How Bad Media Makes the World Even Better

empty_theater

Have you ever walked out of a movie?

Or failed to finish a book you started reading?

Or gotten halfway through a video game and just given up?

Congratulations: you secretly won.

That’s because you stopped giving your time and attention to something that didn’t appeal to you, and turned them instead toward finding something that would.

However, that’s only half of the story.

That’s because what you don’t like today may be something you’ll love tomorrow.

How is that possible?

Because it’s not necessarily the fault of the book, movie, or game that you gave up on it. There are plenty of reasons why we quit engaging media that doesn’t hook us. But that doesn’t mean the media failed.

In fact, I’d argue “bad” media is just as important as “good” media.

Here’s why.

  1. It’s not you, it’s me. All experiences — especially artistic ones — are subjective. What enraptures one audience may infuriate another. We always brings our own frames of reference to any new experience, and our context coupled with our openness to change dictates our ability to process and appreciate anything new.
  2. Every revolution eventually becomes history. What shook the world a century (or even a decade) ago may not have the same effect for you today. Culture absorbs its own breakthroughs and normalizes them into something mundane that future audiences take for granted. For example, a friend of mine who’d never seen Reservoir Dogs (which came out in 1992) was bored by it when he did finally watch it (in 2004) because he’d already seen every derivative film made in response to it. Every innovation comes with a ticking clock toward normality.
  3. Without the bad, there is no good. If everyone created good art all the time, we wouldn’t think of it as good; we’d see it all as common and mediocre. Understanding how truly bad something can be helps us to more fully appreciate the exceptional.
  4. Taste and trust aren’t guaranteed. The first time you read a new author, watch a new film genre, or hear a new type of music, you have minimal context on which to base your opinion. That means you might overreact (good or bad), because your context is brand new. At the other extreme, if you’ve read every Tom Clancy novel ever printed, it’s going to take a lot to convince you that a new spy novel is any good because you’ve been oversaturated in that genre. In both of these cases, any new media you experience may not actually be “good” or “bad;” you just might be too under- (or over-) exposed to it to objectively evaluate it.
  5. Everyone has bad days. Not every Kubrick film is 2001 and not every Shakespeare play is Hamlet. Even the best-reviewed artists have duds on their resume. The lucky ones have enough good ideas early on in their careers that their eventual missteps are forgiven; it’s the ones we accuse of having bad ideas from the start who rarely get the chance to prove us wrong.
  6. Sometimes “bad” is the price of exploration. If artists only ever stuck with what worked, they’d never grow. And if audiences don’t let artists make mistakes, they’ll never find new ways to surprise us.
  7. Nothing is ever all bad (or all good). Even in the lowliest of trash, there’s still the occasional glimpse of genius. And even in the greatest of masterpieces, there are still questionable artistic choices that we overlook because the rest of the work is considered to be a classic.
  8. If you can’t appreciate it for what it is, admire it for what it was. If you’re watching a film or reading a book that’s beloved by critics but you fail to see anything remarkable about it, you’ve just validated Point #2. So instead of comparing the work to everything that’s come after it, try seeing it as a cultural artifact so you can appreciate its impact, rather than lamenting its absence of modern relevance.
  9. It’s so bad, it’s good. Sometimes the elements that were supposed to succeed have failed so spectacularly, they create a vortex of unintentional charm. (The Room, anyone?)
  10. Expectations are the enemy of understanding. Maybe an album is poorly produced… but the lyrics are astounding. Maybe a film’s acting is wooden… but the cinematography is phenomenal. Maybe he’s forgetful… but he loves dogs. You may not always find what you were looking for, but if you’re open-minded, you’ll be surprised at the number of pleasant surprises you can find along the way.

None of this is meant to excuse laziness, ignorance or an abject lack of talent. In all things — from art to war, sex to enchiladas — there are winners and losers, even if it’s usually a matter of opinion. But complete worthlessness is as mathematically unlikely as total perfection. Most of us — and most of what we create — is somewhere in the middle.

Embrace it. Learn from it. Absorb it.

(But no; you still don’t have to finish it.)

The Meaning of Life According to Don Draper

MadMen_SCDP_s6

Autonomy is a major theme on Mad Men. Who has more power to control your story and your life — is it you, or everyone else?

