How to Become Successful: 11 Common Qualities of Highly Successful Freelancers (& How to Develop Them)

November 23, 2015


Every entrepreneur wants to know how to become successful but it depends on what ‘success’ means to you. It’s different for each individual – some want a mansion, others just a career they love. But regardless of your definition, you’ll need to exhibit a few characteristics to get there.

Identifying – and nurturing – these qualities will make all the difference in your freelance career. You’ll win more proposals, earn more repeat business and work towards your dream work situation.

It’s time to learn how to perfect the right qualities to create a long lasting freelance career.

In today’s article, I’m going to walk you through some of the qualities I believe have enabled me to have a great freelancing career, as well as common characteristics I’ve seen in others…

1. A Master of Client Communication

Being able to communicate ideas is how humankind first started making tools for hunting and cooking.

In today’s world, communication occurs in a landscape that our ancestors couldn’t even perceive. With every incremental advancement in technology, communication speeds up and so does our growth as a species.

You and your client are intrinsically programmed to respond well to effective communication.

Freelancers rely on communication to land new clients, understand their desires and continually nurture the relationship to secure ongoing work. That’s just when things are going well – communication skills will also help resolve any conflicts in mutually agreeable ways.

Improve your communication skills by:

  • Replying quickly to client emails
  • Never communicating while upset
  • Keeping written communication clear and concise
  • Observe how clients are responding to you – is it negative or positive?

Over time, you’ll hone in on your best way to communicate effectively.

Related: Learn how to build deep and long-lasting client relationships

2. Ninja-Level Self-Discipline

Self-discipline, or willpower and self-control, enables freelancers to stay on track. This abstract concept can seem out of reach, so I went to the American Psychological Association (APA) to help make it more relatable. They defined willpower as being able to:

  • Focus on long-term goals in favor of short term gratification
  • Override unwanted impulses
  • Employ a cognitive system over an emotional system
  • Regulate the self

Ninjas showcase the results of their willpower when they land silently from a 20-foot drop. You showcase your willpower by turning in all assignments on time and putting forth your highest efforts.

Do you feel yourself lacking willpower? I can certainly relate to that feeling. The APA has also discussed some techniques to develop willpower, such as:

  • Avoiding tempting situations
  • “if-then” based self-promises
  • Consciously exercising willpower

If you can master these three things, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a self-disciplined ninja.

3. Complete Control of Time

Freelancers must control time itself. Well, their use of time anyway.

Controlling time means effectively completing all tasks that must be done that day. I’ve found that it all starts with focus. You can improve your focus by enacting a few careful strategies:

  • Create time limits for each task
  • Set and maintain a regular schedule
  • Prioritize

This is a difficult characteristic, and it’s one you might have to work towards. And that’s A-OK.

4. An Unquenchable Desire to Learn

“I’ve always been very motivated to learn. Even up to now, I make it a point to put in time to read and learn from tutorials and designers I admire. I know I have a day job and a steady flow of income, but I’ve never allowed myself to get too comfortable with it because I might be inadvertently putting my skills aside and the next thing I know, my skills have become stale. The bar is continually being raised and I want to keep up with that.” – Jan Cavan, freelancer specializing in UI Design, Illustration and Iconography

Learning and growing is integral to every freelancer’s career. Any profession will inevitably change, requiring learning new skills. An unquenchable desire to learn will make your ongoing education a perk of the job, not a chore.

How do you cultivate the desire to learn?

Nurture your own freedom and independence by embarking on your own quests for knowledge. LifeHack also has a few more techniques, such as regularly reading, teaching others and seeking intelligent friends.

5. Willingness to Accept Responsibility

Mistakes happen. This article might even have some mistakes in it. If someone brings them up to me, what should I do?

  1. Make the changes as timely and accurately as possible.
  2. Reply back arguing about why I did it right the first way.

Option #1 acknowledges that you didn’t satisfy the job requirements and you correct the issue. In some situations, you’ll include a message apologizing.

Option #2 is how you never receive work from that client again (usually).

Cultivate this quality by never communicating when you feel negative and consciously avoiding responsibility for mistakes. There’s a funny saying I saw several years ago. It said, “Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong.”

Sometimes you’ll be wrong – and that’s okay. Just own up to it and move forward.

