Failing to freelance in data visualization
After freelancing in data visualization for a little over a year, I decided to call it quits. I reflect on what went wrong and what you could learn from my mistakes.
Jane Zhang - Sep 28, 2021
Table of contents
- Why I am writing this post
- Part 1: My freelancing experience
- Why freelancing didn’t work out for me
- Part 2: The emotional and psychological challenges of freelancing
- What I’m up to now
If I had to identify the exact moment I knew I would give up data visualization, it was probably when I started to resent it. By then, I had freelanced for a little over a year. There were many factors as to why freelancing didn’t work out for me and it’s complex to pin down. I’ve reflected on what happened to me for a long time, and I think it’s finally time I write about it.
Before I begin, I want to add some disclaimers. First, everything I write in this article is specific to my own experiences. Everyone experiences freelancing in data visualization differently. I want you to think carefully about context. Second, I’m not comfortable with people looking up to me for taking the leap to freelance. I could do it because I had money saved up and I lived with my family. I know there are many people who would like to freelance but have restraints. I don’t think I took a big risk because it was one I could afford to lose. If you decide to take the leap, think about your own situation and carefully consider what risks you can take.
Why I am writing this post
It’s painful for me to write this post. I don’t like talking about things that didn’t work out in my life. Despite this, I still want to talk about it. As you read my story, you’ll learn one of the reasons I felt like a failure was because I kept comparing myself to people who only talked about their successes. I want to change the narrative of success and add my story, just to slightly tip the scale. I know there are many others who have failed in their career journey but don’t talk about it. A lot of my posts in the past have brought a lot of people comfort in knowing that they aren’t the only ones who feel anxious about freelancing. I hope this post does the same.
This post is split into two sections. The first has a tangible and operational focus. It is useful to people who are interested in learning specific ways of approaching freelancing. The second part focuses on the intangible aspects of freelancing, such as psychological and emotional barriers. I talk about things you won’t find in business books. This is more likely to be interesting to those who have more work experience. I recommend you to take a break after reading part 1, then coming back to part 2. Reading it all at once might cause fatigue (this post has over 6,500 words), it’s a lot to take in.
Part 1: My freelancing experience
When I started freelancing in 2019, I had no network in data visualization, which meant I had no leads on finding clients. I needed time to meet people and get a feel for the market. Data visualization is tricky to sell to people, so I freelanced in social media on the side (if you want to hear more about my early days freelancing, read this post).
I didn’t know what freelancing in dataviz would look like so I looked at my personal projects and thought maybe I could start with that. I previously designed a travel guide with helpful data visualization (poorly done, I cringe looking at it now) and reached out to someone I knew who worked in that space. She recommended me to a travel blogger from Toronto and that was where I got my start. I pitched him an idea and he agreed to work with me. I didn’t charge him for my services and I made it really clear to him that my commitment was limited (I created an agreement that outlined the scope of work) and my main goal was to test my skills with a real client.
As a side note, I’ve gotten complaints in the past about recommending people to do free work. Here’s my take on it. If you ever work for free, do it to trade up, or do it because you want to. Don’t get desperate and do free work for companies that could afford to pay you. Non-profits and small businesses are good places to start. I advise you to always write the market rate in your agreements so that clients don’t undervalue your work and you don’t undercut other freelancers.
After I finished the project with the travel blogger, I wasn’t sure about my next step. By now, I was four months in. I decided to ask for answers and reached out to others. I interviewed them and I published the article on Nightingale. Nightingale was so good for me. I got so much attention and traffic. A lot of dataviz people recommended me and clients were reaching out to me. But, it wasn’t all rosy because there was no conversion. In general, I got two types of client requests. The first and the most common were dashboard-related work. They either asked me about Tableau or Power BI. The second type of requests asked for design skills such as a production artist or a graphic designer. None of these were a fit for me because I didn’t have the skills or interest in them. I often wondered what they were thinking when they saw my portfolio online (this is a trick question because clients usually don’t check out your portfolio before reaching out to you).
There were two instances when I did get conversion. The first was from a design school I studied at. They saw LinkedIn posts about my work and asked me to host a paid workshop for the students. This was in Sept 2020. The second was around Feb 2021. This client heard about me from a video interview I was in and reached out to me about potential work. They paid me a 50% non-refundable deposit for me to make some visualizations to present at an upcoming conference. Unfortunately, they ghosted me and this engagement didn’t work out.
