How Failing to Compete Can Help You Succeed

Georgina Laidlaw
Georgina Laidlaw

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.