Facing freelance fear for the future

When I started out freelance in October 2008, I knew setting up business for myself involved risk: “Will I be able to win clients? Will I survive? Am I better off with the security of employment for someone else?”

On day 1, I had a contract for 11 days work at 350 euros before VAT. Enough to pay the bills for the first month. But I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in November?”

I started the next month with the same (renewed) contract and some other new work . I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in January?”

Eventually, as I saw some stability, I managed to stop worrying too far in the future. (Today, for example, I know that I have enough work until February 2016.) I started to think the sky was the limit and wondered how far I could increase my revenue. I even congratulated myself on being able to take on so much and make it work. At that point, things became interesting and the fear changed form…


I would win more-and-more work and invoice more-and-more, but I started to feel the pressure of too much work. But I told myself  that this was “a luxury problem” .. I should be thankful the work is there. I was afraid to say “no”. If they asked for me, I had to make it happen. If I said “no”, it would all fall apart sometime later. This is how my work progressed…

revenue-worktime 1

Proudly, I would tell myself I was working and invoicing more-and-more and that business was great. But a look at the facts told me something was wrong:

  • I was working minimum 60 hours a week, every week
  • I was too tired to enjoy any of my non-work time
  • People said I was on the road to burn-out
  • I was making money, but I didn’t feel like I had any control
  • I worried constantly that if I said “no”, people would go away and I would lose that business in the future
  • I was “successful” on paper, but not happy



For a while, I held the course. It worked.

Then it didn’t. I couldn’t do it anymore.


The next year (2013), I had a “crash” and couldn’t work for a few months. When I went back to work, I struggled to deal with the commitments I had made prior to that. But I wouldn’t dare go back to those clients and say “I can’t do it”. That would be breaking a promise. And I had already let them down by the taking time off. So on I went. The yearly revenue went up even more despite the time off. And although the average work time went down on the year (due to my absence) my actual week looked even worse then ever.


I wondered if I had learnt anything, but in the back of my mind I had at least started to ask some good questions:

  • How can I call myself successful if I’m not happy or healthy? “Success” in terms of what?
  • How much of my life do I want to spend “working”?
  • What work do I WANT to be doing? If I was only doing what I liked most, what would it be?
  • How much money do I need to live how I want to live? Why would I need more than that?
  • If I say “No” to anything that doesnt fit the work I want, or anything unnecessary to meet a quarterly financial need, what could be the worst that might happen?


Not knowing all the answers was tough. It fueled the fear (“Don’t screw it up”). But I was past the point of no-return: Assumptions had to be tested to find a new balance.


Today, the graph has progressed on both measurements, most importantly the average weekly work-time:

revenue-worktime 2


Here’s what I learnt from my crash:

  • Its not healthy to consider success in terms of “more”. Success is achieving what you really want or need and no more. In terms of my revenue, I no longer think “Can I invoice more?” but rather “Do I now have enough?” If the answer is “yes”, I won’t take on any more work. I know that its possible in the short-term, but more work and more money is not the goal. For the years to follow, I have no intention at all to see those blue bars go up.
  • I now set “work-life balance” goals more in terms of “life” than “work”. What do I want to be doing with my time on Earth, both in and (now importantly) out of work time?  (The answer by the way is “having fun” and “relaxing”). I want to see those red bars go down even more. Or at least to consider that all “work” is “not work” (fun).
  • I made a decision on the financial worth of a day of my life. Here’s how: If I want to be doing 123 when I’m not working and I need XYZ euros to sustain that, how much do I need to earn while I AM working? And if I divide that by the maximum time I am willing to work, what is my required day-rate? This is a very different approach to “What did I used to invoice?”, “How much will they pay me?” or “What is the market price?”
  • Although previous experience made me think I knew how things worked, testing assumptions has proved me wrong. For example, when I clients came along, I tested the assumption of what they would be willing to pay for my time. That’s why the blue bar HAS still gone up.
  • I fired a few clients. Those who weren’t bringing me joy in my day-to-day interactions had to go, as did those who weren’t willing to pay for my time (life). Blue bar up; red bar down.
  • I started to say “No” trying to trust myself and the universe that it would all be OK.


