When I had a full-time job, I had five “professional development days” per year, and I loved them. Why? Because they felt like vacation. I could sit at a conference and listen to people talk in calming voices all day, instead of answering frantic emails. To be fair, I was maybe less invested in the work than I should have been. And maybe my standards for what counts as a “vacation” are too low.
But as a freelancer, all of my time is my own—which means any time I spend on professional development is time I don’t spend working. Suddenly, the very reason I loved it is gone! It’s easy to feel like investing in myself comes at the cost to my output.
But it doesn’t. Professional development is important. Keeping your skills sharp is exactly what you need to succeed if you’ve gone into business for yourself. It can sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, you need to lean forward to lean backwards (I think it this was the sequel to that Sheryl Sandberg book).
Self-employed individuals have various options for investing in their professional development. Here are some strategies they can consider:
Look for industry-specific events, workshops, conferences, and seminars in your field. These events often provide access to industry experts, trends, and new skills. They’re also a wonderful way to network, which is critical for finding future business partners, mentors, or role models.
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As a freelancer, you might not have the budget for a workshop, and you might not be willing to commit your whole day. I’ve been in that situation, too, and there are options. Take advantage of online platforms that offer courses, webinars, and tutorials. Websites like Udemy, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and Skillshare offer a wide range of courses on various subjects, including business skills, marketing, programming, design, and more. Better yet, pick a course that you can take at your own pace, so that you always have the option of squeezing in some professional development time, when it fits your schedule.
Online courses may also provide a pathway to sharpen your skills as a freelancer. Industries evolve rapidly, and it’s crucial for freelancers to adapt to these changes—you don’t have the job security someone with a full-time job has, so you can’t let your skills soften.
Join a Professional Association
Consider joining professional associations or organizations related to your industry. These groups often provide resources, networking events, educational materials, and access to industry-specific knowledge. Associations offer benefits one-off conferences don’t, because the regularity of the meetings will hold you accountable to attending events.
Participating in the events of a professional association can help expand your professional network and stay updated on industry trends. “As self-employed folks know, connections and referrals are often the leading source of business, and people earlier in their career tend to have fewer connections,” says Yuliya Mykhaylovska, Early Careers Talent Expert. “Building a strong foundation of contacts and a portfolio that demonstrates your work will enable you to hit the ground running as a self-employed person.”
Furthermore, these associations can be helpful resume-boosters—particularly if there are requirements to joining. Clients often prefer to work with freelancers who demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning and growth. By showcasing updated skills and expertise, freelancers can differentiate themselves from their competitors and position themselves as highly qualified professionals.
The easiest way to learn is from your own mistakes. However, you might not always know exactly what those mistakes are. Request feedback from clients, colleagues, or mentors to identify areas for improvement. Evaluating your own work and seeking constructive criticism can help you identify opportunities for growth and skill development. This feedback may direct you to next steps, whether it’s taking a class, attending a conference, or seeking out a mentor who can help you build the skills you need to keep developing.
Remember, professional development is an ongoing process. Ultimately, I choose to invest in my own professional development because I like it. I like learning. Sorry for being a nerd! If you’re anything like me, investing in professional development allows freelancers to pursue their passion, explore new interests, and develop new skills—all of which can lead to fulfillment and satisfaction.