Jeff Goins is a successful writer and entrepreneur. But a few years ago he came to a point where building his business wasn’t working. Everyone thought he was successful: His company made seven figures and he managed a team of 15 people.
But he was incredibly stressed. His company was losing money. And he didn’t enjoy the work.While everything told him he needed to build this business so he could pursue his dream, it felt more like a nightmare.
Bigger isn’t always better.
Goins reevaluated what he was doing, talked to business coaches, and even reached out to business guru Seth Godin.
Ultimately, he gave up the seven-figure dream and downsized his company. It wasn’t worth killing himself to achieve a dream.
Too often, as freelancers and entrepreneurs, we start pursuing a dream that isn’t really ours. There are a lot of expectations in the business world, and they don’t always match with what we want.
So let’s explore a few insights and lessons about finding success and chasing your dreams as a freelancer:
- If you’re going to chase a dream, you have to make sure it’s your dream.
- Be realistic about that dream: we’re talking about work, not winning the lottery.
- If you want to find success, you have to define it for yourself.
- Ultimately, you have to know yourself and figure out what you want.
- That may require some trial and error. It’s OK to experiment as you figure it out.
1. What is Not Your Dream?
I’m a writer, not a developer, so my dreams are a bit different than coders and designers. Once upon a time, I wanted to write the great American novel. That was the dream: working in a secluded office putting pen to paper and creating worlds. I dreamed of that growing up, and I went to college to get a writing degree with that in mind. Realistically, I knew I would have a day job, but the dream was to write that novel.
But I only dreamed of writing a novel, I never actually wrote a novel. The task seemed too daunting and overwhelming. I didn’t write short stories. I didn’t create outlines. I didn’t invent characters or think of intricate plots. I just dreamed of a vague home office and a nice writerly sweater.
It was easier to dream than to do. In the end, I don’t think I had a novel in me. At least, it wasn’t going to be the great American novel.
I was chasing a dream that really didn’t fit. I did get that writing degree and today I make a living as a freelance writer. And I did try to write that novel. I participated in National Novel Writing Month and wrote a couple bad first drafts of novels. I realized that reality is nothing like the dream. It’s hard, difficult work. And I didn’t love it.
That should have been a clue that it wasn’t really my dream.
If it’s truly your dream, you’ll pursue it with all your heart. You’ll stay up late working on it. You’ll do it in your spare time. People will get tired of listening to you talk about it. Even if you can’t pursue the full dream right now, you’ll find a way to work toward it. When it came to the dream of writing the great American novel, I wasn’t doing any of those things. It wasn’t really my dream.
Don’t fall for a dream that’s not your own.
2. What is Actually Possible?
Let’s pop another bubble: Sometimes that dream is unattainable.
G. Willow Wilson is a successful, full-time writer and co-creator of Kamala Khan, the ground-breaking reboot of the Ms. Marvel comic book. Her creation appears in an animated series and is available as a Halloween costume, action figure, and Lego minifig.
But even Wilson has yet to achieve the writerly dream, as she says in this thread on Twitter:
The 'chase your dreams' stuff floating around reminded me of a convo I had with my agent recently–when I started writing full-time, I had this vision of holing up in a garret, working leisurely on one big project at a time. 13 years later? Still a dream.
— G. Willow Wilson (@GWillowWilson) February 6, 2019
She later elaborates, “That cozy, quiet garret in which I write the great American novel over the course of, I dunno, three blissfully uninterrupted years? Will never happen.”
Sometimes the dream is just a dream. It’s not reality and it never will be. We’re chasing a shadow.
That’s a reality we need to come to terms with and be happy with what we have. That doesn’t mean you can’t dream of something better or shouldn’t shoot for the stars, but it does mean you need to be realistic about what’s possible. Don’t mistake a fantasy for a dream.
A four-hour workweek might be a wonderful dream and a best-selling book, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible for all of us. Now a four-day workweek, that can be within your grasp.
This lottery-winning dream that we’re going to find ultimate success and be able to work on things we love at our leisure is often an illusion.
“A dream job is usually a lot more like a real job than not.”
-G. Willow Wilson
The fact is you’re most likely going to need to work hard, no matter what, and if you’re lucky you can work hard at something you love. The key is in how we define success.
3. How Do You Define Success?
Whether we’re chasing someone else’s dream or even discovering that your dream isn’t attainable—part of the problem is how we measure success. There are a lot of ways to measure success, but too often we let someone else define it for us.
If you’re going to be happy, you need to define your own success.
When we let other people or society or expectations define our success, we never measure up. It doesn’t quite fit. We’re playing someone else’s game, and we wonder why we can’t win.
“If you feel like you’re losing, change the game you’re playing.” -Jeff Goins
You have to play your own game. Figure out what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and lean into that.
Success means different things to different people:
- The freedom to set your own hours and pursue your own work.
- Having time with your family and not having to think about work.
- Paying the bills and not having the stress of responsibility.
- Financial independence so you don’t have to worry about work.
We don’t all need to define success as a seven-figure income and a fancy sports car. For a lot of us, that kind of success is going to feel hollow. For a lot of folks, success simply means paying the bills and taking care of their family. There’s nothing wrong with that.
You have to define that goal for yourself, and then figure out how to achieve it. If you just want to pay the bills and not be overwhelmed with stress, you might want to go back to a day job. If you want that financial independence, you might need to build that business. If you want the freedom to set your own terms, then freelancing might be your path to success.
Play your own game. Do what you’re best at, and figure out what success means for you.
And also be aware of the cost of that success. For Jeff Goins, the cost was too high. Freedom has its own cost—you can set your own hours, but you still have to get the work done. So the freedom to spend the day with your kids might mean you work late into the night. What cost are you willing to pay for success?
4. What Do You Actually Want?
In the end, you have to figure out what you want. Jeff Goins opted out of growing his company into a seven-figure behemoth and scaled back to something he enjoyed, all because of the advice he received from Seth Godin:
“Don’t build a business because you want freedom, build a business because you want to run a business.”
So the key is to figure out what you enjoy doing and are good at, and pursue that. There’s always going to be a certain amount of stress and work in any job, but you should also relish the challenge of it.
- Maybe your dream is in the work. There are certain things you want to be doing, and that’s what you need to pursue.
- Maybe your dream is in the freedom. You want to be your own boss. It doesn’t really matter what kind of work you do, as long as you get to set the terms.
- Maybe your dream is a modest living. You want to pay the bills, have time for your family, and not be stressed out. Opting out of the rat race is completely legit.
- And maybe your dream is that seven-figure company. If running a business is what you want, then go for it.
The key to all of this is knowing yourself. You have to figure out what you really want. But that’s not always so easy.
5. Are You Ready to Try?
Here’s a final lesson: Sometimes you never know until you try. You just have to see what works. Experiment. Try something and see how you like it.
Jeff Goins didn’t know he didn’t want to run a business until he tried and realized it was killing him.
I didn’t know I wasn’t really a storyteller until I tried writing those novels and realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
And even Seth Godin—he went back to freelancing after trying other things.People are going to give you lots of advice (like this article), but sometimes the best advice in the world is doing it yourself. Figure out what works for you.
You might want to be a freelancer. You might want to build a business. You might want to go back to the day job.
It all depends on you.
Achieving Your Dreams
So if you’re going to find success as a freelancer, you need to let go of the dream, define your own success, and figure out what it is you really want. And then you might have to try a few things.
You don’t have to settle for something that’s not working.
And you don’t have to chase something that isn’t real.
Define your own success, discover your own dream, and be happy in your work.