Things I’ve Learned as a Freelancer

It marked six years since I started to become a self-employed a.k.a freelancer. The reasons I decided to take this path after many years of working 9 to 5 in the corporation weren’t all romantic. Aside from the cliché reason, such as my passion or my ‘calling,’ my health problems –from chronic migraine to arrhythmia— also contributed to this matter. I’m also an introvert, so it was draining to be surrounded by people for long hours.

It wasn’t a smooth journey, even after all those years. Whenever I work endless hours, have dry spells, or receive a stack of insurance bills, I feel jealous of the people with steady jobs. I remember having a terrible panic attack in 2018 when I moved to Austria because my income didn’t make ends meet. It definitely wasn’t the last panic attack I encountered since then.

Regardless, this path works best for me from my limited options, mentally and physically. At least I can take things slow when I have an episode of migraine attacks (which can stay for months without a break); plus, I can work beside my mischievous assistant.


Allow me to share all the things I’ve learned along the way these past few years. These aren’t a step-by-step thing and are limited to my own experience so far:

  • Saving literally saved my life
    Before I quit my day job, I set my income aside to survive at least six months without income. It was very challenging as a ‘sandwich generation,’ where to be financially responsible for my parents and myself. My income was low, so I had to take multiple side gigs and work until midnight. I planned it long before I quit. It seems obvious, but trust me, I dreamed of a sudden dramatic resignation on multiple occasions before and was glad I didn’t do it.
  • Starting small is OK
    I know how things could be overwhelming when we first started, especially now with all the social media. I often become jealous of how nice other artists’ studios are, how advanced their tools are, how big their clients are, and the list goes on. Whenever those feelings creep in, I remind myself of how I started with an old Wacom Intuos and an old cheap notebook in my tiny bedroom which heated like an oven during the daytime. It’s OK if it starts minimal. The most important part is the human behind the tools.
  • Breaks are part of the work
    I used to work more than 15 hours, 7/7. My entire life experience and culture shaped me into a mad workaholic. I felt extremely anxious and guilty whenever I didn’t work. It became worse when I started freelancing. In my 20s, it wasn’t a big deal. Hey, I am still alive even without sleep! Yay! But in my late 20s, all my health problems surfaced one after another. I only learned my lesson last year after a terrible burnout. But as I failed to reprogram my mindset, I tried another approach, I HAVE TO take a break or else I can’t work. Living life itself is part of the work.
  • I’m not alone
    It still surprises me whenever I listen to some podcasts and hear even the most prolific freelancer share similar struggles: anxiety, imposter syndrome, burnout, etc. It’s a bad and good news at the same time; it’s bad because it means it’s not a phase and will piggy tail me until my pension, and it’s good because I can reach out to my peers to get affirmation without sounding pathetic. Sitting alone facing a blank paper can be so lonely and daunting. But it feels less alone when I know someone, somewhere, is facing the same feelings.
  • Boundaries for insanity
    As a freelancer, some people would associate you with a jobless freeman. I am often in a situation where I have to run errands for people around me or volunteer myself because they think I have a bunch of free time as I don’t have office hours. I used to feel guilty if I turned someone down. Recently I’ve been trying to set my boundaries. I don’t have to respond to every email or message or accept all requests.
  • Set aside for taxes and health insurance
    This one is very tedious but essential. Whenever I received payment, I set it aside some percentage on a separate sub-bank account and pretended that I know nothing about it. I also tried to track how much I earned by the year’s end and calculated the tax estimation. I wrote it on paper and pinned it to the wall. It’s easier to write; practically, unpredictable things always happen. But I try my best.
  • Failure is just a first draft
    Failure felt very personal to me. Also, the siblings who come with it: rejection, criticism, pushback, and mistakes. When my agent rejected my dummy or when I received lengthy notes from the publishing team, I used to feel down and attacked. My work has tied to me personally. But in reality, it’s never about myself; everything is a collaboration. Now I see all those things more like a first draft of my writings; it might be rough, but there’s room to grow and attempt.
  • Doing nothing when sick is OK
    Maybe it’s from my childhood trauma, so it might sound weird, but this is for someone with similar guilt. It’s OK to take a nap or do nothing for hours or days if you feel sick or in pain, especially with chronic pain, which people often overlook. I was barely functioning when my chronic migraine attacked. I spent my days in bed helpless and hated myself. Lately, I’ve been dealing with it better.
  • Everything is negotiable
    Negotiation is my weak spot. I’m very thankful for having Christy (my agent) to help me on this matter. From budget, time, revision, and terms, all are negotiable. If they’re not, I can take it or leave it. I often ask for extra time, and the team is usually very cooperative as long as it’s not a last-minute request. It’s different for each industry; for example, the animation industry has a rigorous schedule. That’s why I take mental notes whenever I take on various projects. Ultimately, we work with human, so as long as we’re responsible and professional, there’s always room for negotiation.

Those are the things I’ve learned so far. I still have many more things to learn and to figure out, like I’m very chaotic and never a planner. I always take deadlines seriously, but my mind is a hot mess (someone suggested I do an ADHD test, but I’ve not done it yet). Everyone’s journey will be different. If you want to share what you’ve learned in your freelancing/ self-employee journey, I’m all ears!

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