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Summary:

There are many reasons why web workers (and other independent contractors) choose to accept one job over another. Sometimes it’s simple economics: if you’re not overflowing with offers of work, you may not be able to afford choosiness. Other times, you might choose on the basis […]

ScreenshotThere are many reasons why web workers (and other independent contractors) choose to accept one job over another. Sometimes it’s simple economics: if you’re not overflowing with offers of work, you may not be able to afford choosiness. Other times, you might choose on the basis of your emotional chemistry with the client, the pay rate, or the way the job fits into your schedule.

But as a longstanding contractor myself, there’s one rule of thumb that I try to keep in mind when choosing between potential jobs:

Only take a job where you’ll learn something.

This rule of thumb has worked well for me, and it has resulted in some of my most-saleable skills – things I might not have gotten around to on my own were I not getting paid to learn. But the strategy for doing this can be a bit tricky. Here are the most common objections that I hear:

Clients want to pay for the things I already know, not the things I want to learn. It’s certainly true that most contractors are in the business of selling their current expertise, not their availability as trainees. But there are ways to make this palatable to customers (current or future). One way to do that it to emphasize the parts of the job that you already know, and your track record of learning quickly. Another is to have a good stable of past reference clients who can help put new clients into their comfort zone. A third is to negotiate on rate – agreeing to put in hours at a lower rate or even entirely “off the books” as you’re coming up to speed on new things.

There isn’t any work with learning to be had. That may be true, and if you’re looking a rent payment in the eye, you may have no choice but to take a completely boring, routine piece of work. But don’t make the mistake of thinking too narrowly about what you can learn. Often I don’t know going into a job where my growth areas will be – it could be experience with a bug-tracking or source code management system I haven’t used before, it could be finding out about new ways to handle videoconferencing, it could be picking up details of useful tools by reading the source code that was written before I got there. Don’t think in terms of “what new skill will I add from this job?” but rather “what can I take away from this job to make me a better contractor on the next one?”

I already know everything in this field. Really? Congratulations. If you’re that much on top of your current game, I’d suggest taking a job that’s outside of your current field so that your prospects for employment will be that much better in the future. That doesn’t mean that you need to move from coding to, say, online translation. But it does mean that you might move from one web language to another. The more you know, the less chance you’ll find yourself out of a job due to lowered demand or competition from others who also know it all.

As an independent web worker, you probably already use your down time to make yourself more marketable. By staying attuned to the possibility of using your “up” time for learning too, you can enhance your career prospects that much more quickly.

photo credit: stock.xchng user jusstas

By Mike Gunderloy
  1. Something that may be a bit counterintuitive is that this has been more of a problem for me since I started freelancing than when I was a consultant for someone else. I think it is because when I worked for a consulting firm, they pushed me to be comfortable with doing things that were outside my comfort zone. Now that I’m working for myself, it is easier for me to wimp out.

    Thanks for the reminder that I need to push myself out of that comfort zone in order to increase my value in the marketplace.

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  2. I am learnig from you,
    Thank you for this piece of your mind. It has enlightened me to make my job search lighter. I am looking for work as Spanish- English creative writer, translator, proofreader. I read a lot of advise to improve my search. Yours is the best I had. Yes, to focus on finding a job in which I can learn at the same time I work and share myself is great for me. Thanks I needed that. Gracias too!

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  3. My theory used to be that each job serves as a training ground for the next. When I was laid off as an engineer four years ago, I leveraged the computer experience I’d gained during the past few jobs, and started my own company building models and programs for other people.

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  4. @Avonelle: it’s easy to wimp out because these days, everybody wants a rockstar (or at least someone who can fake it ’til they make it).

    I see that as a symptom of the same go-go carelessness that caused the implosion of 2000 (and know for certain that some very experienced, influential folks agree with me).

    The good news is that the money on the table this time around is being measured in millions rather than billions of dollars, and the technology is more mature. Thus, the likelihood of another implosion is reduced, and if realized will be less severe than the last time around.

    Finally, in the original point – that being a consultant under someone else’s auspices provides more opportunities for skills growth – there is a lesson that even lone-wolves such as ourselves can take to heart: if the client trusts you, they’ll let you use the tools you feel are best suited to the job, rather than forcing their choices onto the spec.

    Just sayin’.

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  5. In response to point #1 – One approach is to take on a job that requires a recombination of two or more skillsets or areas of knowledge in which you are already an expert. Present yourself to the client in terms of your track record in each area.

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