The Magnet, the Colander, and the Clay

making potteryAs a blogger, coach, and voice talent, I think a lot about why certain people make it in this business and why others don’t.

Those who are doing well don’t always know why they belong to the happy few. 

“You’ve got to have a lot of luck,” they say, and “be at the right moment at the right time.”

It’s a nice observation, but as a teacher that doesn’t help me much. Just as I can’t predict who’s going to win the Powerball, I cannot influence luck. And if I knew how to be at the right moment at the right time, I probably would be doing something else with my life right now. 

What I can help people with as a coach, is preparedness. If you’re lucky to be at the right place at the right time and you’re not prepared, you’re not going to get very far. But preparedness alone is no guarantee that you’ll have a successful career as a creative freelancer. 

Let’s say you’re talented, you’re well-trained, and you have the right equipment that gets the job done. Is that enough to start and grow a for-profit business? I think we all know well-educated people with great skills and a nice set-up who can barely make ends meet. So, there must be other factors at play that determine the difference between success and failure.

Looking at colleagues who are at the top of their game, I have identified three characteristics all of them have in common. Number one I call:

THE MAGNET

The difference between dreamers and achievers is that achievers attract jobs. This is anything but a passive process. People don’t become magnets overnight and without planning. You’ve got to have an extensive network in place that generates a continuous flow of leads from multiple sources. If you’re just starting out, this is where you have to spend most of your time, energy, and money.

How do you become a magnet? Think about what you can do to draw people to you. You’ve got to offer something special at a price that tells people you take your work seriously. You have to make sure your presentation is in line with your (desired) reputation. Then you need to connect with clients and colleagues to let them know that you exist.

Obviously, this is not something you can do in a few weeks or months. Every self-employed person can tell you that this will be your life from now on, until you decide to close up shop. This type of magnet is like a rechargeable battery. If you don’t charge it regularly, it will quickly lose its power.

Now, let’s assume your magnetic powers have the desired effect and job offers are rolling in. Should you jump on every opportunity? Here’s where the second factor comes in. I call this:

THE COLANDER

Beginners often make the same mistake. They go after every single job offer, if only “to gain experience.” I remember when I first became a member of an online casting site. As soon as I had posted my profile and the membership fee was paid, the auditions started coming in. In my naïve enthusiasm I applied for every job, thinking that the more I auditioned, the greater the chance I would be hired. I was wrong.

Being a successful freelancer is not a numbers game. It is about going after the opportunities that are right for you. In order to do that, you have to filter out the misfits. That’s where the colander comes in.

Runners know their strengths. Some of them run marathons. Others sprint. In my line of work, some voice actors are great at narrating audiobooks. Others excel in voicing short commercials. Only a handful of people in every profession are true all-rounders. Chances are that you’re not one of them. That’s why you have to do yourself a favor: know your strengths, and become picky. Very picky.

There’s one last factor that separates the wheat from the chaff. I call it:

THE CLAY

No matter how good you are at attracting and selecting jobs, once you have landed a new project, you have one objective and one objective only: to make your client happy. That’s by no means an earth-shattering revelation, so why even mention it? Here’s why. So many people believe that if you do the very best you can, the client will be pleased with the result. That’s not necessarily true.

Your very best might not be good enough, and/or the client may have different expectations. That’s why it is so important to find out what those expectations are before you get to work. I often tell my clients: “If I don’t know what you want, I can’t give it to you.” And that’s where the clay comes in.

Clay is just potential. It can be molded into any shape, depending on the talent and skills of the potter. No matter what kind of freelance work you do, whether you’re a scriptwriter, an industrial designer, or a voice-over, you’ve got to know your material and be a master molder. The better you are at understanding your client and at working the clay, the more successful you will be.

Mind you, this isn’t something you can pick up from reading a book, or by listening to a podcast. It will take talent, training, and time. It may take a few years before you break in and break even. But when you do, this is what you will discover:

Doing exceptional work almost always leads to more work, which brings us back to the concept of the magnet.