For example, when the execs at ad agency Sterling Cooper learn their ad agency is about to be sold (again) at the end of season three, they conspire to buy their agency back and regain autonomy. This happens despite the fact that each of them stands to earn a huge payout in the pending deal. So why not just go along for the ride? Don Draper sums it up in one sentence:

“I want to work.”

With Sterling Cooper having already been sold and restructured a year ago, Draper explains that he’s not in this for the paycheck, and definitely not for the office politics. He simply wants to do work that means something (to him, at least).

Remember What It Means to Have a Purpose?

In our modern society, finance dominates our headlines. People are hyper-aware of dollar signs, and what the absence of available money denies us in terms of opportunities and experiences.

But what’s often lost in the discussion about our need for work is that work is about more than just the paycheck it brings. Work is about purpose.

Work isn’t just a title, or a job description, or an answer to all those cocktail party questions of “so, what do you do?” Work can provide us with true purpose, in the sense of waking up in the morning and knowing that what you’re about to devote the next 8 to 12 hours of your life to actually matters. Maybe not to everyone, and maybe not to anyone other than you personally.

But especially to you personally.

It’s Never Too Late for Accountability

On Mad Men, Don Draper seems to have it all, except that he actually has nothing. His family, his friendships, even his identity is entirely an illusion — and one that he works tirelessly to sustain. With his personal and professional lives collapsing, he finally clarifies what actually matters to him: creating something that didn’t exist before, and judging himself according to his own actions.

That a character as tragically flawed as Don Draper should still demand to be judged ultimately by his actions says a lot about what the rest of us say too rarely.

Is what you do every day providing you with purpose?

If it is, how can you help others find their purpose?

And if it isn’t… what do you need to change?

How to Change a Broken System

the-system-was-never-broken-it-was-built-this-way

As much as we celebrate change, there’s an ugly truth to society:

Our systems tend to resist most attempts to change them.

That’s not necessarily because the people who power those systems are assholes. (Although, yes, some people are just assholes. And when assholes get a little power, their terribleness tends to multiply.)

Broadly speaking, most systems remain intact because (at best) they work, and (at worst) the act of changing them is more effort than anyone can prove is worthwhile.

This isn’t because people want broken systems; they just don’t want to have to go through the effort of changing if that change isn’t guaranteed to be tangibly better for them.

And yet, from our seemingly endless examples of police brutality to our institutionalized education problems, there’s no shortage of obvious systemic flaws.

“Our police department is racist.”

“Our political system is doomed.”

“Our school system is a joke.”

“Our economy is broken.”

“Hollywood is sexist…”

And on, and on…

Now, maybe these systems don’t seem flawed to you. (If not, congratulations, you’re probably a straight white guy with money.) But it’s not hard to find data, conventional wisdom, and firsthand accounts that explain — both logically and emotionally — how and why these systems are broken for large percentages of the population, and why society as a whole — yes, even straight white guys with money! — would be better off if these broken systems were fixed.

So why is it so hard to change them?

To figure this out, let’s start with a bus schedule from hell.

Remember When Chile Ruined Everyone’s Quality of Life?

Public transportation is usually near the bottom of anyone’s “efficient systems” list, because it requires human beings to make optimal decisions on behalf of large groups of strangers with ever-changing needs.

But as the citizens of Santiago learned, sometimes even the best of intentions can actually make things worse.

When the city rolled out its Transantiago program in 2007, it became a case study in how not to fix a public transit system. Poor communication, bad design, inadequate routes, overcrowding, and operators who were given incentives that didn’t align with the needs of their passengers — all contributed to a $250M USD project spinning further and further out of control.

And yet, it’s illogical to believe that anyone wanted to make the situation worse than it already was. (And it was bad.)

So why did the new system fail?

Because the people, the processes, and the results were misaligned. And this is in a situation where everyone involved stood to benefit from system-wide improvements. So even in a case where all participants win… sometimes everyone still loses.

But can’t we do better?

Yes…

… but first we need to understand what exactly it is that we’re trying to change.

It’s Alive… IT’S ALIVE!

When we talk about systems, it may feel like we’re discussing something intangible — an infallible belief, or a collective illusion that can’t be broken. But that’s not true.

A system is really just people following a set of processes that achieve a desired result.

To break any system down into its components, you have:

  • People
  • Processes
  • Results

If you change any one of those elements, you affect the system. (But that can be hard.) And if you change all three of those elements, you replace the old system with a new system. (That’s even harder.)

The problem is, a system is inherently difficult to change.

