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The Truth About How Much Freelancers Really Earn

When you go online and read articles by freelancers you can be excused for thinking that freelancing is a proverbial gold mine. That if you start out in this life you’ll be swimming in gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck.

The reality is a bit different. Freelancers don’t earn half as much as is made out online. There are a whole bunch of reasons for that. To help you understand the world a little bit better, I’ll spell out some of the most common ones here.

In that way, the next time you read one of those articles, you’ll be able to add a pinch of salt to the numbers to get to what you’ll likely earn when you pursue that path. With those more realistic salaries in mind, you’ll be able to budget a life you can actually afford.

We have a natural tendency to exaggerate our achievements

We do. Some of us do so a little, some of us do so a lot, but most of us are guilty of making ourselves sound a little bit better than we actually are. Just look at the newsfeed on social media if you don’t believe me. How many people put up the bad meals and the failed dates? Instead, they put up the really nice pictures to make their lives look good, even while chances are they are just as miserable as you are.

Did you know they’ve actually found a relationship between Facebook use and depression? It’s for this reason. People see all the pictures of other people’s lives and it makes them feel inferior – even though intellectually they realize people are applying filters.

But that’s only the first reason the numbers given online are not the real ones.

Websites are interested in success stories

Most websites don’t run stories like, “Yeah, I’ve been working really hard for over two years and I can barely make ends meet. This is a lot tougher than I thought it was.” That’s because most websites aren’t in the business of showing you the truth. They’re in the business of selling you dreams so that you’ll buy their products.

Even if they’d like to be more honest, they might well lose advertisers if they do so. And as that’s how most of them make their income that is just not an option. And so, they select people that have actually made it (or are willing to pretend to) to write their content.

In our minds, experts are successful

There is yet another reason that most of the stories you read are successful. And that is that if a story started with, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a while but I’m really struggling, here is what you should do.” You’ll probably not listen to their advice. Even though it might be just as valuable as that of the success stories, as it might just prepare you for what is actually out there.

Heck, though hard work is no doubt important for success, luck also plays a huge role. And it might be nice if you know how to prepare for when you don’t have it. For as they say, ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’. Still, that’s not how it works. Most of us listen to those that are successful because we somehow believe that they know more than those who aren’t. And so, if you want to be heard you don’t tell people you’re writing for the best translation company by pickwriters instead you talk about how you’ve written for the New York Times – even if all you ever got in there was a letter to the editor.

Failures are less likely to speak out

Even if all that wasn’t true, even if everybody was perfectly honest and websites showcased stories of failure and successes equally, then we’d still not get a fair representation of the freelance world. Why?

Because it hurts to fail. This is particularly true when you see what is actually out there. The world is full of success stories. Who wants to add their not so successful story to that?  

It takes a brave person to tell it as it is and not to sugarcoat their lives. Ironically, it takes a certain strength to reveal to other people your weaknesses and character flaws. In fact, personally, I believe we should celebrate people willing to show themselves in this light as this kind of honesty can teach us more than the relentless self-promotion that is the norm today ever can.

Of course, it’s a fine line to walk. There is telling it as it is and then there is whining. People will often allow themselves to fall into the latter category (oh, how unfair it all is!) instead of accepting what is their due. So even among those stories that tell it as it is will there be a few which are worth reading. 

The successful forget how it was

And then there is the final one that you need to realize happens. Our memories are funny things. They aren’t at all faithful. Instead, they can be easily changed. And we do, in fact, constantly change them.

One way that happens is that once we’ve succeeded we often forget how difficult it was when we weren’t yet successful. It just becomes a story we tell and – because we already know how it ends up – it ends up sounding more like a quest or a journey than it actually was.

Of course, when you’re actually struggling you’re not sure if you’re going to make it. Many people who struggle don’t, in fact, make it. They end up quitting and seeking out another life. But – for the reasons outlined above – we don’t really hear their stories.

And so, we hear the success stories which tell the struggles as a process with the goal of success at the end. That often makes it all sound far easier and far more certain than it actually is.

So what does that all mean?

Well, obviously it means that the salaries that you read are often overstated. They are either inflated or they suffer from a selection bias, whereby those who are more successful are more likely to tell you how much they earn than those who are not.

How much you’ll actually earn will differ. Initially, it might be only 10% of what the people say you can earn. Over time it will crawl upwards. One day you might even manage to push up to 100% of what people say they’re earning. But it will almost never happen as quickly as people say it will. So let that be a warning to you if you’re starting out and a balm for those of you who’ve been struggling for so long and feel like failures because you haven’t yet earned what all those big shots say they do. You’re far from alone.

I have a very simple rule. When somebody says how much they earn, I always consider where they’re publishing. The less prestigious the publication, the more of a pinch of salt I take with their words. After all, if they were so rich and everything was going so well, what are they doing writing for a low-end publication that almost inevitably pays peanuts? They wouldn’t have time for anything like that. They’d be too busy making money hand over fist for that. 

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