Real Advice: The Art of Saying ‘No’

I posted recently about my interview with freelancer Steve Gordon, who recently published "100 Habits of Highly Successful Freelance Designers" with Rockport. I asked him about one of the habits that I think a LOT of creative freelancers (writers, illustrators, etc.) have trouble with: #47—don’t cheapen yourself by grabbing at any paying project.

I asked Steve: Why is it so hard to say no to work you know isn’t a good fit, or to a client you know will drive you crazy? And how do you get past the fear of saying no?

He replied: Wow, that’s at the heart of a lot of ills for independent creatives. First, we all know that we have to do a few things here or there that we don’t necessarily want to do on the way to shaping our ideal careers. But doing the “money grab” is different. It’s hard to fight the knee-jerk reaction of “MONEY!” because freelancers live much closer to that paycheck-to-paycheck model than most. Money means you get to eat.

In my opinion, there's also still a lack of true collaboration between creatives that forces us to feel as if we can’t pass along a client to someone who can meet their needs properly.
The truth is, not knowing when to pass on a project is harmful in the overall scope of what you want to be doing as you’re striving to become a successful freelancer.

If you take on all comers, a few things can happen. It’s a false assumption that you can do it  all. This isn’t a school project. If you take on work outside of your range of experience or level of expertise, there are no do-overs. You potentially damage a relationship with a client, kick dirt on your own name in your market and put a dent in 'creative services’ being seen as a viable industry.

And there's another remnant of not being able to say 'no': low-balling your price. Clients will sometimes put the pinch on and play you against another creative (or even against the nephew-who-took-a-summer–art-class-in-’88). Clients have the bargaining chip because there’s always someone who will say 'yes.' This is where we cheapen ourselves and the creative industry as a whole.

Experience seems to be the only way to fight the fear saying no to certain clients or projects. I say this because with experience comes a certain amount of discernment, allowing you to make the call on whether a client would be a good fit and having the wisdom and honesty to say a project is outside of the range of your particular service offerings. Additionally, experience allows you to forge trusted industry relationships that allow for collaboration, so you can help a client find the best fit and help a fellow collaborator find a bit of new work. The good you do comes back. I’m hopeful of this.

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