In my twenties I went to Atlantic City. There was a big poker tournament.
It was exciting, I thought about playing.
Then I heard one of the players had a PhD in computer science. So I figured he must be smarter than me.
Other players had already won a bunch of tournaments. They seemed unbeatable.
Everyone looked so damn confident. I wondered why I was the only one who was intimidated?
I decided not to compete.
Before we go any further, you need to understand what happens to your body when you’re feeling intimidated.
It activates the fear center in your brain.
And that changes the way you think…in a way that is totally invisible to you in the moment.
There are usually hundreds of ways to overcome an obstacle or challenge. But when your brain’s fear center is lit up like a Christmas tree, you only see two (extreme) options:
“I have to be a genius or else I can’t win a poker tournament.”
“Should I marry my boyfriend, or dump him?”
“Damn, I just broke my diet with a slice of pizza. I guess I may as well eat the whole pizza now. Then I’ll fast for the rest of the week.”
There’s a good reason your thought process is designed this way.
When you face a threat in nature, your brain doesn’t want you to think. It just wants you to act — quickly.
So it narrows down your choices to make it easy for you to make a decision and spring into action.
Imagine coming face to face with a Bengal tiger. Your two best choices are either to try and kill it, or haul your ass out of there.
If you take even a second to ponder your other options (e.g. climbing a tree), you’ll wind up stone dead.
This system worked well for the evolution of humanity, but it’s bad for freelancing because it makes you blind to the best solutions, which usually aren’t so obvious.
Looking back on my trip to Atlantic City, there were lots of things my intimidated brain failed to realize.
For one thing, I was wrongly comparing myself to some of the best players in the world.
But those players only represented a small fraction of the total field I’d be competing against. Most of the players were average, or just plain bad. (Anyone can enter a poker tournament, just like anyone can call themselves a freelancer.)
The confidence I picked up from the others players was mostly a sham. There were lots of twenty-something males who were either overly optimistic, or just faking it.
It also never occurred to me that I’d feel more confident once I played a few tournaments. Even the best players weren’t so good when they first started out.
These things all seem clear to me now. But at the time I felt like I was somehow flawed, or in the wrong place, and just not cut out to compete in poker tournaments.
When someone asks me how they can compete against more experienced freelancers on Upwork, I know they’re looking at the situation through “Intimidation Goggles.”
They’re not seeing the whole picture. Just like I wasn’t seeing it in Atlantic City that time.
Don’t get me wrong. When I first started freelancing on Upwork, I was also intimidated by all of the experienced freelancers I saw.
But I was unemployed, with kids to feed. So I had to ignore the fear and get to work.
Having no choice helped me see things more clearly. There was no chance for me to be fooled by my lizard brain.
I’ll tell you a story to show you what I mean.
A while back, I got an email from a freelancer. He said, “I just applied to an Upwork job that sounded awesome, and I was really excited…until I found out you had also applied for it. Guess I might as well withdraw my proposal!”
He made the same mistake I made in Atlantic City. (Only worse, because it’s 1,000x easier to win a freelancing job on Upwork, than a poker tournament.)
He let fear hijack his brain…and he lied to himself.
Yes, he lied to himself.
His lizard brain laid out a weak argument for how he could lose out on this cool Upwork job…and didn’t say anything about all of the more likely ways he could win it.
As a matter of fact, what if I told you he had a better chance of winning this job than I did — even though I have 10x as much experience as him?
That’s something most new (and new-ish) freelancers never consider.
They look at my Upwork history and think, “This guy must get every job he applies for.” But it doesn’t work that way.
For one thing, many clients aren’t prepared to pay what I charge ($250/hr at the moment). So if you’re a $50/hr freelancer you might look like a great deal to a client, compared to me.
You heard me right: Competing against a more experienced freelancer like me can actually improve your chances of winning a job on Upwork.
Bet you never thought of that, right?
Here’s another thing you probably never considered: Most of the time, when an Upwork client offers me a job, I turn it down.
When I want to find a new client on Upwork, I usually send out a lot of proposals. Sort of a “proposal blitz,” you might say.
My strategy is to apply for as many jobs as possible. If a job looks like there might even be a 10% chance for me to be a good fit, I’ll apply “just in case.”
That way, I don’t miss out on any good opportunities. Writing a proposal takes me just a few minutes, and it’s free, so I choose to stack the odds in my favor.
This system also speeds up the process of getting hired, because some clients can take days or weeks to respond to your proposal — while others will hire you within a day or two.
Anyway, the result is that I usually end up getting a bunch of job offers, and I have to turn most of them down.
That’s good for you if you happen to be competing against me on a job because the most likely outcome is that I won’t end up taking it — even if the client is interested in hiring me.
Upwork vs. poker
In poker, the only way for you to win a dollar is if another player loses a dollar.
Upwork doesn’t work that way. It isn’t competition in the traditional sense.
We can all win if we’re willing to learn how to do great work and help our clients succeed.
Some of my best friends are Upwork freelancers who appear to be my competition. But we help each other far more than we compete.
For example: A few years ago I contacted one of my top Upwork competitors to see if she was interested in working on a project with me. I thought she might tell me to go fly a kite, but she was happy to hear from me.
We became great friends and it’s not uncommon for us to talk several times a week, even to this day.
We’ve shared a lot of knowledge with each other. I’ve even shared a few of my clients with her. (She has a full service marketing agency, so I sometimes send my clients her way when they need something I don’t do — like web design — or when I’m too busy to help them).
We’ve also kept each other motivated, and “competing” has inspired us to do better and charge more for our work — instead of intimidating us into staying average and being afraid to grow and succeed.
Experience is overrated
Last month he applied for a job involving something he’d never done before: Working with green screen (don’t ask me what that means).
I barely know what green screen is… But I can guarantee you there are freelance video editors on Upwork who have lots of experience with it.
But Mike knows that people who sit there and wait for perfect opportunities never succeed. Meanwhile, winners look for opportunities to stretch and make it more likely that they’ll get “lucky.”
So he did some research online and figured out how to use this green screen stuff. You’d be surprised how many successful Upwork freelancers have a “Masters Degree in Googling.”
When he wrote his proposal, he didn’t focus on his lack of green screen experience — he focused on helping the client win. Because of that, he got the job.
Here’s what Mike told me:
“A lot of freelancers would get stuck on the part of the job they aren’t familiar with. But I worked with what I had. The client’s goal was to create an engaging online course, so I talked to her about how we could do that together.”
When you’re wearing the Intimidation Goggles, this doesn’t make sense. You shake your head and wonder why the client wouldn’t just hire the freelancer with the most experience.
But that’s your lizard brain fooling you again.
In reality, no client is going to fall in love with you because you’ve worked with green screen 47 times. Or because you’ve written 792 blog posts, helped 98 clients create a Facebook page, etc.
Numbers aren’t sexy; they only seem that way to people who don’t understand how clients think..
I see this over and over again… Freelancers with less experience outshining more experienced “Old Pros” because they understand that freelancing is — above all else — a people business.
Mike gets it. And that’s why he’s unstoppable, even though he started freelancing on Upwork straight out of college!
You can join them if you want to. It’s not as hard as you think.
Yes, there are lots of great freelancers on Upwork.
But there’s still plenty of room for you too.
(Flickr Creative Commons image via Graham C99)