The results in terms of finance and work-time are in the graph above, but the important results cannot be seen in numbers:

  • My time off work is spent sitting in the sun, playing with my kids, sleeping more and making music
  • This summer was the first in 7 years where I didn’t “fall over and die” from exhaustion in the first 2 weeks off
  • I have more focus in the jobs I take on and more fun day-to-day doing the work
  • I still have my annual 15 weeks holiday :-)


“So, Dan, what’s your point?” I hear you ask? “Why write this?”

I guess for those that don’t need to hear this experience, there is nothing to learn. But if you are lost in your quest for freelance success, victim of your own ability to please your clients or worried that your work-life imbalance is not sustainable, maybe this is the point:


Be clear on what you want out of freelance life, focus on that in every interaction, test your assumptions and dare to take your cake and eat it.


But, in the words of some wise Chinese tourist-site manager…

chinese wisdom


Thanks for reading


No more self-employed lazy guilt

As a self-employed person, I have a tendency to work, work, work. But right now, it’s 9.15am and I still haven’t “done anything”. Is this bad?

Well, first of all: It is not true. Having gotten up at 6.30, I packed my kids off to school, spent 45 minutes exercising and have since been reading “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel whilst eating a healthy breakfast that I enjoyed taking the time to prepare. So I have done something.

But let’s pretend that I had just rolled over in bed, left the family to it and done nothing but sleep. Yesterday, I only did a 2-hour coaching session and I just spent all of July and August on holiday. That doesn’t sound like doing much. Is that OK? Is that what self-employed people do?

Last week, I read an article about the morning rituals of awesome entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey or Mr Branson. Up at 5.30. Sport. Meditation. Family etc.. Inspired by that this morning, I thought I should probably now sit down and seriously meditate on my top 3 priority business objectives for the day, week and year to come. I should make plans for new services or products, improved efficiency and more profit. That’s what successful business types do in the morning, right?

But quite frankly, I can’t be bothered. I don’t need to do anything. Tomorrow and Friday I’ll be delivering training all day, my revenue-winning calendar is as fully-booked as I’d like it to be and I don’t have anything hanging over my head. Except the “self-employed-lazy-guilt”, that is.

And then the phone rings. Is it a new client calling to ask me if I’m available for training next Wednesday? What will I say? Strictly speaking, I’ll only be lazing around doing nothing but fuelling my own pleasure. Will I be able to say “No”? Can I tell the truth? Or should I say I’m fully-booked? What if he takes a day off himself and sees me at the cinema at 11am? Or running in the park? Where will I hide?

Or maybe it’s my mother, calling to tell me I’m a lazy freelancer and I can’t possibly expect to be successful if I just hang-around doing nothing when work could be done.  “Everybody has to work”. “You can’t expect to just take random days off in the week. Your father could never do that.” Or even worse: “Don’t say ‘No’ to work now. You never know if you’ll still have more next year. You’re lucky people ask you. You should say ‘Yes’.”

Fortunately, it’s an unknown number. The stuff of voicemail. I don’t answer it. Today, I am calling all the shots. As I was promised when I read “Freelancing for Dummies” all those years ago, it would be great if I could do whatever I want whenever I want. If I chose to work for myself, it’s because I thought I could be a better boss to myself than anyone else. Well, I want a boss who loves my happiness more than the cash, productive hours or time-filling. Who is happy with achieving targets and going home early. Correction: Who doesn’t even call it “early” because that implies some form of 9-to-5 ritual just for the sake of it. 

For the new season ahead, my boss is going to tell me take it as easy as possible. “The clients are satisfied and so should you be. And even if they aren’t, you can’t please everyone all the time.” Relax. It’s not lazy. It’s awesomely efficient, minimum effective dose. It’s long-term sustainable, more rounded and balanced. You deserve it. Not because you worked so hard before, but just because you deserve it. Full stop.