In August and September of 2020, I was contacted by two people who wanted to recruit me for data visualization jobs in Toronto (this was a big surprise). If you didn’t know, Toronto lags behind cities like New York, Vancouver, and London when it comes to the data visualization job market. For me to receive two job requests in Toronto was unbelievable. At this point, I was ready to quit freelancing and I thought getting a job in dataviz would be a good idea. The first request was from a big bank, after two rounds of calls, they disappeared. I later learned they didn’t have the budget to hire. It’s sad, but this is the same story for the second job. He told me the company had budget issues. Here are his exact words:
I wasted my time with these recruiters only to be told that data visualization isn’t valued enough to be part of the budget. I was so disappointed in Toronto. I am not here to play the blame game. I know 2020 was a tough time on the world so I get it, budget is a challenge for companies across all sectors. Regardless, why couldn’t they figure that out before recruiting? When I reflect how I could’ve done better, it would be developing a strong value proposition that would significantly impact the bottom line. After this experience, I told myself I would become an expert so if people ever thought about not working with me, they knew they were going to regret it. This means I need to be laser-focused on tackling painful problems that few others can solve.
Why freelancing didn’t work out for me
In hindsight, I made a lot of mistakes. There were areas I could have done better, but there were also many things outside of my own control. I became a freelancer in August 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit North America. Even though I was already working remotely, it significantly sapped my motivation and energy, as Andy Kirk has said: "[the pandemic] is draining and it is distracting".
The list below focuses on aspects that I think are very important to consider when you are starting out as a freelancer.
I didn’t fit the status quo
This is about market-fit. I didn’t have a style or format that clients were familiar with. If you look at my initial personal projects, they were all over the place. They were meant to be experimental. From my personal experience, the following three types of freelancers are what clients are used to working with when hiring for data visualization work:
You work with dashboards and build with tools like Tableau or Power BI. Tableau and Microsoft have done a great job at getting users to use their tools. The communities that exist around them also makes it very easy to adopt the technology. When I am considering learning a new tool or platform, one of the biggest consideration for me is if there is a large user base. A large user base means that if I need help troubleshooting, chances are that I could find the solution through a Google search.
You are a designer. You have an eye for typography, colour, and layout. Programs like Adobe and Figma are your best friends and you create stunning layouts for reports and publications. The work could exist in print or on websites.
None of my skills or interest fit into any of the list above. I didn’t care for dashboards and my coding skills are laughable. I suck at graphic design and didn’t care about editorial work. So, what’s left?
In July 2020, I did a personal project about Tekken (a Japanese fighting game). It was amazing and it was everything I wanted. The result wasn’t something I could create for a client, but it was something that customers might be interested in. At the time, I thought maybe I should create and sell useful products customers would love to use. In a similar vein as selling courses, products take time and investment to develop. I was scared of this because it meant I could be building a bunch of things that might never sell. I started to give myself too much pressure and I slowly resented what I was doing. I wasn’t in a good place. And so, I just let it all go. I stopped trying and gave up for good.
Not actively pitching myself
I wasn’t actively trying to engage with communities that clients are part of. There are two main reasons for this: I didn’t know what market I wanted to work in, i.e. a niche. Starting too broad becomes paralyzing. Where do you start? If you asked me to come up with a list of companies I wanted to work with, I didn’t know how to put one together. This problem goes back to market-fit and it was one I had no way to solve. If I couldn’t see how clients would benefit from my work, then it was just a dead end.
I also spent too much time being comfortable in the dataviz community. This is a mistake and a trap. If you’re a designer on Instagram, you’re usually followed by other designers, not clients. If you decide to create content your peers like, you will get a lot of engagement and this encourages you to keep making content for your peers. Your peers then become your audience. You are no longer speaking to clients at this point. There’s nothing wrong with making content or helping out your peers, but don’t let that take up most of your time. I suggest that you spend more time finding where clients hang out and engage with them there.
Starting too young
Before I freelanced, I had a day job for about three years. In my opinion, it’s not a lot of professional experience to develop expertise. I also didn’t have a strong network. Like most people, I stopped networking when I started working at a job. I really wish I didn’t stop. I wish I kept going to events and talking to people.