That’s because as long as a system is capable of achieving the desired result, that system is considered to be “good enough” by the people who participate in, program, and enforce it.

To consider changing it, those people would need to evaluate their system, consider alternative processes and results, and decide that the efforts necessary to change their system will result in demonstrably better results than what they’re already getting.

This doesn’t happen easily.

There’s also an opportunity cost, or a risk, associated with even the noblest attempts to change a system.

Any effort to improve that system could fail, and that might be considered a waste of time, effort, and resources by the participants and programmers — especially compared to the likely outcome if all their time, effort, and resources hadn’t been diverted from what was already “working” well enough. (This explains why your day job is so slow to adapt to… well, anything.)

This failure to effect change may also impact the participants’ attitudes toward future attempts to improve their system. If attempted change already failed once, trying again might seem foolhardy.

This is why participants in any system often feel it’s better to trust the devil you know (a flawed but effective system) than the devil you don’t (a different system) because at least you know the existing system “works.”

So… how do you actually change a system?

Get Real

First, let’s start with a basic premise: we’re all humans. (If you’re a bot, please enjoy this instead.)

As evolved as we may be, humans still operate from two primary motivation sources: logic and emotion.

Logically…

  • We want to be sensible
  • We want to be efficient
  • We want to survive

Emotionally…

  • We want to be happy
  • We want to be loved
  • We want to be safe

Any system we create is meant to solve one of those problems. And as long as it solves one of those problems without making one of the other problems worse, that system will last.

For example, do we want to be sensible? Then we establish systems of logic, reason, language, morality, justice, politics, economics, and other ways to measure our actions and outcomes according to a mutually agreed-upon (by the majority of the participants) concept of sensibility.

If someone robs, kills, or cheats within that system, its rules are intended to re-establish sensibility through morality, justice, etc., so that the system stabilizes itself, on average. (Obviously, no system is perfect for all participants.) But if the outcomes are incompatible with most participants’ expectations of the system — e.g., offenders receive no penalty, or the penalties are too high or low compared to the perceived transgressions — then that system will begin to fail because its processes are not delivering its peoples’ desired outcomes.

But just like no one in power will relinquish power unless doing so would improve his own life, no system will change itself unless its own participants realize that a changed system would improve their own lives.

And that means to change a system, you need to change people.

Which, as you probably know, is hard as hell.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…

Are you a racist? Of course not!

At least, not as far as you’re concerned.

The truth is, even if you behave in a manner that others would consider to be racist (or sexist, homophobic, etc.), you probably don’t think you’re a racist. You think you’re behaving appropriately, and that other people have a problem with a system you believe is completely equitable because it’s delivering results that you have no problem with. And if someone else has a problem with those results, that’s their problem.

Now, imagine you’re of a different skin tone or gender.

Would your system still seem equitable to you? Actually, it probably would, because few of us really have any idea what it’s like to experience life as someone else does. And because we don’t want to believe that our chosen system is inherently flawed — or that we’re knowingly behaving in a way that literally makes other people’s lives worse — we convince ourselves that even if we were someone else, we’d be just as successful within our system as we are now, because we believe our voluntarily engaged systems are meritocracies that we can win — even when multiple data prove otherwise.

This is why trying to convince other people that they need to change their system on behalf of someone else is a losing proposition: because what you’re really saying is, “reduce your power so I can benefit.” And even if logic and emotion both justify your position, the participants in that system are going to have trouble believing the implication that they’ll be better off if you are.

After all, they’re OK right now. If they change their system, they might not be as OK, and they’re afraid of being less OK. They don’t want to have to learn a new system, and they definitely don’t want to have to process the shift in identity that comes with being less OK. Plus, if you become more OK as a result of that change, they’re going to perceive that shift as you profiting at their expense. And no matter how noble or altruistic that change was intended to be, it’s hard to convince a human that him being less OK is good for him.

So, how do you convince the people within a system that their system should change?

Aw, C’mon, Man…

Generally speaking, here’s what won’t work:

  • “It makes sense.”
  • “It’s the right thing to do.”
  • “It would help [someone who isn’t them].”
  • “The existing system is outdated.”
  • “Other people are changing their system, so why aren’t we?”

Those arguments may be emotionally compelling or logically true, but they don’t address the key obstacle: they don’t explain how a new system would be better for the participants of the existing system.

But wait! Wait! I can hear you all now:

“Why should we care if a system is better for the people who are already benefiting from it? If it’s broken, we need to blow it up and start all over!”

