Never Rattled, Never Frantic: Staying motivated during eight years in freelance journalism

in #writing4 years ago (edited)

Never Rattled, Never Frantic

Staying motivated during eight years in freelance journalism

Underneath my computer monitor are three handwritten post-it notes that have been stuck in place for several years. They each contain a few words that mean a lot to me.

From left to right, they read as follows:

1. Alive time or dead time?
2. Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines practised every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.
3. Never rattled. Never frantic. Always hustling and acting with creativity. Never anything but deliberate.

Since I began working as a freelance journalist in 2009, aged 21, I have worked from eight locations: two bedrooms, two home offices, three living rooms, and one co-working space.

At each of these locations, I took to writing or printing quotes that I found motivational or inspirational. Most of them I have either absorbed by osmosis or outright forgotten, but there’s one I found around 2011 that retains a special resonance. I printed it in a large font, and stuck it to my wall:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is practically a cliché. Education will not: the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful.

(You can imagine the grin on my face when this quote featured prominently in the 2016 film The Founder, as seen below.)

That long quote was torn down and tossed during a move, but the message was internalised. If I had to narrow my success down to a single attribute, it’s persistence. I could have quit on plenty of occasions, after any one of a number of setbacks. But I didn’t.

In these motivational quotes, you may be sensing some themes.

I would be lying if I told you that the act of writing and affixing these quotes helped me on a daily, or even a weekly basis. I didn’t repeat them out loud, like affirmations. Most of the time, they were as easy to ignore as wallpaper.

But often enough in recent years, during down moments, or in times of stress or upheaval, I’d shift my gaze from the words—or the bright, blank page—on the computer monitor, and find that these few handwritten notes would help to centre my thoughts.

Let me tell you why.

1. “Alive Time or Dead Time?”

This one comes from American author Ryan Holiday, based on some advice he received from his mentor:

“Early on in my career I had a pivotal conversation with [author] Robert [Greene]. I was working full-time at a really good job but planning my next move, saving my money and thinking about what I might do next. I told him I wanted to write a book one day, but I wasn’t sure what, how or when or what about. He told me, Ryan, there are two types of time: Dead time—where we are just waiting, and Alive time—where we are learning and active and leveraging. And then he left it there with me to decide which I would choose.” [source]

This concept spoke to me because, as a freelancer, “dead time” can stretch interminably. This is the nature of working apart from other people: when you are out of sight, you are out of mind. The job, then, is to constantly remind other people of not only of your existence, but of your value.

In freelance journalism, I learned to create value by pitching story ideas to editors that were so good, or so original, they had no choice but to say yes.

To me, “alive time” was researching ideas, making calls and sending emails, and having conversations with editors as to how stories could proceed from assignment to publication.

Note that I did not mention the actual work of reporting and writing.

Very early in my career, my mentor told me that I would spend 90% of my energy on story pitches, and only 10% on the actual work of completing those assignments.

This seemed ridiculous at the time, frankly, but while I’m not 100% sure on the maths, the broader sentiment was correct: the hardest part of freelancing was always generating good ideas.

Reporting stories was always the most fun part, because it involved talking to interesting people, often in unusual environments, and I could let my curiosity run rampant because I was there to ask questions that the average reader would want to know, about whichever subject I happened to be reporting on.

Learning to drive passenger trains, for instance, or choosing to die at home surrounded by loved ones, or designing a video game character on the autism spectrum, or coping with the aftermath of a death by suicide, to name a few stories I wrote in 2017.

Writing is not always fun, but who wants to hear or read about how hard writing is? Shut up and do the work. Keep typing until it turns into writing, as David Carr would say.

“Dead time” was to be avoided whenever possible, then, as it meant being in a reactive state, waiting for the feedback or approval of others, rather than using my initiative to send positive, productive energy into the world.

This wasn’t confined to pitching stories to editors, of course: to me, “alive time” also included compiling my weekly email newsletter, or sending appreciative notes to fellow writers to congratulate them on a particularly great piece, or producing a podcast where I interviewed some of my favourite writers, or simply reading great writing for pure pleasure.

Each of these acts offered a powerful sense of satisfaction or achievement, and that first post-it note helped to remind me that if I was waiting in “dead time”, then it was time to change my environment, my mindset, or simply call it a day and take a break until tomorrow.

2. “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines practised every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.”

It took me years to develop the discipline, routines and systems to function successfully as a freelancer.

This might be an unsexy sentence for any aspiring freelancer to read, but I’m afraid it’s true. There are no shortcuts. There is only trying, failing, and trying again.

When I decided to try sustaining myself as a full-time freelance journalist in 2009, I had just left a job at a web design company. I had spent a year working at an office, where I enjoyed constant contact and conversation with colleagues. I had grown used to working with people, and so the decision to pursue freelancing presented the challenge of learning to work in isolation.