Francis Gagnon, another Canadian in the dataviz space, said he got his initial clients from his network.
2. I started in my late 30s and had a good network from working and studying in several countries and some large organizations. Lots of contracts came from people who knew me personally.— Voilà: Francis Gagnon (@chezVoila) September 12, 2021
Your network is your net worth. Francis started his own business in his late thirties. I started mine in my mid-twenties. Francis had an advantage starting later in life because he could tap into his network that he built. The thing about networking is that it takes a long time. It’s not easy and you can’t manifest it just because you want to. You have to put in the work.
I recently hired a business coach for a new business I am building, and he told me to ask everyone I know to refer clients to me. This might sound like obvious advice, but it’s a really important tactic. If you were going to hire, would you consider someone you never met, or someone that was recommended to you by a source you trust? I know which choice I would make. I know it’s hard to ask people for something, but that comes with the territory of being self-employed. It’s not easy, but practice will help.
Of course, there are advantages to freelancing at a younger age. The most obvious one is that there isn’t as much risk. When you are older, you tend to have more responsibilities. I am under 30 years old. I don’t have a mortgage, car, or children. I have fewer expenses to worry about.
Life has a weird way of playing tricks on us. I’d always thought that maybe I should’ve just kept my head down and stuck to my previous full-time job. I was good at what I did, and I would take home a salary every month. At the very least my mom would have one less thing to worry about when it came to my future. Recently, my manager at my previous job connected with me on LinkedIn. I learned the shocking news that the company cut the data design department I was in (this restructuring was probably related to the pandemic). Our job was outsourced, and it was being taken over by automated tools. A double whammy. When I was working there, we were already outsourcing and automating projects, but a lot of it was managed by us. To cut the middle person isn’t unexpected, but it was surprising that it happened so quickly. My manager worked there for 13 long years, and that department downsized just like that. Some people transitioned to other roles internally, others left. For those that wanted to keep doing design, they had no place there. If I just put my head down and worked like I was supposed to, I would’ve been let go (because I want to keep doing design) and would need to scramble to figure out my next steps. There aren’t any dataviz jobs I could have transitioned into in Toronto (there is a higher demand for dataviz developers rather than dataviz designers). I never would’ve thought my previous job would change in such a short amount of time. I remember thinking to myself that it was a stable job because we worked with Fortune 500 clients. I learned my lesson: there is no such thing as a stable job.
I guess it’s a good thing I left at the time I did. I had 2 extra years to figure my stuff out. I am at a good place now and I matured so much in such a short amount of time. Did I start freelancing too early? I don’t know. It had its challenges, but perhaps I made the right bet.
My advice before you freelance
Thanks for sharing your experiences. From your perspective, what should one ask before making the jump to freelancing in dataviz? What are the top 3-4 must haves ?— Farhan Farooq (@Farhan4rooq) September 8, 2021
I don’t know if I am qualified to give you advice since things didn’t work out for me. But here’s my attempt and maybe it would give you something to think about if you want to freelance. Some questions to ask yourself.
Can you live without a sustainable source of income for the next 12 months? If not, then stick to your full-time job or find something part-time to do. For example, I did social media work on the side while figuring out dataviz.
Do you have relevant work experience? I strongly advise against new grads to freelance. It’s much better for you to gain work experience, learn from others, and go from there. How many years of experience? There is no magic formula. Some people freelance after working for 2 years. Others after 10 years. It depends on you. Another key word is ‘relevant’. If it’s possible, work for a company that specializes in the tools (e.g. Adobe programs, Tableau etc.) and industry (e.g. urban planning) you’re interested in. Otherwise, find a company that at least aligns with one of these two.
Do you know what niche you want to work in? Most people won’t know what their specialty is from the beginning (which is okay), but it’s important to try to identify it. A niche in the case of data visualization goes in two directions. The first is horizontal specialization, which is going to be the framework, i.e. tools. Focus your time on a small selection of tools and get very comfortable with them. The second is vertical specialization. What is the topic domain you focus your efforts to build? Having a strong horizontal and vertical specialization is like a mobile library. You want to build it over time and transfer the knowledge between different projects. That is what defines an expert. There are many people who don’t like to niche and are afraid of missing out on opportunities or being bored. This might be true, but when you are starting out, you will have a better chance of attracting high quality clients if you are known for something. Keep in mind that just because you start in a niche, it doesn’t mean you can’t work with clients outside of it later in your career.