On paper, sure, that may seem logical.

In reality, not so much — for two reasons.

First, blowing up a system creates a vacuum in which no one is solving the original problem anymore. If your police department, school system, or business isn’t producing the desired results (a safe and happy community, well-educated students, or acceptable profits, respectively), then blowing up those systems creates temporary anarchy in which no one is reliably providing even a broken service.

But isn’t that better than putting up with a broken service? In some cases, maybe… until you factor in reason number two:

Once that vacuum exists, all parties with an interest in establishing a new system to solve this currently unserved problem are now racing each other to establish a new dominant system. And who’s most likely to win that race? The people with the most resources to expend — which, in most cases, are the people who were already profiting from the last system.

Am I saying that an insurgent system can’t topple an existing system, establish its own dominance, and better serve its constituents? No. It happens all the time. (See: military coups, disruptive technologies, and people who get happily remarried after a divorce.)

But those successes come with the added burden of needing to defend themselves against the rulers they deposed. (Or at least the angry gossip of jilted spouses.)

Is there a better way to change a system than blowing it up?

Sure: convince and convert.

Three Tactics for Proactively Changing a System

If the arguments above won’t work, which ones do? Ones that make the existing system better for everyone.

  • “Here’s how we can (all) save more time by becoming more efficient.”
  • “Here’s how we can (all) make more profit by changing a process.”
  • “Here’s how our (mutual) health can improve by changing our habits.”
  • “Here’s how killing fewer unarmed citizens makes (all) our lives better.”

Granted, these arguments don’t work every time. People can be hard to persuade (although there are proven tips that help). But that’s the key:

Changing people takes time.

Unfortunately, the immediacy of the Internet means we want to see wrongs righted as quickly as those wrongs become news. But while a headline can travel around the world in seconds, changing the systems responsible for those headlines takes a little longer.

A racist or sexist or calcified thinker doesn’t suddenly become inclusive and open-minded overnight. Even if he consciously admits he wants to change, he’s still fighting a lifetime of inherent biases, learned behaviors, and Pavlovian responses to stimuli. No amount of logic or emotion can undo that in a day.

Ditto the company that realizes it needs to evolve in order to remain competitive.

Or the couple who sees the cliff’s edge of their relationship and knows they have to change their behavior in order to avoid it.

A couch potato won’t wake up tomorrow and run a marathon. He starts by trying a salad, realizing that salad isn’t terrible, paying attention to how he feels after eating a salad vs. a carton of ice cream, and consciously choosing to eat a few more salads and a few less potato chips, week after week, until he wakes up one day and notices a demonstrable change in his appearance, his energy, and how he feels about himself.

He’s not an idiot. He knows he should be eating better and exercising.

But he has to want to change his behavior.

In order to change his own behavior and belief system, he has to create better habits and stick to them. And that takes willpower, which can be astoundingly difficult to cultivate. (Some studies claim we even have a finite amount of willpower. You can learn more about how to boost yours here.)

Because systems are comprised of people, those people have to want to change. And the benefits they see from behaving differently have to be demonstrably better for them than what they’re already doing. Otherwise, they’re going to resist that change, and the flawed system continues.

(And it doesn’t help that most people don’t communicate clearly in the first place.)

If a System Won’t Change Voluntarily, Can’t I Just Defeat It?

Sure. And you don’t even need a military coup to do it. Instead…

  • Join the system and create change from within (which can take a long time)
  • Beat the system at its own game (which can take a lot of time, effort, and resources)
  • Identify a structural weakness within the system and build your own system that meets those same needs more efficiently (which requires you to outmaneuver, outrace, and out-defend your system against the dying gasps of the old one)

None of these routes are easy, but then, neither is convincing someone else to change. But your odds of convincing them to change are much greater if you’re…

  • already in their system (seen as a peer or cohort)
  • exploiting their own processes (thus proving your own competence and, therefore, earning the respect of the old system)
  • proving that there’s a better system by achieving concrete results through alternative processes (rather than just theory)

Note that doing any of these doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be welcomed into the old system, or that the old system will happily change to accommodate you. But results have a way proving a point that all noble theories and good intentions in the world just can’t.

A Word About Victimhood

Remember when I said that systems can seem intangible — like an invisible force that just “exists”? We all have a tendency to believe those systems are out to get us, or that the system itself is the sole reason why we’re not happy or satisfied.

