it if they did. Many went back and forth from freelance to full-time.
If there’s another probably inaccurate connotation about freelancing, it’s this image of a solopreneur working from the beach or from their holiday villa. In reality, it takes a lot of different forms.
We have a very binary understanding of freelancing, especially for those who are not freelancers. You think, “Somebody’s either a freelancer or they’re not.” If somebody is a freelancer in this binary world, you think exactly that. You’re like, “That person is a digital nomad. They’re traveling the world doing random projects.” In reality, we have a full spectrum. Freelancing is the most flexible job in the world, and because it’s so flexible, people are doing it in all different permutations.
There are the folks who are digital nomads and full-time freelance, but then you have on the opposite extreme, people who have a full-time job and maybe have a side hustle that they don’t even monetize but care deeply about. In between, you have the half jobs. You have a part-time worker who’s also freelance, and then you have somebody who’s freelance and then also cobbling together a mix of things.
This is why we’re all freelancers. It is because we’re always changing the balance of how we spend our time, where we get our income from, and what brings us joy. All of those things are what we care about in our life portfolio or our career portfolio. We sometimes get very limited in thinking about careers as a ladder where you go from one title to the next. It may be the same company or the same industry but it’s not that linear anymore.
Particularly on the back of COVID, the fact that we’ve proved that you can work remotely in a lot of instances, maybe not forever and ever but certainly for periods of time. These platforms have arisen. You were on one of them, like Upwork and Fiverr. There are all sorts of other ones out there that are also available. They’ve created marketplaces for these kinds of situations, whether you’re looking for somebody on a freelance basis or are a freelance person. It’s a very different world certainly.
You talk about, “I thought about work. You went, succeeded, and did good work. You had succeeded and worked with that company forever. Even my generation started to shed that as we watched our parents. It didn’t happen for them. That social contract has been changing for decades. This may be the next evolution of it. At the same time, a lot of people probably think about this but they’re held back by fear. You talk about some of those fears in the book. What are some of the things that you wrote about in the book that hold people back from jumping into a freelance work construct?
Fear is very valid when it comes to freelancing. That kind of fear is protective for us because it keeps us from going into our manager’s office and quitting our job without a plan or a client lined up, and then the next thing you know, you’re stuck. The fears are reasonable. The fear is, “I’ll run out of money.” The fear is, “I won’t have benefits.” The fear is, “I won’t be able to sell the next project.”
When they’re thinking about either getting more flexibility or adding to their career by bringing freelancing into the mix, it’s important to face those fears because they’re not coming out of nowhere and then come up with a plan to deal with them. I usually encourage people to line up at least 2 clients, if not 3, before they decide to go full-time freelance if that’s a jump that they’re trying to make. If they’re not trying to make that jump, don’t make it. Start very small. Can you start a side hustle? Can you make a website? Can you think about what your offering would be? Can you pitch a client?It's really important to face those fears because they're not coming out of nowhere. Then come up with a plan to deal with them. Click To Tweet
You don’t need to upend your life overnight. Often, that doesn’t work very well for us. I would suggest that people take a bite-sized approach to changing their life. Find the next step. Figure out what it is that you’re solving for. Is it money? Is it time? Is it creative fulfillment? Find the next step that you can take to bring that into your life. That might mean adding a client, but it doesn’t mean wholesale jumping into the freelance life. You can survive if you have to, and people have, but that isn’t plan A.
When someone is thinking about this, how should they go about deciding what they want to do?
If you can think about the three things that freelancing can bring you, and we’ve talked about time, money, and creative fulfillment, under money, that could mean cash. It could also mean skills that could then lead to cash. It could also mean expanding your network which could then lead to income down the line. Those are the concrete things that freelancing could bring you.
When somebody is deciding whether or not to do freelancing, the other thing that tends to come up a lot is whether or not they should monetize their joy. The classic example is somebody who has a day job but feels this strong artistic longing to do something. Maybe they even know what that something is but are wondering whether they should quit their job, go in, and pursue that full-time. I would pretty much never advise anyone to quit their job unless they already have a place to go somewhere else.