What problems can you solve for clients? The approach to finding problems is a lot easier if you have a niche because you have a way to find your clients. Say if you want to go into the vertical of helping non-profits in the education space. Do you know who the top thought leader is? What are the conferences they attend? What are topics they regularly discuss? What are questions people are asking in Q&A panels? How can you be the one to deliver a solution? I know someone in academia who is active in the MATLAB community. He has supported over 3,000 projects by responding to questions in online forums. As a result, he has developed fluency in the language, enabling him to be very valuable at solving unique problems.
To help you apply what I’m advising, here’s what I’m up to now. I pivoted into eCommerce this year (my new business is called The Better Melon). I started out by engaging with online communities on Reddit and Facebook. I spent a lot of time listening to people and see if my current skills could solve their problems. I discovered a subreddit called r/reviewmyshopify. New sellers would post a link to their new Shopify website and anyone could respond with feedback. I did this a couple times a week and I slowly saw a pattern of challenges sellers faced while gaining some confidence in myself. In fact, there was one particular seller I really liked. I reached out to him to see if we could work together on a pro-bono basis. I needed to test out my skills on real clients. We worked together on strategy and it was a very rewarding experience. I learned a lot about the mentality of sellers and what mattered to them. He expressed the value he gained from working with me. This experience gave me some hope that maybe I could be useful to clients in the eCommerce space. If you’re interested, I wrote a case study about it.
After a couple months of getting familiar with the field, I decided to narrow down my focus a bit. I went from building eCommerce websites to helping creative entrepreneurs build their brand on Shopify. This focus is extremely important because I can think deeply about problems that a general freelancer can’t solve. If another freelancer builds websites for all types of business (e.g. restaurants, lawyers, business consultants, etc.), will they be able to offer thoughtful shipping solutions to a jewelry designer who sells exclusively online? Will they know how to advise clients on payment solutions for in-person markets? It isn’t likely. eCommerce has many unique challenges and that’s how an expert in this niche can stand out against a generic freelancer.
Above all else, if you put yourself in your client’s shoes and think about their needs, you will have a good idea on how to structure your services. Listen to the language they use and try to reflect that in how you present yourself.
Take a break
This is the end of Part 1. I suggest you to take a break. Grab some tea or coffee. I told you a lot about what happened to me and it’s a lot to take in. Why don’t you bookmark part 2 and come back to it at a later time.
Part 2: The emotional and psychological challenges of freelancing
I'd be interested to hear about the emotional/psychological aspects. What might hinder one's ability to navigate a freelance path? 🤔— Arnold Platon (@Arnold_Platon) September 7, 2021
Chinese people use the term 下海 xiahai to colloquially say they are starting a business. The first character means ‘go down’, and the second character means ‘sea’. If you put it together, it can translate to ‘entering the sea’. When I first learned this phrase, I thought it was a visual depiction of how scary it is to start a business. However, if you study the phrase’s origin, it has nothing to do with fear. In fact, there’s one story of a person who was tricked and thrown into the sea. People adapted this story and say下海 if you’re doing things that are foolish or adventurous.
In some ways, starting a business is foolish. If people knew about the mental turmoil that come with it, it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. Starting a business is terrifying. Every day is a mental battle between perseverance or submission. The psychological aspects of freelancing is invisible, yet it is the main factor that decides whether or not we give up. This is why I am dedicating this part to talk about it.
How I define failure
I'll be very curious to hear what you mean by "failure" and "didn't work out for me" and what that means for you (where you go from here.)— Bill Shander (@billshander) September 7, 2021
Google tells me that failure is a lack of success. And I defined success as being able to live off of my work. Can I pay the minimum expenses I need to live? Based on what happened to me, the answer is no. Over the span of about 1.5 years, I earned about $3,500 CAD for my work doing data visualization related work (a very rough estimate). My income came from these sources:
- Client work
- Workshop for a school
- Writing articles for Nightingale
In a city like Toronto, $3,500 probably is just more than enough for one month of living expenses (depending on where you live). At the same time, I was doing some social media on the side, which helped, but it wasn’t enough.