“My job wants me to fail.”

“My family wants me to be unfulfilled.”

“My government wants me to be miserable.”

In no world do those statements make logical sense, so we’d never say them out loud. But we do say things like “my life would be so much better if my job / family / school / government would just [change].”

That may be true.

But you’re part of that system too.

So even though you’re just one person within that system, you can change. And if you change, the system changes.

“But I’m completely and 100% right and the system is completely broken,” you insist. “Why should I have to be the one who changes?”

Maybe you don’t have to change yourself; maybe you just need to change your approach.

Are your beliefs not coming across clearly? What if you change the way you express them, or the people you express them to?

Is your behavior not leading to your desired results? Maybe you need to lead by example, or try different tactics to achieve those same goals.

However, a little change — even temporarily — may not be a bad thing.

Attempting to understand the system from the opposite point of view will help you see why it behaves the way it does, which could help you find a new thought process that bridges the gap between you and it.

And if that doesn’t work, you can try convincing the system to like you instead. (It worked for Benjamin Franklin.)

When All Else Fails… Prove It

When you’re in a results-based system (which most are) — or when interpersonal politics or personalities seem to be creating a roadblock that you just can’t get around — there’s still a way to get what you need: ask forgiveness, not permission.

If your boss / parent / elected official hasn’t been swayed by your logical or emotional arguments… do what you want to do anyway, and then show them the results.

If you were right, and your methods are proven to achieve a better outcome than the existing system, you’ll have a stronger case for convincing them to implement your approach.

And if they’re more angry that you circumvented their approved process than they are happy about your improved results, now you have two new options: ignore their obstruction and keep achieving your improved results, or quit their system and use your proof to build your own new, competitive system.

But the one thing you don’t want to do is believe that the system is “out to get you.” Because when you think it is, you start to believe that the only way you can achieve your own goals is to completely overwhelm the system — and that takes a level of time, effort, resources, and risk that’s statistically unlikely to succeed.

If anything, the system is probably ignoring you because the people within it just want to get their own jobs done and go home to their families. And as long as they’re achieving the results most people expect, then the system is doing “good enough.”

Don’t agree?

Prove it in a way that they not only can’t argue with, but in a way that makes them wonder why they haven’t been doing it better all along.

6 Life Lessons from SXSW

I spent six days in Austin enjoying the 2015 SXSW Film program. Like any conference that’s also a nonstop party, this year’s lineup was inspiring, informative, and over too soon. Here are six takeaways that stuck with me.

MarkDuplassSXSW
“The cavalry is not coming.” – Mark Duplass

Sound depressing? Well, wait a second.

In his heartfelt keynote, writer-actor-director-producer Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Togetherness, The League) shared his step-by-step strategy for breaking into the movie business. It involves passion, practice, tenacity, and community. And if you do it well, you’ll craft a career in which you’re surrounded by people that you love to work with, telling singular stories that resonate deeply with your audience.

But he also cautioned that Hollywood will keep enticing you, and you’ll always think you’re one deal away from making it big… only for that latest deal to fall apart. And you’ll get frustrated, and you may even think about quitting, because here you are, doing your best work, and no one’s coming along to deliver you to the promised land of money and fame.

“When will the cavalry come for me?” you’ll ask yourself.

And then one day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll realize you are the cavalry.

Because when you take the time to hone your voice, and build your community, and establish your reputation, you’re developing the power to achieve your vision without needing someone else’s validation.

BOOM.

Kind of reconfigures your whole plan, doesn’t it?

GinaPrinceBythewoodSXSW
Don’t confuse “no” with “never.”

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights) applied to UCLA film school… but she didn’t get in. She thought they made a mistake, so she wrote a letter and made her case for admission.

She got in.

Later, she applied for a job on the sitcom A Different World… but didn’t get hired. When the guy who was hired instead of her didn’t pan out, she got back in touch with the powers that be and called and called and called and called them until they finally gave her a shot. She took it, and it launched her career.

The lesson? Just because one door closes, that doesn’t mean it’s locked.

ChristineVachonSXSW
“Walk through the doors that open for you.” – Christine Vachon

Likewise, not every path to success is a straight line from A to B.

“If you want to work in narrative film, and someone offers you a job in documentary, take it.” That’s the advice of producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Velvet Goldmine), who knows a thing or two about launching the careers of outsider voices.

