Like many other creative freelancers, I used to see myself as a humble toiler in obscurity, hovering somewhere on the margins of the real, professional world. No matter how highly our clients value our designs, our writing, our talents and our work, we freelancers often tend to be unwilling to take ourselves seriously as professionals when we’re living from invoice to invoice.
Like many people, I used to associate the phrase “professional image” only with people who are professionally employed full-time, e.g., lawyers or corporate managers, not with creative types. With misplaced self-deprecation, I thought, “Surely such an image doesn’t apply to a freelancer like me.” Then I heard about Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a 20th-century cosmetic surgeon and self-help author. Dr. Maltz pioneered psycho-cybernetics for improving self-image, and he was convinced that people with positive self-images lead more successful and fulfilling lives. I decided to devote some research and thought to how I might improve my professional self-image and enhance my performance.
Below are a few rules I adopted that have helped me change my professional self-image for the better.
1. Dress like you care about what you do.
In my mind — a female mind that sees profound symbolism in clothes and fashion — a professional image had something vaguely to do with wearing a suit or a crisp blazer, a smooth hairdo, muted colors, low-key makeup and discreet jewelry. It was clear to me from day one of freelancing that I was neither willing nor able to dress as if I were going to a 9-to-5 corporate job. I remember that one of my goals in switching to freelance work was not to feel obligated to wear pantyhose ever again. All who work from home know that it is only too easy to stay in your nightclothes well into — OK, all the way through — your workday. I knew I didn’t need to wear office attire, but I was unwilling to descend into slobbery. Casual dress was fine, but I needed to adopt some prohibitions and baseline habits.
- Always shower, get dressed and brush my teeth.
- Put together an outfit (only one fleece item allowed: a hoodie on cold days).
- Never wear anything that I wouldn’t put on to walk out the door.
- Wear shoes, not slippers.
- Wear my earrings and a necklace every day; a little lipstick, too.
I think anyone working from home will get what I’m driving at. I promise, it’s a lot less painful to glimpse yourself in a mirror when you don’t have to cringe every time.
2. Decide what to call yourself.
I began to understand that I had unconsciously adopted the general attitude among many that “self-employed” means “unemployed” — although I and the other freelancers I know work hard to succeed. Do you call yourself a freelancer? Or, heaven forbid, “just a freelancer”? Blogger Tom Ewer suggests a new term, one that he uses to describe himself: solopreneur, or an entrepreneur who works solo. “There’s a disheartening misconception in some circles that freelancers work for free,” he wrote. “And, while we know that freelancers are some of the hardest-working individuals around, James Chartrand has stated that, ‘Many others perceive freelancers to be rebels, risky, lazy, overly proud …’”
I prefer a different suggestion: Define yourself by what you do, not by the terms on which you do it. For example, I call myself a “writer,” an “editor,” and a “marketing communications specialist.” How about “graphic designer”? Or “front-end developer”? As Ewer suggests: “Take yourself seriously. If you take yourself seriously, your potential clients will too. You’ll also be setting a good example for other freelancers/solopreneurs/self-employed workers — helping to quash some of those negative stereotypes floating around out there!”
3. Success comes from the inside out.
Your professional self-image is not only important for how you present yourself to the world of work and business; it is also a way to uplift how you feel when you are working or interacting with your clients. Remember, you are providing value to others. When you do your best, maintain high standards of integrity, and do what you said you would do when you said you would do it, you will release a lot of positive energy that will improve your feelings, your behavior, and your life in general.
Dr. Maltz famously wrote, “Human beings always act and feel and perform in accordance with what they imagine to be true about themselves and their environment.” My performance may or may not be noticeably better today (I have always set high standards), but now I certainly feel better about myself.
Julie is a Creative Circle candidate, experienced freelance writer, editor, and content creator in Santa Monica, California. A mentor and a career advisor, she cares about the community of freelancers who are finding new ways to work successfully in today’s gig economy. If you’re interested in working with Julie, contact Creative Circle Los Angeles.