The question about monetizing your joy is so incredibly personal because the second you start to turn your artistic work into a business, it changes the dynamic of the work. You have to not solve for creative fulfillment anymore. You are solving for what will be commercial and what can allow you to have a future in that industry.
People, when they are thinking about what they want to do next, think about if you have something joyful that’s calling you, are you ready to turn it into a business? Do you want to try and see how that feels before you go into it wholesale? That’s what I’d recommend. A lot of times, you’ll see people go full-time from the corporate world into the arts and then come back to the corporate world. That is a good choice for those people because having that stability allows them to take greater risks in their auditions, say no to projects that they’re not excited about, and take the pressure off themselves in general of being an artist.
It’s a little bit like your example of your writing. When you had to do it in college, it wasn’t so fun. When you could do it on your own terms and your own topics, it’s a completely different thing. For a lot of people, you take something that you love doing, whatever it is. It could be an artistic thing. It could be spending time in the outdoors and you think, “I want to make a job out of this.” The problem is sometimes, it works, and then other times, you suck the joy right out of it.
I’m sure it’s hard to figure out for a lot of people which of those two destinations they’re going to end up in. Is it something that they do monetize their joy and they still like it or they don’t like it when they’re done? Those are the ones who come back into the corporate world and say, “I’ve been there and done that and I didn’t like it. I’ll keep it as a hobby.”
We get wisdom or adage so often that you have to be passionate about your work. There’s that old saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” People discover that that’s not true. You need to feel good about your job. I don’t know that it needs to be your number one passion and existence for being. It can also enable the things that you feel excited about and that can be a good outcome too.
A lot of times, folks will come to me. I’ve talked to an actor. He was a full-time actor and then he took a full-time job. He went into this existential crisis where he was asking himself, “Am I still an artist even though I have a job?” You are. The answer is yes. He did end up doing well at his job, but then being able to kill it in his auditions and also being able to walk away from projects that he did not want to do. Whereas when he was a full-time actor, he would’ve had to take them to make rent.
You will never know whether you’re going to be the person who loves monetizing your joy or not unless you try it. That’s why I say take the pressure off. Do it in a small bite-sized stage. If you can take one audition or if you can do one project, see if that resonates. See if you want to do another one. Make that decision one by one. You don’t have to do it all at once.
It’s very true. You also bring up ikigai, which is one of my all-time favorite frameworks because it’s so simple and practical. It isn’t about what you are passionate about. It’s what you are passionate about, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for. That last part is particularly important because if you’re passionate about something that nobody’s going to pay you for, keep it as a passion and a hobby. That’s a joy you probably can’t monetize if you don’t think people are willing to pay for it.
We think that we have to have this one career where we sit at the center. Ikigai is four circles. You can if you can find that one thing, and some people do. You can also be two points in the circle. You can have the thing that you’re good at that the world needs and can also get paid for. You can also have the other thing that you enjoy and maybe don’t get paid for or maybe the world doesn’t need it but you do it anyway. That’s fine. As a freelancer, you can have that kind of portfolio in your career.
You did this for ten years. What are some of the skills that you need to be a successful freelancer?
The number one skill to be successful as a freelancer is being able to be curious and engaged with the world. That sounds very high level, but the thing is that most freelancers are finding their jobs through their weak ties and their connections. For me, an example is I got one of my biggest ever strategy consulting projects in an acting class.
My scene partner was a consultant at a major firm and she happened to be also filling this role. One conversation led to another and it ended up that I was the right fit. I’m not an aberration there. Maybe acting classes are rare, but LinkedIn replicated this study a few years ago by asking folks where they found their jobs. The vast majority are finding it from people who are 1 or 2 degrees removed from them. That’s the classic weak tie study that was true in the ‘70s and is true now.
As a freelancer, you’re working alone. Possibly, you’re working remotely. How are you going to find that next gig? It’s going to be by engaging with the folks in your team but also engaging with all the other people that you interact with in a day where you go to get coffee or go for exercise. It’s the communities you’re a part of. That’s the number one skill to longevity as a freelancer. That allows you to pivot as markets ebb and flow and as different projects come into and out of fashion. It allows you to change with the times because you’re engaged, you know what people need, and you can put yourself in that room.
