How to handle rejection as a freelancer
If you’re putting yourself out there as a freelance consultant, it’s inevitable that it won’t all be yeses and high fives. Here’s what you can do when you receive the cold shoulder
You’ve been introduced to someone via your network. They’re really interested in your experience because they’ve got a problem that someone just like you could solve. They’d like to meet for coffee. They’d like to meet for coffee on Tuesday next week. And then… They go silent.
Welcome to the world of freelancing, rife with tiny and big rejections every day. In fact, before you’d had your morning coffee today I’d probably been rejected in some way or other three times. This isn’t because I’m bad at what I do. Quite the opposite, I’m good at it and work within a niche, which means that sometimes there will be conflicts. These might be when a client doesn’t take my advice on a project, when someone I’ve met with who seemed really keen decides not to hire me or when one of those leads goes dead. If you’re a freelancer, particularly in a consultancy capacity, there are plenty of ways forward from the inevitable rejections.
1. If it feels like a big rejection, get up and move around
Even better, get out of the house for some fresh air. Walk to a cafe and work from there if you can. Getting out into the outside world, among other people, will normalise the emotions that at home, alone, can become inflated.
2. Consider the reasons why this particular rejection happened
Was it because you weren’t a good cultural fit or your proposition wasn’t strong enough? Would this have taken you too far out of your niche and there were people in a better position to deliver? If so, what a great lesson for your future targeting.
3. Think about what you can learn about yourself from the experience
At Stanford University, Carol Dweck and Lauren Howe conducted research that showed that people with fixed views of their personality took romantic rejections more severely and personally than those with a view of themselves as adaptable and so more able to grow and develop from the experience.
As a freelancer, you’re offering not only your services but your experience and knowledge, and so rejections can feel more personal and affronting. But in a world without job titles where you more easily have the freedom to allow yourself to be shaped by these experiences, freelance rejections offer an opportunity to reflect on your own self-development and nurture resilience.
4. Remember that timing can make or break opportunities
I’ve had discussions with people that haven’t gone anywhere at that particular moment in time because my skills weren’t right for the project just then - but they’ve gone on to contact me later when they are right. Are you someone who likes to start things up or run them? Are you a fixer-upper or a maintenance person? Knowing this can help you decide in future which kinds of projects you put yourself forward for, and help you remind yourself that sometimes things come back around. Whatever effort you have put in has not been wasted.
5. Work out how many clients you actually need
It can be easy to forget that you don't need many clients to earn your target income as a freelancer - only you will know exactly how many. It's inevitable, then, that there will be disappointments on the way to finding this key band of players you'll forge a connection with.
6. Recognise the times when you need to persevere
During university, I really wanted to work at the Blackwell’s Bookshop in the city and the manager needed part-time staff, but he had too much on his plate to figure out how, with my student hours, I would slot into everything. My CV went languishing in some back office. He dodged into the only functioning toilet whenever I showed my face. So I gave him a mini proposal of how I would work and fit into the current set-up, of what problems I would solve. Presenting myself as a solution worked, and he hired me - and I spent my Saturdays surrounded by books and the people who loved them.
Often that email trail will go quiet because the person you’re corresponding with has loads of other things on; follow up with them in a week. Did you get a sense that they’re moving into a new position or taking on extra responsibilities? Follow up with them in a month. Use your understanding of wider activities and pressures in their market to understand how to solve their pressure points.
Failing all of these, I’m happy to lend you my dog, whose joy and captivation by the here and now makes the weight of rejection so much easier to bear.