So go lay on the grass for a while.. 

Super Dad inspires again !

When I was a boy my Dad was amazing.

At the end of a long day somewhere, as I would drift in-and-out of consciousness in the back seat, he would pilot the car home. I was unaware at the time as to what he was really doing. He was simply an amazing Dad who could drive. When we got home, he was use his super-Dad powers to scoop my 20 kilograms of dead weight into his arms and take me to bed, somehow magically getting me into my pyjamas without waking me up.

Between October and December, he would crack nuts, using only a nutcracker and his super-Dad strength. I couldn’t do this.

At the weekend or some evenings, he would magically remember all the things he needed to do to make spaghetti bolognese, which everyone would agree was brilliant.

And he had a great collection of music. Loads of different stuff. He introduced me to James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, ELO and god only knows what else. He was even the first person I knew to dig Nirvana.

Today, I am a Dad.

I drive a car, carry my kids to bed and introduce them to music. I still don’t crack nuts. But I can. Because I am amazing and I have super-Dad powers.

It would be easy therefore to think that my Dad was actually just normal. Just bigger and further on in life. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the little things we take for granted as adults continue to amaze and inspire our kids, and to affect their future.

I still make spaghetti bolognese like my Dad told me to and I can see the awe in the eyes of my girls when I do these normal things and they see super-powers.

And the same is true for the not so cool things. I don’t really remember what they were with my Dad, but it stands to reason that if all these other things were blown up into super proportion, then the not-so-good things were too. So what do my girls think when I am tired and miserable, impatient and angry?

And the inspiring never ends.

When I see my Dad today, I see someone who has understood what is important and what is not. Who has stopped running around and no longer does the things he doesn’t want to. I see a man who got his shit together to retire at 50. Who can build a pond or a vegetable patch or fix a motorbike. He still has super-powers and I still want to be like him.

So, I guess that whatever I am doing on Father’s Day, the point is the same: For better or worse, I am inspiring my kids.

All Dads are.

Make it count.

Good luck!

Days 3 + 4 at ATD2015

Back in Belgium, here is a mini-summary of the last 2 days of ATD2015, which thanks to Harry Potter and Lufthansa, could not be delivered earlier…

Day 3

Day 4

…and that’s pretty much it. Another year of ATD conference fun over :-(

It was really great!

Thanks for reading


You can make comics for learning too!

Brian Melvin has filled his room in the last #ATD2015 session (W315)And once again, I cheated. Backdoor. Feel bad for the queue. But I’m here, so let’s go!

According to Melven, we have a choice for presenting information to our people: Words or images. Images work better. But we aren’t all graphic designers, so what do we do?

Follow this process:

  • Get your story and characters straight.
  • Decide what kind of style you want. Today, we are looking at comic styles.
  • Find someone who can draw something. Melven suggested not going to a design agency, but just getting online and finding freelance people or student that can help. It’s really not that expensive to get a character like the one below gin 15 or so poses you can use in your materials) for about $200
  • Script out your story and get that script sign-off BEFOREHAND you go to the drawing board
  • Put a storyboard structure in PPT.. keep it simple, just a few boxes
  • Add some text!


Other (book) references that may help you on your visual journey:

Transforming users into contributors – JD Dillon at ATD2015

Having spent the last 3 days missing the elusive slightly-bearded JD Dillon at ATD2015, I am in session W212 to find out how Kaplan is transforming users into contributors. Much of the time, our people know better than we do. How can we release that into the organisation? We know we are supposed to, but what are the principles and tools we need to keep in mind to make this happen?

Admitting that he has nothing original to say today (!), JD started by reminding us of one of the key messages from yesterday’s keynote speaker Sugata Mitra: “It’s not about making learning happen, but letting it happen.”

Adding to this, he notes that many learning professionals have trouble bringing something useful to the business table: We are slow, we are not the experts and we are focussed on building and pushing things into the organisation. We have limited reach, yet we still try to get everyone trained. And we are obliged to justify every last bit of our efforts and carefully spend a set budget (to get everyone trained). JD says we have to stop trying all this formal process-driven nonsense to get to the table and … BE the table.