You talk about a portfolio of different things. You talk about different sources of income, distinguishing between what you call active sources and passive sources. Talk a little bit more about that because that’s important in most freelance situations that you don’t necessarily put all of your eggs in one basket
If we’re going to use this metaphor of the career as a portfolio, you would want your portfolio, like any investment portfolio, to be diversified. You wouldn’t want all of your income to come from one client. If you can also have it not all come from one skillset, that would be ideal. Having a mix of different skills, I’ll give the example of one freelancer I interviewed.
She’s an entrepreneur but she was also a UX consultant and a professional dancer. Dance was the biggest source of her revenue in 2019. 2020 hit and all of a sudden, the performing arts ground to a halt. Since she was also a UX designer, she was able to very seamlessly replace the income that she lost by not being able to dance by being able to double down on this part of her portfolio.
I encourage folks to have a different mix of skillsets because you never know which part of your portfolio is going to thrive in the coming cycle. If you can also have a mix of active and passive income, that’s even more important because the active freelancers are selling their time and are very much constrained generally by the number of projects or the number of hours they can work in a given year.
To the extent that you can set things up to be able to take a one-time investment of your time and then generate revenue passively while you’re not paying attention to it is important. What that can look like will be different for everyone. I go through some examples in the book. The classic one is investing. If you can be a landlord eventually, that would be ideal.
Other ones can be things like setting up a course. You do the one time of setting up a course and then set up your advertising. Hopefully, that can drive its own business. You don’t have to be there for every classroom recording because you’ve recorded at once. I encourage freelancers to build a little flexibility into their portfolio by having both the active and the passive. Being able to then give themselves a break when the market is slow or when they need to take a sick day, they know that something else is working for them in the background.
You also talk about rabbits, antelopes, and giraffes.
My three favorite animals. For the rabbits and antelopes, this is a theory that came from a couple of strategists. One is Paul Begala and the other one is James Carville. They mention in their book that a lion could chase either rabbits or antelopes on the Savannah. If the lion goes after the rabbits, they’ll catch them. Running after rabbits takes more calories from the lion than he will get back by catching a rabbit. The lion then is encouraged to go after the antelopes, which are a little bit bigger and a little meatier. They can sustain the lion for a while so it’s worth the chase. The same is true for our businesses. I’ve added a third one, which is the giraffe.
If we think about the different goals that we can spend our time on, the rabbits are tempting because there are so many of them. People are happy when we cross these things off our list. They can be small and easy to do. We end up spending a lot of our time on them. An example of that would be social media posting or engaging with comments. They’re important to do, but the payoff is uncertain and it can take a lot of time.
In the middle is the antelope, which is a little bit more meaty. That could be something like landing a client that will keep you going for a few months, maybe even a year if you’re lucky. They drive the business forward and sustain you in a meaningful way. The third one is the giraffe, and that’s the one that’s this distant goal on the horizon.
Until I researched this book, I didn’t know that lions chase giraffes. I didn’t know sometimes that they win. It’s rare, but it does happen. That’s the same thing with the goal that we should have. It’s something that’s once in a lifetime that maybe will happen or maybe it won’t. If you do, it would put you in the stratosphere. For an entrepreneur, that would be founding a unicorn. For somebody else, that might be winning an Oscar, a New York Times bestseller, or something like that.
As freelancers, when we’re setting our goals, it’s really important to shift the balance so that we know what we’re aiming for in the long run. What is this massive once-in-a-lifetime thing that we’re hoping for? The antelopes and the rabbits that we’re chasing, do they even lead us in the direction of this giraffe or are they taking us somewhere else entirely? It’s important to keep yourself honest and also look at your days to see how much time you are spending on each task and whether that is going to serve you in the long run.
You talk as well about the interplay of all these things, your active, your passive, your rabbits, and your antelopes. Another metaphor uses the flywheel effect in your sources of income. Talk about how that plays out in maybe some of the examples that you heard in your research.
