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Failing forward: Using mistakes as career fuel

We examine failures and mistakes through the lens of freelancing, how to use experiences to push forward and elevate careers.

Making mistakes – or even failing – is an essential part of professional (and human) development. “ In every successful journey, failure is inevitable,” writes Ankur Ruparelia, a Managing Director at Deloitte, in a March 2021 blog. “Being competitive is not bad in any way, but letting winning be the only priority over many other important things may not be the right approach. Failure has two sides – one makes you strong, and the other leaves you sceptical forever. Now it depends which side we choose to be on.”

 

Here, we examine failure and mistakes through the lens of freelancing, speaking with 5 freelancers about things that have gone wrong – and how they use these experiences to push forward and elevate their careers.

On learning from failure

“Success is a great confidence boost, but failures and mistakes teach you a lot about being a better copywriter, marketer, and freelancer,” says copywriter Kirsten Lamb. “There are over 200 variables that can impact whether a piece of content ranks — there are a ton of variables that also impact whether your copy converts.

 

“As a freelance content marketing writer or copywriter, you can use best writing practices and conversion or SEO strategies to optimize your copy and content to help get results. But whenever something doesn’t perform as well as you predicted or hoped — you can still see that as a learning.”

2nd - Why mileage matters - writers' value of screw ups

From failure to a chance

“Failure is a chance to uncover more about your audience and what works best for them. What new things did you learn about your audience? Which elements of the copy performed best and which didn’t? You can use heat-mapping tools like Hotjar, as well as A/B tests, to highlight potential problems and what you need to revamp when it comes to your content or copy.”

 

Translators, however, should take note, says Karin Denzler, as the field necessitates an error-free final product. Instead, she says, “it is more about finding an optimal work process (for you), so that you make as few mistakes as possible and avoid disappointment with your customers.”

On real-life mistakes and moving on

Whether it’s an error as a result of (a lack of) communication, or simply an oversight, most freelancers carry with them a real-life example of a mistake they have made in the past.

 

“Early in my career, I wasn’t clear enough with clients about the importance of a timely feedback process where both sides could be honest about issues or things they wanted changing,” says copywriter Kirsty Matthewson. “While I was still growing in confidence, I didn’t always ask for enough details in the briefs, which meant I sometimes struggled to prioritise the information in the best possible way or missed a trick with the wording or CTA.”

Mistake fixed

Sometimes, mistakes are more concrete than others – and, unfortunately for graphic designer Michelle van Holland, much more visible:

 

“Recently, I made a newsletter for a client,” Michelle says. “I also had to place the header in the main photo. It contained a date on which the event would take place. Unfortunately, I did not read it correctly in the supplied text, and because the text got all kinds of effects in Photoshop, I typed it in myself, instead of copy-pasting it. I sent a test version of the mail to the client for verification, but unfortunately the client also missed out on it. And so it happened that almost 6,000 emails with the wrong date for a major event were sent. Fortunately, the client saw the mistake just after sending it, and I was able to send a neat rectification mail very quickly. Mistake fixed –  but, of course, prevention would have been nicer.”

 

Sometimes,  as in the case of digital product designer Alexis Romo Nájera, mistakes open up doors – and elevate the professional self by revealing boundaries that can then be expanded: “The best example I can give was to over-promise things to customers, offering more than I could do or going beyond my knowledge – that was my mistake,” he says. “But it was that mistake also led me to learn to do more things, because if the client asked me for a video I said I could do it without a problem, without even knowing how to edit – but I spent whole nights learning to do it to meet the client’s demands and to deliver what he asked for. That helped me that while I was nervous about the delivery, at the same time I was developing my skills that in the future I would be able to offer.”

On avoiding mistakes

Mistakes, as stated in the Deloitte blog above, are “inevitable.” But that’s not to say we can’t take steps to avoid them. Sometimes, this means using simple tips or tricks that result in higher-quality finished products

 

“For me personally, it works best if I first make a quick version of a translation and then check it for completeness and correctness. Then I prefer to leave the text overnight or for half a day,” Karin says.

 

“I set meeting reminders on Alexa and I have a whiteboard with my schedule and content and copy delivery dates mapped out for the week,” adds Kirsten. “If I don’t write it down, I won’t remember it.”

Involve in the creation process

Alexis, meanwhile, ensures that he involves the client at every step of the creation process, resulting in better alignment and decreasing the chance of making a mistake: “Now I like to involve them in the whole process and with tools like Figma and constant revisions, we both have the same vision and the projects end faster and without mistakes.”

 

Almost unanimously, however, the freelancers with whom we spoke hit on the same topic: communication. Without an open channel and clear expectations, the potential for mistakes or errors drastically rises:

 

Take the time to write briefs that offer good levels of information about the project and what they do and don’t want,” Kirsty says. “It is also nice to know about the brand’s marketing strategy, how they promote their content, what works best for them, and vice-versa. When it comes to style guides, it is great to really understand the brand’s personality and what makes it unique. This has to come from an honest place, though – not every brand is a thought leader. It is far better to describe your brand in meaningful terms that will resonate with the copywriter and help them understand how you are different and how you help. Furthermore, if the client is available for debrief calls, that can be incredibly helpful.”

More is better

‘[I need to be provided with] as much information as possible, which ensures a translation that optimally matches your requirements and wishes as a company,” Karin says.

 

And finally, Kirsten adds, clarity is key: “A detailed brief and onboarding docs on voice and tone are great. Also provide examples of copy or content you admire and share what you like about it – my idea of ‘conversational’ might be different to yours.” 

  

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