What does that mean?

Firstly, think about the way we learn at work and compare to the way we learn at home: If I have a problem with my plumbing at home, I jump on Google or YouTube with a problem-based search in mind and find what I need to move forward with my problem right now. I don’t worry about the production value of what I find and I certainly don’t have to fill in any forms or get my manager’s permission to learn.

Why can’t learning at work be like learning at home?

Or rather: How can we shift our focus as learning professionals to make learning at work like learning at home?


We need to foster the right contribution behaviours

To ensure we have meaningful, relevant, scalable and reusable content from our users, JD proposes to focus on a few things:

  • Firstly, we need to eliminate the perfection mentality. People need to know that it’s OK to just share stuff. One minute of video doesn’t oblige 5 hours of production. Spelling mistakes are not a problem.
  • Secondly, enable bragging and helping. People who do good work should talk about that work and share their stories. Sometimes they will think that is arrogant to do this. But as users, we are all looking for content. So somebody has to share!
  • Thirdly (actually, I’m pretty sure I missed points 3+4) we need to give some kind of structure that makes it easy for people to contribute from everywhere.

In principle, this all sounds great, but there is still some cynicism from learning professionals: We worry about control and consistency. We think people will surely get things wrong. “They don’t understand people’s needs like we do.” etc etc…


Here are the tips I heard from JD and some of the attendees today and my own 2-cents on the topic:

  • Get a wiki
  • Don’t try to moderate everything – let it go and let the contributors find the balance
  • Keep a formal controlled space for the content that your company is not willing to leave in the hands of the users
  • Teach (or encourage) contributors what makes a good contribution
  • Help content-generators to “think SEO”
  • Ask people to jump in and share a story. And thank them when they do.
  • Add a little points system for sharing. People won’t generate content to get the points, but some (yes, ONLY some) will dig it and appreciate the “thanks”.
  • Keep your eye on what is happening on your system or in the organisation (report, if necessary) and use that to think about what topics are hot, where people have picked up content after a formal learning initiative etc..
  • Ask your users (consumers and content-generators) what functions or support they want on the platforms you use
  • Ask people to create little video-blogs to tell more about “how” they do what they do rathe than just writing on the “what”
  • Look for early-adopters in the organisations and whisper “requests to share” in their ears. When the latecomers start looking around, at least they will see something useful.
  • Get top-level managers to “narrate their work”. When the top-guy is doin this, it sends a message to people that it’s OK to share. But be careful with the tone.. If you can feel that your top-guy is really not the guy to set the right tone with that, DON’T ask!

Thanks for reading


Step-by-step guide to making infographics

Having snuck through the back doors I am in the 2nd ATD2015 session to be sold-out (ask me which was the first :-) where our speaker Mike Parkinson is here to help us do a good job faced with two simple truths: Most of the information we process and things we do happen intuitively. And visual cues always win.

(My apologies In advance for the lack of visuals in this post … jump to the end if you are impatient!)

A successful graphic is defined as one where the target audience gets the intended message (quickly). If you (or your subject-matter-expert) doesn’t like the graphic, that doesn’t matter. As long as the audience gets it.

To make good info graphics, we need to first have a good conceptual approach to communication: Think of your audience, define your message and then explain or prove your point.

As any presentation skills trainer (hopefully) knows, a good message has to have a blend of benefit and required action. For example: “Define a good message to be sure your audience gets the point.” (See also my little video on: “Creating Strong Messages“)

And that’s why you need to know your audience. Example: I buy a drill because I want to make a hole. But someone else might buy a drill to be sure that he never has to ask his Dad for a tool, because that would show dependence on a parent (!)

If you have your message clear, you need now to answer 2 more questions: “What do you mean?” and “How do I do it?” According to the speaker, these 2 questions are basically always the same. And that’s what we need to put in our infographic: First chunk the information, then assemble it in the right order, then visualise it.