So why take a seemingly counter-intuitive opportunity? Because once you’re “in,” your network expands and you’ll have more options — and you never know where those new options will lead. But if you don’t take that chance, you stay right where you are, waiting for the “perfect” opportunity… which may never come.

BenSinclairKatjaBlichfeld_HighMaintenanceSXSW2
Your idea of “success” may be different from the next person’s.

High Maintenance creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld turned their DIY series into a critical hit. Vimeo was so impressed, they made the show their first flagship series. And yet, because Ben is a working actor, his fans wonder if his dedication to the series is holding him back from “bigger things.”

The catch?

“We love the people we make this show with so much, we always say we want to go off and start a commune with them.” That’s Sinclair’s summary of the working conditions on High Maintenance, a labor of love that he and Blichfeld have complete creative control over.

“Honestly,” says Sinclair, “unless I get a script that’s amazing, why would I spend time doing another project when I could be doing what I love?”

In other words: if you’re chasing a goal, make sure it’s one you want to reach.

BeauWillimonSXSW2
Seek out different perspectives.

Beau Willimon, the showrunner for Netflix’s House of Cards, was asked about the benefits of having a diverse writer’s room. He was quick to clarify that “diversity” isn’t about checking boxes; it’s about finding authentic voices with a variety of POVs.

“I look for people who can write stories I wouldn’t even be capable of imagining,” Willimon says. “And that’s because their backgrounds and their visions are so different from mine.”

Yes, the quality of the work is what ultimately matters. But the more memorable your individual voice becomes, the more likely you are to be heard.

RZA_SXSW
“Never stop learning.” – RZA

It’s been a long and varied career for RZA, whose love of rap music and martial arts films inspired him to found the legendary Wu-Tang Clan… which led to him composing film scores for Jim Jarmusch… which introduced him to Quentin Tarantino… which inspired him to become a director himself.

During the Q&A from his keynote, a fan asked him, “Given all your various influences, what’s next for you?”

“I’m studying Woody Allen,” said RZA.

The audience burst out laughing, but RZA was serious.

“Always be learning from genres and sources that have nothing to do with what you’re interested in, because you never know what you might learn that you can use. If you want to make a movie about New York gangs, go watch some French films. I just had my daughter watch Yentl. That’s a Barbra Streisand movie. But there’s something in there that she can use.”

Keep exploring.

Enjoy my blog? Follow me on Twitter. Need a writer? Hire me on LinkedIn.

10 Things Every Freelancer Needs

Desktop

Some people dream of quitting their day jobs in order to freelance, but the fear of “what could go wrong” keeps them from making the jump.

I’ve done it twice now, once in 2005 and again in 2014. Both times, I did some things well and other things badly. And both times I loved the freedom, I hated the uncertainty, and I kept finding creative ways to move forward.

If you want to make a living freelancing but you’re worried about all the risks, these 13 tips for starting a freelance career by author Catherine Price are a great start. (She wrote them before the Affordable Care Act made health insurance less impossible for freelancers to find, but her other tips are timeless.)

Meanwhile, here are 10 other things that she didn’t mention — a.k.a., 10 mistakes NOT to make when you first start freelancing.

1. Have a nest egg.

No one jumps without a net unless they have to. In a perfect world, you should have a three month nest egg set aside… but let’s be honest: you probably don’t.

That’s okay.

Just start freelancing while you still have a day job, and use your initial freelance revenue to build your nest egg.

You want to have enough money set aside to cover at least one month’s expenses, but more is better. The longer you won’t have to worry about where your next month’s rent is coming from, the more relaxed and creative you’ll be and the more confidently you can pursue the gigs you want, rather than just taking whatever you can get.

2. Sign contracts.

“But I trust people.”

So do I, generally. But I still insist on signing a contract, even with clients I’ve worked with repeatedly. Not that every client you have will honor their contract (though I’ve never yet had one who didn’t). This is really about two things:

A) Making sure both parties know what their actual responsibilities are, and

B) Providing you both with peace of mind in case things do go wrong.

No one wants to go to court to get paid. But if you ever have to, a contract means at least you stand a fighting chance.

3. Charge 50% up front and 50% upon completion.

Freelance is a feast-or-famine game, and you’re always chasing the next job while you’re executing the current one. This means you need as reliable a stream of income as possible to budget against.

Meanwhile, your clients aren’t always in a hurry to pay you. Whether by design or by accident, some well-meaning clients can delay your payments for weeks or even months due to paperwork SNAFUs.