If I was a robot, the above is how I would perceive failure. But, I am a human filled with a lot of complicated social emotions.
So how do I feel failure? The answer is relative to my environment. I compared myself to a lot of people. Chinese people like to have 面子 mianzi (which means face) and that comes from boasting about how well we are doing compared to others. I grew up with this mentality my entire life so it’s not easy to just dismiss it. Unfortunately, I brought it into my work. I saw a lot of people I knew move up in life. I saw them get great clients, I saw them get promotions, I saw them move forward. And every time this happened, I would question what the f&*k was I doing with my time. I felt defeated and useless. This feeling was hard for me to acknowledge and I suppressed it. I thought I should be better than this. I finally accepted my feelings after I saw this scene from episode 20 of a Chinese drama called The Ideal City:
Wife: Xiao (name of her friend) was promoted to the chief financial manager today. She treated us to an expensive meal…Why do you think she got promoted so quickly? A few months ago she was promoted to a manager. Now she is the chief manager. A rocket wouldn’t even rise up that fast.
Husband: Why, you aren’t happy?
Wife: No. I’m happy. She is my best friend, she deserves it. I am happy for her.
Wife: You know, Xiao works really hard. She is at construction sites all the time and is always covered in dirt. I interned at a construction site after I graduated from school. You wouldn’t believe how we braved the elements. At that time, I swore to myself that I’d only work at a white collar job. I will sit in an office building with air-conditioning. Just like those people in TV shows, I would drink coffee while chatting about life. It would be great.
Husband: You already achieved that.
Wife: Do you think I’m incapable… Why can’t I get a promotion after I’ve been working so hard for four years?
This scene unpacked a lot about having a career in the modern world. At the start of the scene, she indirectly compares herself to her friend. She denies her true feelings and justifies that her friend worked hard for her promotion. Her husband points out that she has realized her goal of working at a white collar job, yet she ignores this. She eventually admits that she doesn’t understand why she couldn’t advance as her friend did. She concludes that maybe she isn’t good enough.
I came to the same conclusion as the wife did for my own career. I looked at a lot of people around me and saw how well they did. I felt stupid and unworthy. Both myself and the wife failed to consider an important aspect: context. Success always comes at a cost. Although we see people who look like they are successful, we don’t know what sacrifices they made to get to their current state. In addition, there are are elements outside of one’s control, such as luck and timing. Hard work alone isn’t going to determine success.
In North America, there is a strong belief that we can manifest our success. While in Chinese culture, people are superstitious and understand that not everything is in our control. For example, Chinese people will go to great lengths to attract good luck, such as living in homes that face a certain direction, or buying a cellphone number with the number 8 (eight is a homonym for prosper). This understanding that success isn’t always in our control has given me some peace. I’ve once heard my relative say: ‘没这个命’. The direct translation is ‘don’t have this life’, or put more simply ‘it wasn’t meant to be’. Fate isn’t always in our hands and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s better to just accept this and move on. And that’s how I decided to handle my failure.
Growing up in an immigrant household, I was conditioned to be cautious about life and prepare for the worst. We lived from an angle of fear because it protected us. Risk was an alien concept to us. We would save every penny and rarely spend money outside of essentials. This way of living is the seed for a scarcity mindset, which is a belief that resources and opportunities are finite in the world. When I was freelancing, I have felt many times that opportunities were scarce (which is not true by the way, opportunities are out there). The moment someone reached out to me for client work, I would be desperate to do it because I didn’t know if there would be more client work coming my way. I just took what came to me, too scared to turn clients down. This was an extremely unhealthy way to operate.
Being self-employed, one thing I had to learn was how to spend money. It’s a weird thing to have to learn, that to make money, you need to spend money. I was raised to save money and spend it when necessary, so it was hard for me to learn how to let money go. Running a business has a lot of costs, such as hiring a business coach, purchasing assets, website hosting, software, transaction fees, etc. I still have this mentality where I would rather spend time to do something, than to spend money for it to be done for me. I have a tendency to value money more than my time. I am a lot better at letting money go now and I don’t obsess over every dollar. My mentality has shifted, but it still needs work.