To chunk the information, look at your message (its “what” and “how”) into the smallest possible parts. Then you need to assemble it into to a story. This doesn’t have to be a full story. Just a simple pitch which puts things in the right order. At this point, we haven’t yet visualised anything. We are just trying to get the right things in the right order.

When it comes to visualising your message, we need first to know what “kind” of message we have:

  • Process graphics tell us what has to happen in which ord
  • Graphs and charts tell us how number fit together
  • “Dashboard” images, analogies and metaphors tell us the state of something

OK, now we have our message, which is relevant for our audience. We have chunked it down into parts and made sense of the story. And we know which type of infographic it is.

We just need some images and a little creativity.
..and maybe some of these resources: 

…and now, for that magical moment: My first (prizewinning!) infographic on … wait for it … how to make infographics, made with penultimate (without a pen!) on my iPad in less than 5 minutes following speaker Mike Parkinson’s process.



Bringing context to your (e)learning

ATD2015 session TU209 is with Ethan Edwards, speaking about bringing better context into e-learning. Now, I’m not an e-learning guy and generally don’t like the approach. But I am very interested in the context problem since my TK15 session with Robert Todd earlier this year. That session was quite “abstract” for me, so I’m hoping that this one will really give the 5 practical idea it promises. A good start, as Ethan is full of joy and clearly happy to be speaking. I’m listening…

It’s all about the context

In communication training sessions, we are often interested in the difference between the words that are said, and the way they are said and “everything else” that is going on. The “words” are not the part bring the most meaning.

In many e-learning modules, instructional designers often fail by imagining that their e-learning is “just putting the PPT (words + images) into a system”. But the words (and not even the images) are still not the part that bring the most meaning. 

Most e-learning modules look like the one Ethan Edwards showed us… Some explanatory text, a few things you can click to go through some different iterations of the information presented and a quick test at the end. But most e-learning doesn’t work, because that information is not presented “in context”. And it is the context that brings the meaning. And the meaning that brings the spark for recall and potential change.

How do we bring the context?

Our speaker showed a great example of a bad e-learning module for truck safety at a railroad crossing. Truck drivers are basically told what to do and then asked what they would do in the same situation. It was SO horrible it actually made me feel anxious imagining the days I used to be forced to (admittedly click through and pretend to..) follow these things.

But then we saw this:

This module works on exactly the same learning objectives as the other version. But the learner is IN context. In the cab of the truck, the choices to be made are about things that are there in front of the driver (you), not presented on a screen. Truck drives don’t look at a screen. Or, as our speaker put it “I’ve been working for 30 years and my job never involved clicking A, B or C!”).

Even if you can’t make something as beautiful as this example above, or don’t have the budget and even if you are not making e-learning, the following 5 ideas can help you bring in the context:

Create a specific meaningful environment
Like the example above, whatever is being learnt has to be presented as if it is in the real environment in which the performance of behaviour is supposed to take place.

Use story
Don’t talk theorectically about what is going on, with models and theories. Use a story arc, with character, a situation, plot complications and resolution.

Insert the learner into the action
Give the learner an objective. Not a learning objective, but something to achieve in the activity. Like “Find the gangs” (for Californian police learner so). Use some element of challenge.

Embrace purpose
If you are doing compliance training, don’t tell people “we are doing this because we have to”. Show the real benefit for them in terms of their own perceived sense of purpose.

..and finally, create a sense of adventure
This could be anything. Building things up by step-but-step, showing impact of “bad behaviour” (Booom! you died!).

And that’s all folks!

Make it happen!

“Who taught the termites civil engineering?” (Sugata Mitra reminds us how we are all wired to learn by themselves)

In a true lesson of what keynote speaking should be, Sugata Mitra has taken the stage at ATD2015 to talk to us about how our world has changed and what this means for education. A funny, charming, entrepreneurial raconteur what he has to say is possibly the most important lesson for people in the world of education. Really.

The history of education

It’s only been a hundred years since we lived without telephones, computers and rapid transport. And that was the world for 100s of 1000s years before. How that world operated defined how we develop people.

