Via Negativa: Inverse Freelancing Advice

Following up on last week’s article on Via Negativa: Inverse Product Advice, let’s see how negative statements can take us further when talking about freelancing/consulting.

Via Negativa, stating statements in the negative, according to Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile, gives us more “robust” advice.

  • A tower of truth built through positive (additive) statements give you something fragile, tenuous, more prone to falling apart from exceptions, “it depends”, echo chambers, nuanced interpretations and “yeah but’s”;
  • Instead, a base of statements stating negative statements (what to avoid) will give you rules of thumb that will take you further, something more robust for the long game.

A popular positive statement about freelancing…

Find your ideal client

…might get you someplace good.

But this one will take you further almost every time:

Avoid clients that will be a bad fit

You know how to spot those clients a lot better.

So let’s step back and start with a list of some positive freelancing advice. And then will invert all that.

We hear a lot of this kind of advice:

  • Charge more, increase your rates
  • Set some goals and hustle
  • Build an audience
  • Build an email list
  • Make sure your site is optimized for search
  • Do content marketing
  • Improve your positioning (“I do X for Y audience”)
  • Pick a specialty
  • Do value-based pricing
  • Treat your time like it’s money

Nothing necessarily bad about that advice so far.

And yet, in the mix, we might be missing the essential.

Inverse Freelancing Advice

Charlie Munger made inversion popular with this statement: “it’s better to avoid stupidity than seeking brilliance”. Warren Buffett, his partner, follows up with: “you can never have enough reputation”. Jason Fried of Basecamp recounts this statement from his father: “No one ever went broke making a profit”.

Let’s write those into Via Negativa statements.

On the fragility of your reputation:

Avoid doing stuff that risks ruining your reputation.

An overlooked part of your reputation is your ability to meet the commitments you make. So:

Don’t break your word.

Should you reinvest all your gains back into your business or pocket some of the money?

Don’t go broke. Don’t spend more than you make.

Let’s go further.

When freelancing, you need to be good at many things at once. It’s tough to know where to invest your attention:

Avoid doing stuff that’s not going to be worth your time.

Should you specialize, or should you generalize? Market my skills or build a value-ladder? Good options! How about focusing on what you should avoid:

Don’t paint yourself into a corner.

On the use of social media to amass an audience, or on the use of freelancer marketplaces, or on advertising, or on the idea of building an email list:

Avoid relying on other people for finding work.

Is it better to have recurring clients or is it better to have a variety of clients that’ll refer you? Who knows! But what we can say for sure:

Avoid working for dead-end clients.

You want clients to recommend you? How about a little symmetry:

Avoid working for clients that you wouldn’t recommend to other freelancers in return.

“Find clients that match your values” sounds sophisticated. But you might get a client that matches your values, but does something you despise. Instead, how about this one:

Avoid working with clients who value something you oppose.

Should you play it safe or should you take some risks?

Avoid risking stuff that could lead to your ruin.

Then take all of the risk you want.

Positive statements are fragile. Their cleverness hides fragilities, some potential risks you can’t see just yet. But Via Negativa statements clip that fragility out.

So since it’s your livelihood that’s on the line, maybe it’s best to…

Avoid being too clever.

(I needed to hear that one myself.)

Stay Sharp.


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