Another symptom I had was that I always needed to work. It’s a very common thing to happen among freelancers. We believe that if we don’t work, we aren’t making money. I had a difficult time trying to relax. For example, there were several instances when I would be working late at night. I would take a break at 10 PM, with the intention of resuming my work after my break. I usually end up falling asleep. I’d wake up around 2 AM, realizing my mistake of falling asleep, go brush my teeth, then attempt to fall asleep again. This cycle would repeat for many days. It was madness. I just could not let myself call it a day and go to bed. I felt an intense pressure to constantly work and I always felt guilty that I am not doing enough. I appreciate how Maarten puts it:
“One downside of freelancing: the feeling of guilt when you take days off and spend money on vacation and other things. There is always that little voice, whispering in your ear: ‘No billable hours today. You are not making any money today. You are only spending money today.’ I guess a little more experience will wear off that guilty feeling…"
The other end of a scarcity mindset is an abundance mindset. This type of person sees opportunities in places that are invisible to most people. I used to work for someone who was starting a social media company. He would tell me: “How many small businesses along this street do you think could use our help? What if we could help them increase sales through social media?”. He made such a profound statement as he smiled with optimism. This was the true mindset of an entrepreneur, you create your own opportunities.
I think it’s best to have a balance of both mindsets. If you’re stuck in the abundance mindset, you might make poor investments. If you’re stuck in the scarcity mindset, you might never make an investment. Don’t beat yourself up over this, start acknowledging how you react to certain situations and observe what scares you. Fear is a good way to indicate what you should work on.
Losing the drive to strive
I grew up in an era that is very different from my parents'. When I graduated from school, there was an explosion of young people who made their fortune through social media. Some of them make a year’s worth of salary in one month. It was unprecedented that platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Tik Tok was changing young people’s lives in an extremely short amount of time. This phenomenon ruthlessly challenged what a career looked like. It seemed that everyone had a shot at realizing their ambitions through social media. Seeing the success of young people in this way got me thinking that maybe I could be successful too. When I started freelancing, I had a lot of enthusiasm and ideas. But somewhere along the way, I started to lose ambition. I got tired of striving.
I often hear messages that freelancers needed to charge more and that they should be making more money. It never ends. If I made $10K a year, then people will say aim for 100K, if I make 100K, people say aim for 1 million. What if I am happy with what I’m earning now and living within my means? Why is no one talking about that? Why is nothing enough?
I consumed a lot of business resources and everyone loves to talk about big money. Not enough people talk about the risks. The magic formula to success is to work really, really, hard. This means you have to say goodbye to your social life, mental health, leisure, and whatever else brings you joy. Is it worth it? There are people who will tell you ‘hacks’ and ways around this, it’s nonsense. If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.
I’ve seen online ads that look down on others who make $22/hour at a full-time job and say they can teach you to make 6-figures with their stupid course. What? Why are people looking down on those who work honest jobs? It’s degrading and condescending.
I’ve always been an anxious person. But ever since I started freelancing, I started to experience extremely low moods. It was to the point that I would not move from my bed and have no motivation to do anything. I would feel defeated. I am also very tired of people flaunting the lifestyle of “Loving their job”. It drives me bananas. It seems that people can’t find happiness unless they love everything about their job. That’s not reality. Even if people on social media present it that way, working takes a lot of effort. Nothing comes easy and you don’t have to enjoy every second of it.
While I’m on this thread of unpopular opinions, I don’t think people should feel pressured to turn their hobby into a career. Just because you love to make data visualization on your own time, it doesn’t mean you should force it into a career. The dynamic changes when you introduce a client and you lose a lot of power when money is involved. If you really want to make your hobby your career, then don’t start from what you like. Start from what the client needs. Go and listen to them and figure out how your talents can solve their problems. If you can make your hobby into your career and you’re happy with it, good for you.
I have nothing against people who have ambitious financial goals and want to make it big. I think you should do whatever you want. But, it’s a different story if you feel pressured to do it and you end up being miserable in the process. I don’t advocate for people to undercharge their services, I am advocating for people to manage expectations and prioritize their health.
Right now, I just want a simple life. I want to go at my snail pace while I have my mental health intact. Ambition has driven me to lose the will to live. It gets to the point that I could no longer see the colour of life. Imagine that the food you used to enjoy suddenly tastes like paper. It’s depressing AF. If you ever find yourself in the situation I was in, know that it is something that will pass.