Before we lived in today’s technologically enabled world, people needed to obey, repeat and not be creative. They needed to be able to sit still to read and write on paper and they needed to be able to do arithmetic in their heads. They needed to be able to stand still and do the same thing over and over again according to the rules.
In that world, there was a system whose sole job was to produce those people: School. The role of the school was to create this vast empire of conformity, knowledge and industrial repetition by telling people what they needed to know and making sure they did it right.

That world is gone. One day, our grandchildren will ask us “Hey grandpa. What does ‘knowing’ mean?”

How do children really learn today?

Mitra told us about an experiment he ran in an Indian slum in the late 90s: Placing a simple internet-connected computer in a hole-a-wall 3-feet from the ground, he waited to see what happened. 

Children arrived. They asked “What is it?” He replied “I don’t know” and left them to it, giving no support at all.

8 hours later, they had figured it out, were browsing and 8yr-olds were teaching 6yr-olds how to do it.

After more research and observation, Mitra concluded that unsupervised children anywhere in the undeveloped world given access to an Internet enabled computer will, without any training, in 9 months get to the same computer-literacy level as an office secretary in the West.

In short: Children don’t need teachers.

All they need is broadband, collaboration and encouragement!

Closing and reflections from a father

There is nothing else I want to say about Mitra’s keynote content right now. Nothing could do it more justice than saying that the answer to the above photo question is a resounding “Yes”.

But as a father of 3 small children, I do feel obliged to say something more. If children can do all this (and they can!) what is a risk if we don’t let them? If we keep telling them the answers, where will they end up? If we keep testing them to standards we have invented for ourselves, how can we expect something new? If we stifle their innate creative drive to figure things out, follow their own path and invent their own answers, where will the joy be? How will they find their passions? How will they innovate?

And sure, if we do keep telling, testing, standardising and stifling, everything will be “safe” and I won’t have to worry about “where they end up”.

But maybe I should just let it go?

See also:

Day 2 at ATD2015

Time for bed, but not before a little summary of my second day at ATD2015:

  • ATD has a wicked new marketing video. Beautiful images and anthemic sound!
  • Thank you VERY much to Tony Bingham for mentioning my work to the 10000 attendees present. Ego sufficiently stroked for the year.
  • The first keynote speaker Andrea Jung had some really positive content to share
  • Clear blue skies. Hot, but not humid = a nice outside morning moment shared with new (Kim + Bart) and old (Lorenzo) friends
  • Queues in the expo for a caricature were too long… but I got a few Minnie Mouse ears for the girls :-)
  • Lunch was had amongst the monkeys
  • My session M101 on “Practical Use of Social Media for Formal Learning” was great fun. The fire marshalls turned up for the first time at the conference to turn people away. 450 attendees minimum :-)
  • …and yes, I won the selfie contest for the day. Thx to the 64 people who retweeted :-) #AskAndYeShallReceive
  • Julie Dirksen explained the elephant and the rider in a great session on why people don’t change behaviour and what you can do about it
  • Karl Kapp owned his session on gamification. Had seen the content before, but hadn’t seen the gamified version of his session. Very inspiring, great story-telling and just going home thinking “I can do SO much more to improve my trainings”
  • An improvised dinner with Mr Kapp(tain Kirk), the other monkey (Anders), Rick_Lozano, my client and now-new-friend Yves Plees and the aforementioned friends from SD turned out to be very entertaining and inspiring, as we discussed everything from tattoos to skydiving and barefoot running… jungle survival, husband/wife relationships, gamification, live music and work-life balance … why you can’t fly effectively defend airspace over Belgium in a fighter-jet, learning Swedish in Gent (but not Norweigen!), mid-life-crisis and motorbikes, and …. …. to living the dream, going your own way, education and the industrial revolution. How will I sleep tonight?!!

Tomorrow = Sugata Mitra on today’s educational challenges, the NeuroScience of Bias and 3 of 7 other sessions yet to be decided.. and buying a magic wand for Annabel from Harry Potter-land.

But first, 6 hours sleep please :-/


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