It’s ideal if you can get this flywheel set up. We talk about it in business a lot. For a freelancer, what you’ll want is for everything to be pointing in the same direction. If you are creating a book, for example, this is partly my research but partly also David Perell’s research. This is an example of his flywheel. David Perell is a big thought leader on Twitter and a few other platforms. Every time he posts on that, he grows his community, which then allows him to collect email addresses for his newsletter. It allows him to market a course that he has set up.
The material from his course comes from what he is creating in his social media posts and what he’s writing in his newsletter. The course is probably one of the biggest drivers of his revenue engine. The course, social media, and all of those, as they grow, bring him new consulting clients. All of that then drives more revenue, which then drives testimonials that cause people to follow him on Twitter or wherever to sign up for his newsletter, sign up for the course, and then hire him if they can. It goes in a circle.
To the extent that you can get momentum behind your activities where one supports the next, that’s ideal. A lot of times, as freelancers, we get caught up in scarcity or get very busy with deadlines. We either think that we have to accept any project that comes our way or we’re so busy executing on what we’ve already accepted that we don’t think about the direction that we’re going in.
We’re, at the moment, thinking about what the next quarter or what the next year could look like. It’s a great moment to think about whether the activities you’re spending your time on can then generate their own revenue or their own momentum and support each other or if they’re completely siloed. If they are, do you have the resources or the bandwidth to be able to do two parallel-track careers? You might, but you want to be honest with yourself about the answer.
You mentioned periods of scarcity or Boomer Bust periods. It invariably, I would imagine, hit almost any freelancer out there. How do you cope with the periods of scarcity? How do you not screw up the periods of windfall or abundance?
When you’re investing, you want to be countercyclical. When you’re a freelancer, the same idea is true. Whatever is happening, the only guarantee is that it will be different in the future. We don’t know what direction will be different, but it will change. In the moments of scarcity, the temptation is to think, “All this money will be coming in forever. I can make the purchases that I’ve held off on.” The answer is maybe you can and some of them you need to, but in the moments of abundance, can you live like you’re in the moments of scarcity? If you can, that will tide you over so that you have more runway and that you have a longer ability to survive when the scarcity comes around.Whatever is happening right now, the only guarantee is that it will be different in the future. Click To Tweet
On the flip side, when you’re in these moments of scarcity, the hardest one is the finances and the other is the psychological piece of it. This moment where no client wants to work with us or nobody is hiring, we feel like that’s going to last forever. When you’re in a busy season, by contrast, you’re probably not spending as much money. You’re not thinking about what to do because you’re executing the work that you need to do. You might have all these ideas of things that you want to do but don’t have the time for.
My advice to people is to make that list when you’re in that moment of abundance and you don’t have the ability to do all these projects. Do not just write down what you want to do. Write down why it matters to you in this moment. When you get to that scarcity moment and you have nothing to do, you’ll look at the list. If it’s a list of things that you want to do, you’ll say, “That doesn’t matter. The most important thing for me right now is to find my next client.” It might be, depending on how much runway you have.
If you have the time, looking at why these things matter to you can help you get in touch with that level of curiosity and engagement with the world, which then brings you to the places where you meet the weak ties. That leads you to be curious about what’s happening in the market, what you can offer, and what you’re good at, and to find a new value proposition.
A lot of times, when you’re in these moments of scarcity, the market is in transition. Maybe your skills are not valued the way they were a couple of months prior. You need to articulate that new value proposition you have, show how what you can do is relevant to the problems people are facing, and show that you’re offering something fresh. It’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s what makes freelancers so resilient and gritty because to succeed as a freelancer, you have to be able to make it through these droughts.
Part of our identity is tied up in the work that we do. It’s particularly unique when you’re a freelancer. It’s got to be easy when you’re in those periods of drought to think, “I’m a failure. I’m never going to get another client. I need to go back to the traditional corporate world.” How do you counsel people to not let identity get too tied up in the way that they’re thinking about what they’re doing?
Counsel is such a great word because I am not a counselor, but I highly recommend any form of therapy. Especially cognitive behavioral therapy is great. There’s a book that I talk about in my book. It’s called Feeling Good by Dr. Burns. It lists a number of these thought distortions. They are things like, “I’m a failure. I’ll never get a job again. I’ve ruined everything.” It helps you find a rational way of talking back to them. Our thoughts aren’t facts. In the low moments, we feel like, “This is true. I’m being rational. I’m being realistic.” What you’re doing is making yourself feel worse and finding it harder to dig yourself out of the hole.