At the time, I was living with two friends, who were either studying at university or newly employed. During that first year, in particular, I failed plenty of times by prioritising a Sony PlayStation controller over typing at a keyboard. At that time, very few editors knew—or cared—about me and my writing, and so there was plenty of “dead time” where playing FIFA was far more appealing than waiting for responses to my emails. In time, I realised that I wanted success in this career more than kicking virtual balls into virtual nets.

I first read this quote in a 2015 email newsletter sent by author Noel Whittaker, who attributed it to American businessman Jim Rohn. I liked it a lot.

To me, the concept of “a few simple disciplines” concerned not only a devotion to writing itself, but to building systems and routines that would allow me to be mostly productive, most days.

This included banal but essential ideas such as getting enough sleep; starting and ending the workday at roughly the same time each day; exercising regularly; eating well, and making sure that I gave myself a break on weekends, rather than working all day, every day.

Here, too, I made errors in judgement. But I learned from my mistakes.

For a while, my passion for work became all-consuming to a point where I was neglecting my most important relationship. Thankfully, I was able to realise the error of my ways before causing irreparable damage. (Shorter version: we’re now married.)

One extreme example: I recall spending January 26, 2010 working feverishly on my first feature assignment for The Weekend Australian Review, having spent the previous few days speaking to some of the key figures in country music—a subject about which I knew practically nothing. While my friends and girlfriend were enjoying themselves at an Australia Day pool party somewhere, I was at the desk, on deadline.

I sent a first draft of that story at 3:36 AM on January 27. In hindsight, this probably makes me look unhinged, and it’s not something I’d recommend. But those intense few days of work represent me wanting something so badly that I pushed through barriers that would have ordinarily stopped me. This was my first assignment for a national newspaper, and I didn’t want to screw it up.

As I later wrote in a rather embarrassingly breathless summary of that time:

“It was the most exhilarating journalistic experience of my life. Five days focussed on researching and synthesising the story of a centuries-old art form into around 2,000 words. What a challenge. I’m so glad I accepted it.”

There is an eerie coda to this story. That country music assignment was handed to me only because The Australian’s national music writer, Iain Shedden, was on leave at the time.

And in January 2018, I will begin working as The Australian’s national music writer only because Iain Shedden died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in October 2017. (He is pictured below.)

I will only feel confident and competent in following in the footsteps of such a great man—and great writer—because of what took place in those eight years.

Namely: I learned to practise a few simple disciplines every day, while doing my best to avoid making—and repeating—a few simple errors in judgement every day.

3. “Never rattled. Never frantic. Always hustling and acting with creativity. Never anything but deliberate.”

This last quote was written by American author Ryan Holiday, who I mentioned above. It appears on page 173 of his 2014 book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, which I highly recommend.

Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life. (I first wrote this sentence in 2011, and it’s still true.) Ryan is a year older than me. I have followed his writing for more than a decade, and we’ve met a couple of times in the United States and Australia. This year, he published his sixth book. His output is prodigious, but the quality is consistently high. When he writes, it’s inevitably worth reading.

This quote of Ryan’s spoke to me when I first read it in 2014, and I’ve since tried to use it as a model for how I conduct myself not only as a journalist, but as a person. There is a lot to admire in the sentiment, as it’s aspirational, too: who wants to be around someone who is regularly rattled, or frequently frantic? Wouldn’t you prefer a person who is calm, diligent, and deliberate in their thoughts and actions?

To me, “hustling” has no negative connotations. Throughout my career, I have taken hustling to be an essential component of being a freelancer, as the role demands self-reliance and self-direction. It demands a willingness to sell yourself; to make new connections, and to create opportunities where none previously existed.

Creativity is central to this mindset. Beyond the act of writing, I have tried to bring creativity to broadening my network of allies: not just editors who might pay me to write for them, but just as importantly, fellow writers whose work I admire.

While visiting Sydney in 2011, for instance, I asked to meet with a journalist and author named Richard Guilliatt, who was speaking at an investigative journalism conference (and who is pictured below).

When we met, I asked Richard—then and now a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine—if he would consider becoming my mentor. I saw it as an informal role that would involve him reading my first drafts before my editors, and giving brutally honest feedback on what could be improved.

Richard said yes, and in the years that followed, his incisive advice super-charged my feature writing—and my confidence—to a point where I no longer felt the need to show him my drafts. (He and I also spoke extensively about his career as a feature writer on my podcast, Penmanship, earlier this year.)

This is just one example of a deliberate action on my part: by combining forces with a far more talented and experienced writer than myself, I was able to succeed far quicker than I would have on my own.