For both of these reasons, I strongly suggest charging 50% due upon signing of the contract and the remaining 50% upon approval of the finished work. That way you’re not starving while waiting on endless rounds of approval.

Some clients may refuse to pay 50% up front, especially to a new vendor. If so, you may be willing to negotiate a different %. But be wary of a client who refuses to pay anything up front; that’s the sign of a cash-strapped business, which implies they may have other communication problems down the road.

4. Late fees and rush fees.

Not everyone is comfortable charging rush fees, but if a client requests complicated work with a crazy turnaround time, you have the right to adjust your usual price — especially if that means you have to move their project ahead of someone else’s.

Late fees are also optional, but they help deter indefinite delays. You may never even have to invoke them, but if they’re part of your contract, you’ll have the option of levying them on any delinquent accounts. Just doing so once can ensure that a client won’t suffer the same slowdown again.

5. Aim for retainers and recurring contracts.

All revenue is good revenue, but recurring revenue is the best because it means you can budget like a semi-sane person while you chase down your next big contract. On the other hand, recurring contracts are usually tied to specific tasks or hourly requirements, so make sure your pay rate matches those specifics and also accounts for those limits on your time. Hours you’re working for one client are hours you can’t spend on another.

6. Always have one client too many.

Early on, you may just want any client you can get. But once you start getting a stable base of work, make sure you always have at least one more client or contract than you need to break even.

Contracts end. Clients find other vendors. Your connections may get fired or move on. In any of those cases, losing a client you can afford to lose is much preferable to losing the one that was responsible for making sure you have lunch money.

And if a client turns out to be a problem? Relax: you can fire them and still pay your utilities.

7. Dedicate space in your home or apartment to use as a home office.

I know, I know: you want to be able to work from coffee shops and beaches and wherever, man. And you still can. But when you’re at home, dedicate a room or even a desk as “the freelance space.” It doesn’t mean you have to do all your work from there. But the work you do do from there can give you a nice tax deduction.

8. Have a routine.

The greatest restriction of the 9-to-5 life is also its greatest strength: predictability. People who have to be in an office know what they’re supposed to be doing while they’re there. And even if some slacking occurs, they’re still basically working for 8 hours a day.

When you’re on your own, you’re the only person responsible for making sure you get things done. No one else is managing you, and your clients just want to see the work get done; they don’t care when, where, or how.

As such, you need to impose your own schedule on yourself. Figure out when you do your best work and make sure you’re working at that time of day, every day. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day. Whatever kind of structure you need, adhere to it. Because if you don’t, a few weeks of “Hey, I can work whenever I want” turns into “Hey, I’m not doing any work at all…”

9. Get comfortable with selling yourself.

When I contacted Catherine Price on Twitter to let her know I’d be linking to her freelance tips in this post, she asked if there was any way I could also mention her new book, Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection. (As she joked, “Another freelance tip: engage in shameless self-promotion.”)

She’s right, though.

When you’re freelancing, you’re also your only sales rep, and the product you’re selling is you. It may feel artificial to have to convince someone else that your skills and expertise are “worth buying,” because you just want them to magically realize it about you and hire you without questions.

But no one is looking to do you any favors or throw you any bones; you need to go get them yourself. And if you don’t get business, you’re going to starve. So start believing that what you have to offer is worth the price. (Because if you don’t, someone else will get your business and eat your lunch.)

10. Your network can’t help you if they don’t know what you do, what you love, and how you can be helpful to someone else.

Okay, some people will do you favors. Your friends are happy to make connections for you, as long as they believe you’re talented and reliable.

But they also have to know what you’re good at, and what you need.

Look at your LinkedIn connections. How many of them can you really recommend to anyone else? (Heck, how many of them do you actually even know?)

Does your family know that you’re freelancing? Do they know what you’re freelancing in?

The more people know about your skills, your accomplishments, and what you’d like to do next, the easier it is for them to connect those dots when the opportunity arises. And the next time they meet a colleague who needs a new ad campaign / commercial video / wedding photography / magazine article / financial advice / whatever it is that you love doing, they can recommend you.

But not if you’re confusing silence with humility. So go ahead: toot your own horn from time to time. Just don’t deafen your network, or they won’t think you need the help. Or, worse, they’ll tune you out.

Enjoy my blog? Follow me on Twitter. Need a writer? Hire me on LinkedIn.