It is having some sort of mindfulness or awareness practice where you even know what you’re thinking so that you can then counter whether or not this is true and whether or not some other alternative reality might be available. It could be some other skill you can offer, some person that you can reach out to for coffee that you haven’t reached out to yet, or some other way of marketing yourself. Having those tools in your toolkit is great for a freelancer. They’re also great for non-freelancers, but I believe everyone is a freelancer. That’s one thing.
The other is as a freelancer, you have to separate your identity from your work. In the corporate world, it’s very easy to confuse what you do for work with who you are as a person. You’re on so-and-so’s team. You have this title. You work for this company. It becomes shorthand for who you are. As a freelancer, all of that vanishes because every time you meet somebody new, you have to create who you are in that person’s mind for the first time from scratch.As a freelancer, you have to separate your identity from your work. Click To Tweet
When I first started as a freelancer, this was hard, demoralizing, and scary. I went to my reunion and explained that I was a freelancer. At business school, nobody got it. It was a very isolating experience. It’s healthy for you in the long run to figure out how to separate the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy has a lot of techniques for that.
Also, it is recognizing that when you’re leaving the corporate world, there is a moment of grief and loss that can happen because you had one vision of who you are, how you fit into society, and what you had to offer and things are different. They might be good different. You might’ve chosen this differently, but you’re still starting from the beginning again. You’re still starting from scratch.
You are allowing the fact that this is a transition that might not seem worth mourning. We call that disenfranchised grief. It is because it’s taking a toll on your psyche. The fact that you can address that head-on and know, “This is a loss that I’m suffering. I’m doing it for this reason,” or “It will get better for this reason,” brings you out of it.
When you go through this process, you have to do this many times over a career because it will happen over and over again. That makes you more resilient in your career not just because you can then get up and pitch yourself to the next client but because you can take feedback better. You can absorb the ways that your work needs to change without taking it personally and without confusing yourself with the work. That helps you perform better in the long run. You find new ways to adapt to the market as it changes because that’s all any of us are doing. The world is always in flux.
There are a lot of other things that make freelancing hard, like the risk of isolation, the feeling like there’s always something more you should be doing, and imposter syndrome. You talk about most of these in your book. How do you advise freelancers to cope with those?
The first step is mindfulness to know what problem you’re even trying to solve. The thing about something like imposter syndrome is you believe that you are seeing the world accurately. You think that you’re not to be responsible for your successes and that everything has been a fluke. That’s not until you or somebody else can call you out and say, “That’s a distortion. You did X, Y, and Z that is useful.” If you can be mindful and monitor, “I don’t feel so good. What was I thinking? Let me work on that.”
Even better is having a community and being able to find a place to share what’s going on and what you’re struggling with. That’s particularly hard for freelancers given that we work independently. That’s why it’s so important to stay engaged with all the different aspects of your life. We’re not going to have one community. At this point, we don’t have one career. We’re going to have pockets of community for the different identities that we bring into the world and be able to troubleshoot through that.
Since you asked about imposter syndrome specifically, a couple of things come up. One hack that I heard from an actor was to imagine it’s your second time doing something. That can be useful. It takes a little bit of practice. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the most natural thing for me to do the first time I tried it. The other thing that can be useful is to understand what the different types of imposters are. When you know what the archetypes are, you can start to see patterns. I go through a few of these. They’re not from my research. I cite the researcher in the book.
There are certain ones like the perfectionist imposter who believes they have to have every answer correct. There’s the one who believes that they have to be a natural success at everything and the fact that they’re working hard means they’re a failure. That’s a different kind of imposter. Knowing which types you tend to gravitate toward is useful because then, as you get into a situation where you struggle and fail, you can start to think, “This is what I would habitually respond with. Can I try something else?” That’s what freelancers are doing all the time. They’re trying new things.