6. A Strong Business-Sense

“I’ve found that financial planning is key, as you need to have the budgeting skills to set aside enough money to pay taxes (and other expenses) each year and live comfortably as well.”Grace Smith, seasoned freelance designer and writer

You’re not just a freelancer – you’re also running a business.

Operating your freelance career requires much more than satisfactorily completing client orders. You need to understand finances, sales, marketing and legal issues.

Fortunately, you can cultivate a business sense with conscious effort applied to learning these new skills. Read authoritative blogs on the topic, explore helpful books for business owners and brush up on industry specific laws.

7. The Ability to Take Initiative

You might be working from your pajamas at home, but you’re still pretty much a caveman with a spear. Your spear is your keyboard, and the landscape is digital.

Without taking the initiative to hunt, the caveman will die. Freelancers that fail to take initiative won’t last long nor reach their full potential.

Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here.

Initiative is similar to willpower in that it can be cultivated by focusing on it. Is there a problem with a client? Proactively solve it. Are your income projections looking troublesome? Get out there and hunt, you caveman.

8. An Eye for Efficiency and Optimization

“If you aren’t focused on what you’re doing, it’s a difficult task to just finish, let alone innovate. I make sure I know what’s what. I take lots of notes and keep everything in its place. I structure my workflow in such a way that I actually make progress.”
Rina Miele, freelance graphic and web designer

Efficiency is the practice of completing a task or process with as little waste as possible. That could be wasted time, energy or materials.

Optimization is the process of continually pursuing efficiency.

The more you can optimize your workflows and develop efficiency, the more work you can do (and more money you can make). So, how do you optimize your workflows? You need an eye for efficiency.

As a writer, continually improving my outlining and researching practices have been vital to my success. For a dog walker, efficiency optimization may lie in how many dogs she can walk at once.

Discover ways that you can reduce wasted time and improve efficiency.

9. Unshakable Values, Integrity and Principles

Clients are trusting you. It might be with their brand, their message or even their dog. Whatever it is, they aren’t just investing money in you – they’re investing hope for a positive outcome.

As someone that has hired freelancers myself, placing the trust in someone is a risky endeavor. Clients can get ripped off just as much as we can as freelancers.

That’s why it’s so important to live with unshakable values, integrity and principles.

I never want to be the reason that a client feels they can’t trust freelancers. Instead, I want my brand to be a beacon of hope for clients everywhere – that freelancers can and should be trusted to take on work with your company.

Related: Why integrity is so important in business

10. Goal-Oriented & Striving for More

“Hard work & perseverance! Truth be told I don’t exactly feel “successful” yet because I know there’s a lot more room to grow… Just getting the work done is most important. Then pushing beyond my comfort zone is how I’ve learned to improve my overall creative process.”Jake Rocheleau, freelance writer, web designer and UX expert

Freelancing means that you’re on your own. If you never strive for more, then you’ll stay where you are (financially and professionally).

But if you set ambitious goals, you can go be crazy enough to actually achieve them.

I remember sharing my year’s goals with a close friend at the beginning of this year. She thought it was insane and unachievable. But I was just crazy enough to believe it was attainable.

And you know what? I’m on track for achieving my goals. It’s an awesome feeling.

Don’t be afraid to dream big. Set goals and always be striving for more. If I can do it, then I’m sure that you can too.

11. Persistence to Stand Tall in Low Times

So I just did a bit of humblebragging in the last section. (Okay, so maybe not so humble.)

However, as great as this year has been, there have been countless low points where I wanted to throw in the towel and get that “real job” my Mom keeps talking about.

Every job has its ups and downs. The downs in freelancing, however, seem to be much deeper. When the going gets tough in the office environment, the boss ensures productivity.

Instead, you’re the boss. Everything rests on your shoulders.

Standing tall when freelancing gets tough means putting in hard hours to make it work. Send more pitches, ask for bigger projects – whatever needs to be done.

Cultivate this quality whenever you’re low – financially, mentally or physically. Power through it to get the job done and protect your right to be a freelancer.

Time to Become an Even More Successful Freelancer

Cultivating each of the above qualities will turn you into a successful freelancer, regardless of what success means to you. Invest the time now and you’ll reap the rewards later.

Are there any qualities missing from this list? What qualities have helped you become the success you are today?


about the author

Freelance Contributor Chelsei Henderson is a content marketing consultant helping freelancers and entrepreneurs build successful companies in the digital world.