Three years before meeting Richard, I found my first mentor in Nick Crocker (pictured above). Or more accurately, he found me, and took me under his proverbial wing just as I was taking my first tentative steps as a freelancer.

In the nine or so years we’ve known each other, I have written a weekly update to Nick just before I clock off on Friday afternoon. In these emails, I summarise the highs and lows of the workweek: what worked and what didn’t; what was great, and what I could do better. Where necessary, he gave suggestions, or nudged me down paths I hadn’t considered, or was too afraid to take.

It is no exaggeration to say that, through this unique relationship, Nick knows me better than just about anyone on the planet. It is thanks to his consistent guidance and encouragement that I have achieved anything at all in journalism.

I wrote earlier that “persistence” is the key attribute I’d use to summarise my freelance career, while those three motivational post-it notes have acted as anchors in occasionally stormy seas.

Although eight years of freelancing was sometimes stressful—in the sense that I could rarely anticipate my monthly, quarterly or annual income—it was also enormously fun and enlivening. By and large, I loved it dearly, and I will miss it.

I became interested in journalism because I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to learn about strange and exciting things, and share that knowledge with other people. In that sense, this next role is a perfect fit, and I’m very much looking forward to starting it.

As I move into the next stage of my career, I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll keep those post-it notes under my computer monitor, or tear them off and start afresh. Those few words helped to get me here; perhaps I’d be a fool to abandon them now.

Andrew McMillen (@andrewmcmillen) is a journalist and author based in Brisbane, Australia. From January 2018, he will be working as national music writer at The Australian. To read more of his writing, visit


Great story

Quite inspiring. Thanks for sharing

This is such a wonderful story. I must say I resonate with your second quote a lot having been put in a position where I've had to be conscious of the few simple disciplines I had to practice, nowadays I'm able to keep tabs on my activities and I'm getting better result. The rest of the post was also great. I love the quotes hanging under your computer monitor, matter of fact, I'm saving that picture and I'm gonna print them so I can hang them by my bedside.

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is practically a cliché. Education will not: the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful." Definitely writing this one down on a post it note. Great read very inspiration

Success is not a easy tast at all. Successful human being always try hard in working. And yes I like your motivation.Great post

I believe hard work will pay off long time

A great suggestion you have shared for all the stemians, to make me more passionate and motivated when I read your post, thanks to @andrewmcmillen, has motivated me to have a mentor in life, once again thank me for your contribution give it away.

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wow amazing post.I like motivations.your freelancing motivation is just awesome.thank you for share with us.your post content is so nice continue this.

Freelancing is a hard work, just followed you @noyon696

hi visit my blog. thanks

you are welcome dear.

@andrewmcmillen I am thankful for this post as a newbie sometimes I get disappointed to. The point of quitting when my post don't get noticed but thanks to. You I will persist

As a newbie who is struggling to be noticed in this platform this post is very encouraging @andrewmcmillen

Incredibly, I am very impressed with the three important motto of your life, and I will reflect back on the extent of the mistakes I have made during my life while imagining how diligently your struggle to exist in writing.
Your post is very memorable and an obsession for me, thank you.
I will try to be more relevant in the face of life.

hi visit my blog. thanks

I admire those who work for themselves instead of being a mere employee.

i need these post-it notes added to the other 99 i have stuck to my computer at work ! Haha great

The struggle to create structure is real and I think it's what holds many of us back from success (by 'us' I mean freelancers). Many of the pros of working for ourselves are also the cons, or can become them, if we don't have discipline. I'm having one of those unfocused drifter days, and it's just how I stumbled across your piece. A bit more inspired now to tackle what I'm supposed to be doing! Thank you.

Such a fluid tone that burst in me excitement and the enjoyment to read with full attention without pulling away. What excellent pieces of advice and wonderful experience sharing you've shared with us. Thank you for that @andrewmcmillen. I enjoyed your post! I think having mentors in life is such an important thing to have and I am glad you had such supportive ones to allow you to flourish as you have. Whether you decide to start anew on the post-it notes or not I do say that what you do have is excellent regardless...timeless notes for you to enjoy and even us.

I really understand you. I'm journalist and I'm only have 3 years working freelance. Sometimes writing articles (copywriting) or with social media. But I'm no really happy with that.
I can't find my passion in copywriting or being a community manager.
I'm proud of you and all your years with this amazing career.

I work as a photojournalist freelance for 3 years here in Brazil and I identified myself with everything that you exposed in this post. Very good read your experience.

I read the post from top to bottom and catched me like no thing does in a while. Maybe because I found some of my aspirations in it and some of my future desires:to be a writer and a journalist. And hell yeah, I have to let the fifa controller in order to put my priorityes on the top of my list. Thank you for your advices. Signed a new guy on steemit

Your post was resteem by Whale ResteemService @booster007

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All the best!