The need to feel useful
I learned about my need to feel useful when I was 15 years old. I was talking to a social worker at my high school about challenges I had managing my time. I thought I always needed to do something. I was a restless kid when I had free time on my hands.
I am extremely thankful for my social media contracts while figuring out dataviz freelancing. I felt good working with clients and I knew I was valued. After 6 months, I stopped my social media work and decided to focus all my efforts on dataviz. The good thing was I had a lot more time to think about dataviz. The bad thing was I started to feel my self-esteem erode. When I work with clients, I say some smart stuff. When I stopped engaging with clients to give them good ideas, I felt useless. I started to doubt myself a lot and I didn’t know if I was good enough to do anything. This led to a negative cycle where I would close myself off and just sit in front of my computer all day. I tried to work more to feel better about myself.
Perhaps my need to feel useful is tied to how productivity is perceived in society. If you don’t contribute to society in some form, do you exist? I’ve questioned this many times. It’s hard to be productive if you can’t find work. The job market is tough as industries become more crowded. I recommend that if you’re just starting out, find ways to feel useful. For some people, it’s going to communities like Stack Overflow and helping people troubleshoot problems. For others, it’s building a data visualization and sharing your process to teach others. Everyone has a different way to feel useful. I urge you to take this seriously. When someone appreciates you and thanks you for your skills, it’s a great way to motivate you to keep going. Even if it’s small, it will help.
What I’m up to now
I have started a new career venturing into eCommerce in March. I chose eCommerce because I saw opportunity and I was deeply interested in the role products played in society. I want to work with merchants and help them establish their business. If I could use my skills and help a local jewelry maker make a living from selling her craft, then that’s a very worthwhile career for me to pursue. I still want to be a business owner because I want to give myself another chance. I feel I can do it properly this time around. I am wiser and more experienced now. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel more confident about how I am doing this the second time around.
As I began my new career in eCommerce, I decided I needed to find a part-time job for income, so I’ve been actively looking since June. In the middle of July, I saw a LinkedIn job post from the Data Visualization Society (DVS) for a Communications Manager role. It was a paid part-time contract. I read the job description and could not believe how well it fit me. I had experience in social media and I was an active member of the DVS since the beginning. What’s really funny about this situation is that just as I left dataviz, a relevant job from that community comes up. I applied to the job with no expectation of it going anywhere. By some luck, I got the job at the end of August. So in a way, I am back in the dataviz world. I am very happy to be back this way because I really enjoy serving the dataviz community.
I really love the dataviz community. I entered data visualization with desires of making interesting dataviz. I later discovered that I enjoyed helping the community more than making dataviz. I’ve been infected by developers who relentlessly document everything they do. How beautiful is it that people figure stuff out, make a tutorial about it on their blog, and help hundreds of people in their community. I discovered my love for writing and I wrote so much about my process and my career. I received so many emails and messages from all over the world, thanking me. I find so much meaning from helping others.
I always wondered how my mom did it. How did she pull off raising two children by herself while running her business? How do immigrants survive the overwhelming challenges of being in a new environment, so far away from familiarity? I think the answer is because they do it for others. My mom was focused on making sure her kids survive. She sacrificed her own desires and dreams. When a person works and lives to help others, they can overcome anything. I find strength through my desire to help people. Money and ambition don’t motivate me. In my eCommerce learning journey, I discovered a Toronto business called aiTorontoSeoul. It’s run by a Korean family: a mom and her three daughters. One of the daughters said something that left a deep impression on me. She said that despite the challenges of running a business, she ‘shows up for [her] customers’. I’ve adapted that and I tell myself: ‘I show up for my clients’. I am happy where I am now and I feel a lot more hopeful about my future.
I hope you learned something from my journey as it came to its conclusion. As I wrote this post, I found a lot of closure. I didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects, but rather convert it into something good. As my friend has told me, ‘even as you failed, it worked out because you are helping others with your story’. There is still a chance I’ll come back to dataviz one day, maybe in 5 years, maybe in 10. Who knows, I might one day release a project just because.
Take care of yourself. See you later.
My name is Jane, I am an independent data visualization designer based in Toronto. I create print products that solve specific user problems. I write on my blog to help me reflect on lessons I learn as I walk on the dataviz path. If you learned something new or useful, then please consider supporting my work.