One broader question I wanted to ask you that I’ve certainly been thinking about. Does all of this, whatever you call it, side hustles, freelancing, or hustle culture continue to take root? You’ve got these platforms as we talked about earlier. I always wonder whether the corporate world going to become an anachronism. Will we eventually move to a world where the majority of people are operating in this freelance mode or will it always remain a subset or a minority of the economy? I don’t know if you’ve thought about it and have a view, but I’m curious.
It’s going to be complicated because if you look at the different incentives of people, on the corporate side, the incentive is very much clear to move as many people from full-time to fractional work as possible. It’s more cost-effective. Especially as cycles seem to get faster and more volatile, it would preserve the corporation on that end.
On the flip side, for individuals, it’s a mixed bag. For some slices of the population, being only a freelancer is great because it allows them to thrive along with the dimensions that we’ve talked about. For another slice of the population, they need to be able to have some sort of stability and some sort of benefits.
We’re talking from the United States where there is not much of a social welfare state. Given that, the incentives of workers will then be to tie themselves to a corporation. If that changes and people are able to get benefits and are able to get unemployment insurance or payment, then more people would be inclined to gravitate toward freelancing.
Regardless, we’re seeing this trend accelerate and pick up momentum. Upwork released its new freelance forward study which talked about how more people than ever are freelancing. We’re now at 38% of the American workforce. As you look at the generations, this is the highest ever. If you look at the generations, Millennials are at 44%. We’re almost at the halfway point. For Gen Z, 53% have a side hustle. This is how Gen Z came of age in the workforce. It’s their way of working. Will they be setting the norm? I think they will.
As the workforce shifts in age composition, we are going to see the majority of people start to freelance. It’s going to depend on whether people can take care of themselves and be able to have all their basic needs met as freelancers or independent workers. This time, that’s not necessarily possible. We as a society need to do a better job of taking care of people and making the work sustainable.We need to do a better job of caring for people and making the work sustainable. Click To Tweet
Certainly, the availability or lack of availability of health insurance and other things that you need in life is a limiting factor for a lot of people. We’ve got the Affordable Care Act. I don’t know whether there will be anything more that happens on that. It’s been a very polarizing topic in the United States. It would be interesting to see particularly for this Gen Z population. Will they gravitate toward the traditional world when they have families or other people whom they need to provide health insurance for besides themselves and have other forms of obligations that they need to be mindful of? Will they seek out safety and security as opposed to the flexibility that comes with doing full-time freelancing? I’m curious to see how it all plays out.
A lot of people are starting to find that freelancing makes them feel more secure and stable than a full-time job because of what we were discussing earlier where you don’t have all of your eggs in one basket. Many people have experienced layoffs in the last few years. That is becoming more common. Whatever will allow people to feel whole may end up being freelancing.
Take a small experiment. I have a feeling that we all have something that we’re curious about or something that we don’t prioritize because we don’t necessarily think it will bring in a lot of income or we don’t know how to carve out time for it. Those are the things that make us interesting. Those are the things that help us find other paths that we can monetize to make new relationships and keep us fresh. You never know where that will lead. That may lead you to Bollywood. It may lead you somewhere else. I’d be curious to hear about it.
That sounds good. Thanks for doing this.
Thanks for having me.
It’s a topic I hadn’t covered before on the show. I’m glad that we were able to meet. We were both at the Thinkers50 Conference. We got to know each other a bit and conjured up the idea of doing this. Thanks.
Sure thing. Take care. Talk soon.
I want to thank Joy for joining me to cover the world of freelancing, her book, The Freelance Mindset, and her career journey. If you’d like to make the most of your career, visit PathWise.io and become a member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Joy Batra
Joy Batra is the founder of Quartz Consulting, a freelance consulting firm that has advised start-ups, venture capital firms, and Fortune 500 companies. She previously worked at Goldman Sachs, Gunderson Dettmer, JioSaavn, briefly as a Bollywood actress, and most recently as Head of Legal at Syndicate Protocol.
Joy has lived or worked in India, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE, and the UK. She currently splits her time between New York City and Boston. Joy holds a JD/MBA from Harvard University and a Bachelor’s from Boston College. Her book, The Freelance Mindset, was featured in The Washington Post, Fast Company, and Oprah Daily.