One last thing.

If your career isn’t where you want it to be at the moment, ask yourself:

“Where are my greatest challenges?

What needs more work?

Is it the magnet, the colander, or is it the way I handle the clay?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Shaping the Heart via photopin (license)

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Career, Freelancing, Promotion

10 Responses to The Magnet, the Colander, and the Clay

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Thank you for making me think. Good prompts.

    I’m an indie writer of mainstream fiction, so my take on your freelance-success points will be a little different, but, like other freelancers, I am my own boss.

    Magnet: ‘achievers attract’ the readers they deserve. Do the work, learn the craft, be fanatical about the quality – hope to FIND those readers out there. Difference: all readers pay the same, the value you set on the individual examples of your work. The right kind of readers will tell their friends and leave reviews and sign up for the next book, if you keep your quality up.

    Colander: you cannot simultaneously please all readers. Some readers will want their love story to be a SHORT, sweet, warm, cozy Romance. Others will want angst and tortured lovers and enough pages to rival Gone With the Wind. There are flexible readers who will read both kinds, but is really is almost a bimodal distribution. But considering there are at least several billion readers who read love stories in English, potential audience is not a problem. Reaching them is.

    Clay: most people can write something. But the ability to attract the readers you respect depends on your ability to have the standards they expect, and to satisfy those. All art is tricky and somewhat subjective, and that will separate out your potential ‘clients’ into those who like you – and those who just don’t. I happen to believe that one should have the highest possible quality standards for anything that goes out under one’s name. Without innate genius (which may be a myth, though potential comes in all flavors), doing the work can elevate the quality more than many writers bother with.

    All three are a mix of luck, talent, and the third leg of the stool, hard work.

    Now for your question: my career is NOT where I want it to be. Where is the problem?

    Some is in the clay – illness (you will understand) makes me very slow. But it has not made me lower my standards. It HAS made me take a long time to get the first volume of my mainstream trilogy out there (fifteen years). But I’m getting faster as the learning is something I can rely on. I may be able to finish the second volume in five or six years, and the third in half that.

    The colander slows me down because the readers I write for are far less common than the ones I don’t. This is my choice. And those readers also are not yet persuaded that the standards they seek and the complex stories they love are being published by anyone who doesn’t go through the traditional publishing system – from submitting through agents to getting a rare spot in a publisher’s catalog and some of the publisher’s marketing dollars.

    The magnet I am proud of. I have put in the time, learned the craft, polished every aspect that is even partially under my control.

    Darn that colander.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Alicia. Writing my very first blog post took forever, and I still spend the greater part of a day to finish a “regular” 1600-word story. Quite often, the shorter ones take the longest. It’s an art form to be succinct and stick to the essence.

    Ultimately, our readers don’t care how long it takes us to complete our work. They care about the characters, the storyline, and the way it is written.

    [Reply]

  2. Sumara Meers

    This is so handy, Paul, thank you!

    I’m still working on all three! 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s what many people don’t seem to understand. It’s got very little to do with luck, and a lot with hard work.

    [Reply]

  3. Dani

    Golly! I was just this morning having a conversation with a single friend about her recent experience of going back on dating sites, and a LOT of this would apply. Even though she’s not in the voice biz, I’ll be sharing this with her.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m so tickled! As I was writing this story, I didn’t realize I was giving dating advice, but if the shoe fits, I’ll take it. Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

  4. Paul Stefano

    This is really deep. Did you just invent these terms this week? I know you have a wealth of knowledge but I would love to read more if this was research from another book or journal.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    This just came out of some obscure corner in my mind (the one that wasn’t affected by my stroke). I keep track of these thoughts in an online journal. Otherwise they disappear into the ether.

    [Reply]

  5. Joshua Alexander

    But…but…can I be a colander that attracts magnets? Or a magnetic colander?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You can make one out of clay!

    [Reply]

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