How Failing to Compete Can Help You Succeed

Recently, I realized that one of my long-held, much-cherished, work-related dreams was not going to happen. I’d planned my approach to this new goal, performed to the best of my ability, and yet I had to conclude that this new venture just wasn’t going to work out as I’d hoped.

Unexpectedly, the knowledge that I’d failed to achieve what I wanted to taught me a small but important truth: it made clear that, in this particular market space, I could not compete. Once I understood this, I began to look at my work from a different perspective.

The Burden of Choice

In a world where catch cries like, “Girls can do anything!” and “The world’s your oyster” abound, individuals can feel pressured to perform well at everything they attempt. When I searched for “accepting failure” as I researched this post, Google turned up more than 21 million results — surely the product of a society in which people are expected to succeed (otherwise, why would we need so much advice on how to deal with failing?).

But the fact is that each individual’s skills and capabilities are limited.  Working out where I can’t compete right now is, to me, just as important as working out where I can. While I’d rather not dwell endlessly on all the things I can’t do, knowing and understanding why some fields are not for me helps me focus more clearly on my strengths, and avoid trying to pursue unsuccessful ideas when the writing is, very plainly, on the wall.

Where Can’t You Compete?

The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to fail to work out which markets, audiences, or professional projects aren’t for you.

When I began to consider freelancing full-time, many people suggested I look for work in online freelance marketplaces, and that I register as a contractor with the various freelance agencies around town.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the rates paid through most online freelance marketplaces were unsustainable for me — I simply couldn’t compete on price. And, although there were plenty of projects available, few of them really piqued my interest, which was a key reason why I’d decided to leave a nice, full-time job to brave the freelancing elements in the first place.

A few calls from contracting agencies just as quickly indicated that they  weren’t going to provide a source of income either: earning an hourly rate below what I’d been paid in a day job wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I decided to leave that position.

Within a week of starting this “market research”, I’d identified that freelance marketplaces and contracting agencies weren’t going to give me the kind of working life I wanted: these were two markets in which I simply couldn’t compete.

Where to Next?

Once I’d identified where I couldn’t compete, and why, I was able to focus my efforts on finding the kinds of work that interest me, at suitable rates. The experience of finding a few areas where I couldn’t compete took my focus away from the “I can do anything in my field!” mindset.

If I was to charge a sustainable rate, I would need to use and develop my unique expertise –  the things that made me stand out from the crowd. And I would need to target specific clients who saw the value in the kind of work I did, and were committed to getting real value for their money.

Suddenly, the future was looking a whole lot clearer.

A Few Caveats

This approach isn’t about curtailing your ambition, putting on the blinkers, or having a “can’t do” attitude. It’s about focusing your efforts on the most satisfying and sustainable challenges in your freelance career.

Realizing that you can’t compete in a particular market today doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to compete: it may simply help you to concentrate on the areas where you compete best — on your areas of greatest strength. It might also illuminate a course of action that, if pursued, may allow you to compete strongly in a space that you can’t compete in now.

The examples I’ve given here are of price-based competition, but there of course many elements that can undermine a freelancer’s ability to compete: family commitments which mean you can’t work at certain times (and take on certain jobs), skill combinations that you can’t offer, location-related restrictions that keep you from pitching for work — the list goes on.

Whether you find out through actual competition, or simply by assessing the rules of the game, it’s valuable to identify the fact that you can’t compete in a given market. It might be disappointing at the time, but by working out which options aren’t really options at all, you can hone your market approach to suit your needs and unique talents.

If you wish, you can  also let those limitations motivate you to plan personal and professional development exercises to improve your ability to compete in future.

How has your inability to compete shaped your career, or changed your path, for the better?

Image by stock.xchng user fishing.

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  • Paul Baarn

    So true.

    Sometimes it’s in the choice of words. I’ve chosen to exchange “can’t” for “won’t”. I won’t compete with designers offering there services at ridiculous rates (from my point of view). I can compete, because I would just have to offer a lower rate, find 80 hours of work per week and reduce my spending habit and live with my mom.:-)

    My choice not to compete with big design studios and low price template adaptors has made me focus more on interaction design and organizational implementation, where I can make the value more clear.

    Reading your article I was wondering: How DID you succeed? I mean after you chose not to compete.

  • ichi

    Good question, Paul. I’m wondering the same thing. Out here in the trenches, we’re always interested in what makes success — I mean the nuts and bolts of how one “gets there”. Because, often from the outside looking in, we see mysterious success, but don’t get a glimpse of the ladder rungs that made that happen.

  • Kari

    I’ve found that these principles apply even in a steady day job, where the pile of work to be done is infinite, and you have to make judgement calls about what will and won’t get done. Acknowledging that in order to achieve some goals, other things won’t happen is the first step in a project or a career becoming a success. Initially, that does feel like failure, especially if your only real goal is “please other people.” But drawing a firm circle around what you will and won’t (not can and can’t, as Paul pointed out) do is the key to freedom, no matter how you make a living.
    Thanks for the inspiring post, Georgina.

  • georgina

    Hey everyone, glad you enjoyed this post :)

    To answer your question, I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve “succeeded” — it’s an ongoing process! But I found my initial footing by looking at my experience and the things that, at the time, people were asking me to do (as some sort of external evidence of what the market valued in me).

    Of those projects, some in particular really, *really* appealed to me. So I decided to focus on that kind of work, and developing my skills in that area. And instead of spruiking what I had to strangers, I decided to make the most of the personal networks that I had, since those people already knew me and obviously valued what I was offering.

    Fortunately, I landed a few different projects in my new field of focus and have developed a client list — and more knowledge and skills — from there. Now I’m looking at different ways I can build on those skills further, and repackage them for different audiences and applications.

    Hope that explains things more clearly :)

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Ah yes, our lives abound with baseless aphorisms, like “just be yourself”, “honesty is the best policy” and “truth will out”. I blame romantic comedies.

  • Niubi

    There’s many support networks out there where you can pool your resources – strengths – in certain areas in order to succeed. DubLi Network springs to mind immediately. Either way, great, thought provoking article. We can’t have it all, but we can try…

  • worldwisewebs

    When I first delved into web development, moving from another programming industry, I had dreams of being a flashy designer. I had one photoshop class and the sitepoint book “the principles of beautiful web design” under my belt and was feeling confident.
    I sold a site to a friend who is an artist and we worked together on a great concept and I set to making it happen. Hours later I looked back at my design, and while not terrible, it paled in comparison to the work of professional graphic designers that I admire.
    Since then I’ve been working with established designers, doing slicing, php functions, and wordpress customization. On this path I have been very successful and I have been able to pick up design techniques along the way. I still have dreams of one day going back for a graphics design degree and really learning to do it, but now I’m concentrating on expanding my programming skill set, delving into jQuery and now Adobe Air…
    Great post thanks a lot!

  • http://p163.sg angelee

    Nice article! This is an eye-opener for me. Wherever you’re heading to, there’s always competition. Its good when you’re on the top though. Its not really frustrating at all when you have to start striving the climb towards success as long as you will not stop stepping forward.

    Thanks for sharing your views.