Advice For Freelancers: Learn To Separate Your Identities

A few years ago, I learned a valuable lesson as a freelancer that has helped me in my professional career and personal life. Today, I want to share with you what I learned.


In 2015 I was working for my local government as social media specialist and graphic designer and was asked to attend a conference called Kinekt. I’ll be very honest with you, I went in to this thinking I wasn’t going to learn very much. It seemed like it was advertised more for business owners in the community without a marketing background. It seems so silly to think I wouldn’t learn anything. You can always learn something new, no matter how many times you think you’ve heard it before. That in itself is an important lesson, but it’s not what I want to talk to you about today.

One of the sessions was led by motivational speaker and business coach Chris McAlister, the founder of SightShift, which is “a company that helps ambitious people be courageous and kind.” At the time, I did think it was a little out of place for him to be speaking since he wasn’t talking about marketing or branding, but what he talked about ended up being more valuable to me than anything else I learned that day. I’m going to summarize a part of what he talked about that stuck with me and tell you about my own experiences living his words in my professional career.

Chris talked about separating your identities in the world of business. Right now, you’re probably going, “huh?” According to Chris, you have two identities: your personal identity and your work identity. Learning to separate the two is important for being successful.

Your work identity is who you are at work: your work ethic and the output you produce from your work ethic. Your personal identity are all the things outside of work that make you who you are: personality, family, etc. Who you are at work is not necessarily who you are outside of work. This doesn’t mean at work that you aren’t kind, generous, empathetic or other things that define you. It simply means that your work does not define the reality of who you are as a person. This might sound like “duh” moment for some of you, but let me tell you something, this was somewhat of a revelation for me.

When I first started my business, I had just graduated from college with a degree in Public Relations and Marketing. I taught myself how to use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign in the first few years of my business because the people that would hire me expected a full service package and I wanted to deliver. In fact, I used Inkscape for the first year or so of working because I couldn’t afford Adobe until they made the monthly “Cloud” plans. The clients that came to me were ones that couldn’t afford to pay me what I was worth, but I took them on anyways because I knew I needed whatever money I could get and I would benefit from the experience I would receive from working with them. When I would create designs, it took me much longer than it does now. I had to spend so much time learning how to do new things to make designs look like a fraction of how I envisioned them. I would be so proud of what I had accomplished. I put my heart and soul in those pieces. I would send them to a client and sometimes they would say, “we don’t like it.” I would take it very personally. To me it felt like they weren’t just saying they didn’t like my design; it felt like they were saying they didn’t like me as the designer. That I wasn’t good enough. It truly hurt my feelings in the first couple of years because I wasn’t able to separate my personal identity from my work identity. To me, my work was an extension of myself. If my design didn’t go over well, then that was a reflection of myself somehow. When you start doubting yourself and your abilities, it can lead to fear and comparison, and I will tell you right now that comparison is the killer of creativity.

In his session, Chris explained in detail how what you produce at work is completely separate from who you are as a person. Basically, if someone doesn’t like a design I make, it doesn’t make me a terrible graphic designer or a terrible person. It just means that our tastes are different. They may have envisioned something in their head, and when it wasn’t produced exactly how they pictured they just won’t like it no matter what you do. I thought to myself that it was an interesting concept, but didn’t realize how much of an impact that 20 minutes would make on my career.

Later in the year after that conference, I designed a flyer for a client and he simply replied in an email, “I hate it.” That was it. My immediate gut reaction was emotional. I felt upset and angry, but I suddenly remembered Chris’ words and took a step back from the situation for a moment. I took a deep breath and looked at the situation rationally. I had done other work for this client before and he liked what I created. It wasn’t as if he bashed every single piece of my work .He had given me no direction on the style of this product he wanted. Just the information he needed on there. So after taking a breather, I emailed him back and said “What do you want changed?” His response, “I don’t know.” It’s so funny now to think back and remember how irritate and hurt I was. That moment sticks out to me as a defining moment in my career because it was the turning point for when I was able to put into practice the idea of the separate identities.

The knowledge of separating work and personal identities combined with the experience I’ve gained working with difficult clients has toughened me up mentally as a business owner. Yes, I still put a lot of time, love and effort into what I create for my clients, but now I don’t get upset if they don’t like something I produce. I don’t read into their dislike as anything more than differing tastes. It’s helped me become a better designer by learning how to change my style based on the tastes of each client, and learning not force my own style on them trying to make them “see the light.” If you’re just starting out as a designer or any kind freelancer, just remember that if someone doesn’t like your work, or something your produce, it does not affect your self worth as an individual.

You are amazing and brilliant. f

Advice for Freelancers: Separating Your Identities | Mill Creek Creative Blog


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