Risk and Reward: How Taking Risks Helps Your Freelance Career

Risk. It’s a small word with big impact. Taking risks involves change and the unknown. We’re not all that comfortable with either concept. I was in conversation with a few other solo creatives talking about life as a freelancer. Inevitably, we came around to discussing the risks we take. We agreed that we risk on a daily basis, simply because we are independent creatives. How we think about risk affects how well we do in business and in life. I think it’s a great topic to share with you, because risk is large perceived as negative.

What is risk?

Risk is both a noun and a verb. The Oxford Dictionary defines risk as exposure to danger. Risk is what we do when we consider doing something where a good outcome is not guaranteed.

Risk can be understood as a barrier to entry. It’s where we weigh the pros and cons of making a move. To take a risk is to make a change, and any change is disruptive. Things will not be the same going forward. Fear of risk creates that barrier. We entertain all sorts of “what ifs”. Do we really want to change, even when we know we need to? For some, just thinking about making a change is risky. When we risk we sacrifice one thing to obtain something else. If you think about it, we do this many times over in a day, freelancer or not.

Risk Is Neutral

Risk is, in fact, a neutral concept. Whether it’s thought of as positive or negative depends on the person doing the thinking. What’s risky for you is not automatically risky for me. One thing is certain: in order to achieve our goals, we need to take risks. As freelancers, risks can be huge. We hold onto bad clients because we don’t want to risk losing income.

When we recognize the need for change, we calculate the potential loss the change will create compared to the potential gain. We risk nothing in making that comparison. We take the risk only when we make the move. The calculated assessment is this: What will I give up to gain something better? When we ask ourselves, What’s the worst that could happen?, we are assessing risk.

Risk As A Barrier

If taking a risk is taking a chance, there are a number of reasons we avoid it. Each barrier is about being safe and secure. Do any of these sound familiar?

Fear of letting others down. Whenever we make a change, we are likely to stop meeting people’s expectations. One example of this from my own experience is when I decided — for good reason — to change the focus and the name of this blog. I originally started my blog to educate clients about design and branding. I noticed that when I wrote about design principles, or offered tips for improving drawing skills, or advice about freelancing, I got more interest from people beyond my circle of clients, So I made a calculated shift in what I wrote about, and started offering tips and tutorials for freelancers and other creatives, in the hope of helping that larger audience. The result? A number of clients unsubscribed from my list almost immediately.

Not knowing how. Sometimes there is a learning curve to making a change, and that learning curve comes with a price. We spend time figuring out how to do something and put off actually doing it. A learning curve is not a bad thing, but we can become so comfortable with studying something that we never “pull the trigger” and apply what we learned.

What will it cost? When something is perceived as too expensive, it becomes a barrier. Enrolling in a $499 online course, booking advertising space, registering for a conference, and earning a certificate are examples of things that add value and create benefit, but may not seem to fit into the budget.

Another way to look at the cost factor is to assess what you need to give up in accepting the risk. Comfort? Security? Reputation? Influence? Time? A steady income?

What if I try and fail? Failure is an option. I think it’s human nature to want to succeed, but failure opens us up to the fact that we don’t always measure up, and can also make us reluctant to try again.

Being uncomfortable. Change and growth can be messy, painful and downright frustrating. We will avoid making changes and taking risks because we don’t want to step out of our comfort zones into unfamiliar territory.

Risk As A Motivator

What will happen if you don’t take risks? You will  not change. You’ll stay where you are, doing just what you’re doing. You’ll miss out on new experiences that can mature you, new skills you need for success, new clients, new ideas and inspiration, and new opportunities.

Fear of letting others down. When others are counting on you, you have to take risks. If you don’t make this change or do that thing, what will that mean to those around you — your family, your clients, your friends, and yourself? What won’t be possible if you stay where you are?

For creative freelancers, risk is an ordinary and necessary expectation. Two obvious things we risk include 1) not making enough money to cover our expenses, and 2) not being able to find the right clients. If you’ve come from salaried or hourly employment into freelancing, you’ve already accepted the risk of irregular income. But since you’ve made the step, you’ve realized how the benefit of creating a profit outweighs the benefits of earning a paycheck.

Calculate your risks

When you freelance for your livelihood, taking risks is a daily activity. When your livelihood rests on your creativity and business sense, you will set  your fear aside and go for it.

What will land you in trouble is taking impulsive, uncalculated risks. Define the risk — what will you gain and what will you lose — and make an action plan before you move forward. Look at as many possible outcomes as you can. Decide on a strategy and move wisely. Be willing to change course quickly if necessary.

While you cannot guarantee an outcome, you can make calculated risks. This means you’re not jumping into something unaware or uninformed. Instead, you explore your options, do some research, ask questions, and form a good idea of the possible results. Asking questions and finding answers prepares you to accept the risk, and will even reduce the level of risk involved. You should not just jump into something without counting the cost of the jump.

Find a mentor to guide you. If you know someone who has been successful in the areas you are pursuing, learn from them. They can open your eyes to things you didn’t see before, and because they have previous experience, they can show what to watch out for and what to hope for.

Build your own group of trusted advisors who will encourage you as you take risks. Communicate what your goals are, and ask for their input in your strategies and goals.

4 Benefits of Taking Risks

1. Taking risks leads to success. If you change how you understand risk and see it as opportunity, you will increase your comfort level with taking risks in general. Accomplishing something, doing something differently, trying a new road lead to new opportunities expand your skill set and build your confidence. When you don’t take risks, you will limit your success.

Successful people have built themselves up on a pile of failures. When something doesn’t work out, you figure out what went wrong and try again.

The next time you’re presented with a barrier — something that holds you back — ask yourself why it’s holding you back, and what would happen if it didn’t. Be creative in imagining the possibilities if you overcame that barrier. A barrier can be a simple as not liking to pick up the phone and introduce  yourself to a prospective client. But look at it from the other side… making the call can lead to a new client. If not, you’re no worse off, and the next prospecting call is that much easier.

2. Taking risks teaches you. When you take calculated risks, you learn quickly what you are good at and where you need to improve. You learn about your own tendencies. You discover your own character.

3. Taking risks helps you overcome your fear of failure. Fear is bondage. It holds you back. Facing your fears by acting in spite of them frees you from them.

4. Taking risks raises the bar. As you meet challenges, you grow in competence, which increases your confidence, and makes you more able to accept greater risks and challenges. The more experienced risk-taker you become, the farther you rise above mediocrity. Don’t tell my clients this, but I have taken on some design projects I didn’t have the skills for. By taking them on, I learned (I didn’t charge my clients for my “education”) what the skills and acquired the knowledge I needed to create successful work. I took a few risks and they worked out well for my clients and for me. Because I have taken risks, I have long outgrown the $25.00 per hour designer fee. I have become an expert.

In order to succeed, you must take calculated risks

In order to succeed, you must take calculated risks, and take one after another. You will not achieve your goals and dreams if you don’t. Realize that the reality of freelancing risks involves uncertainty rather than real danger. And be encouraged in gathering information and talking with people you trust in order to calculate your risks well.

Your Turn: What risk did you take recently? How did it turn out? What did you learn?