If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

2 May

Every few weeks–even if business is booming–it’s important to step back and assess how your projects are fitting in with your long term goals. If you get too comfortable working with the same clients, it’s easy to fall into a rut and your work can stop developing. Without this focus, you can end up producing work that pays your bills, but you could care less about.

Think of it this way, when you’re working for a company, there’s a certain amount of investment in professional development. Key conferences, workshops, and seminars in your field are paid for by your employer, because they want you to be your best. As a freelancer, you have to have the same level of respect for yourself, as would a good employer, and invest in your continued professional development.

So, how to do this? There are so many ways, ranging from seminars that cost thousands of dollars to webinars that are completely free. The good news is that you can write these expenses off at the end of the year, so you’ll likely get a good part of that money back. Joining professional associations such as the American Society of Media Professionals, or National Press Photographers Association is one of the best ways to start. These organizations are designed to bolster and maintain the health of the industry, and year round they organize regional meet ups, workshops, happy hours and peer review sessions geared toward helping media professionals continue to develop. Most associations offer discounted rates for young professionals and students, which makes this option even more affordable, but if you don’t have the budget to join, even checking out their websites is extremely useful. Both ASMP and NPPA offer a wealth of free resources designed to help you better run your business. So if you haven’t checked them out, take five minutes to browse their websites, I guarantee you will learn something new.

Why do this? You aren’t getting paid, and you might come away with nothing tangible. But it’s a chance to be inspired, get energized, talk to colleagues with years of experience on you, and maybe even score a job. If you don’t make the leap, if you don’t push yourself, you won’t evolve.

Earlier this year, I paid close to $200 to attend the NPPA’s Northern Short Course in Photojournalism conference for one day. Going for the entire 3-days was out of my budget, so I looked at the schedule and choose the day that featured the most relevant speakers and workshops to my work. I had the opportunity to hear James Estrin, editor of Lens give his take on the future direction of the industry. I attended a storytelling workshop led by Melanie Burford, who discussed her work flow for long term projects; and was lucky enough to squeeze into a packed workshop by Jamie Rose on how to land contracts with nonprofit clients. At the end of the day, I had my portfolio reviewed by a staff photographer at Reuters and got some solid critiques of my work. Best of all? I met new friends.

I came away with a new focus and head spinning with fresh ideas about how I could work differently, tell stories better, and operate a stronger business. So yes, the cost of these workshops can be high upfront, but if you want your work to get better, you have to make the effort. Invest in yourself. If you aren’t willing to, who will be?

Don’t make a small budget your excuse to push off the larger, harder questions. Volunteering at conferences is a way to squeeze in for free. If you’re a student, discounted rates are often available. I find setting aside several hours each week to focus on improving an aspect my work to be immensely helpful. This could mean an afternoon reading some of my favorite blogs from established creatives, (check back soon for a list of my favorite, completely free blogs I follow), or taking time to work on a personal project, such as these multimedia projects I shot of OccupyDC.

Push yourself. Make the investment in your work, and yourself.


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