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Wonderful article on staying power and focus in order to stay present in the work! Love it! Upped and followed! @dakini5d

Nice journal! It was really worthy to read !

wow this is really great.... i think you are a lovely writer especially with the approach you use in explaining the motto of your life... it gives me hope to keeping on writing because i have seen some one who has made it and it stirrs up the burning desire in me to keep on writing at all cost.
thanks so much.

Thank you so much for sharing. I am a Manager/Promoter and a branding merch illustrator . I work a lone a lot. When I do my events it is great because I am like you, so use to working around a lot of people. This is a great article to really see how to get focused stay focused and stay on the task. Thank you I truly needed this!

A lot of your article resonated with me. I think of 'dead time' as the time I'm a passenger on the bus that is my life, and 'alive time' is when I take over the driver seat. It's about being less reactive and more in control of my direction. All the best for your next incarnation at The Australian.

Great post. As a designer and freelancer of many years I often think about how other freelancers deal with uncertainty and loneliness. I guess moving back and forth from work environments to freelancing makes for a good balance. Even through many years of freelancing I seem to change my routines and habits all the time, which ones proved the best for your productivity and peace of mind? Upvoted, following and hoping to read more coming from you. Finally, I'm curious to know, have mentored others?

Thanks. The best routines I developed over the years are fairly obvious, but they helped a lot: namely, to work approximately 9am to 5pm weekdays, and to take weekends off. Or in other words: to treat my freelance career as a regular, full-time job, and to try to use that time each day productively. I failed sometimes, but I also succeeded most days. And yes, I have mentored others in the last five or so years. It's rewarding, and I like it.

Cool, that makes sense. I think those are the best strategies. I am following you to improve my writing skills. Thanks for the reply!

Great piece! It's nice to see an in-depth post, rather than a bunch of bullet points.

Thank you for your great article, I’m not a writer but your lessons easily translate to all endeavors one might chooser to peruse.

Thankyou so much for writing this post. It was absolutely motivating.
I love narration, I love it when people take time out of their busy life and pay attention just to hear what you have to say. It's a great feeling makes you realise how important you are.
Those posts kept you company in the hard times, never cut down the stuff that helped you get better when the world and destiny weren't your friends.
As you succeed and achieve new heights in your career those quotes will keep reminding you of how difficult this journey has been and help you to enjoy it even more.

really good post. lot of positive points in your post. i am also a strong beliver of positive thinking. lot of positive points to be noted in your post and to be adopted from your post. you must have really taken great time it needs to prepare this post. all the 3 slips are good. i subscribed your newsletter. hope to enjoy more positive thoughts. i liked your point that more than money you enjoy your work. good writer in you
i liked the post very very much. i resteemed it.
by the way nice video also..

Well, a person can certainly tell by reading this intelligent, informative and inspiring piece that you have put in the hours required to succeed and I wish you well in the next step of your ascent. I, myself, have been self employed since 1989 with varying degrees of financial success. And yet, in my mind, always successful - ducking and diving, getting my hustle on and living my life strictly on my own particularly peculiar terms. I have always considered myself to be a visual artist but, following a profound and unexpected spiritual epiphany where the spirits literally spoke to me, am now being encouraged to write. Your experience with mentors sounds incredible and stands on solid proven ground - fancy being mine? ;) Be happy, be well and enjoy your sunshine xox

I'm not looking to take on any other mentees at present, but I appreciate you asking. Nice hustling ;)

I can relate. The struggle is real.

It's self satisfying,when we do things for passion.

It is very inspiring, motivational, enthusiastic post.coordination of personal experience and perseverance provoking quotation towards success have made it extraordinary. A good lesson we have gotten through your post

good and nice bro follow me

Always hustling...Good article to read.thanks

Think less about the specific word choice and more about the underlying truth. “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you're at it.” “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” “Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault.

Your writing is so compelling, I thoroughly enjoyed this.

That's a motivational post I appreciate this post @andrewmcmillen 👍

That's a good information thanks for sharing @andrewmcmillen

i read your article
really good ariticle
I hope yuo succes

excellent post.thank you boss For a post like this.

Thanks to Share This Topic..

Just Awesome...


It's a pleasure to share this excellent experience.

very nice post and helpful i hope you success @andrewmcmillen

Good job man carry on thanks

Excellent post really enjoyed your style of writing. I felt as you are standing in front of me and talking .

Nice story. But you certainly would not have written it if you did not expect feedback. I think, and you perhaps too, that these rules are not your rules. They belong to other people. If you really like, what you are doing and if you get easily in a kind of flow, there is no need for rules.
It is time to remove the post-it notes on your monitor.

DNAinfo and Gothamist reporters should come write here -- capricious employers can't hold your clips hostage if they're on a public blockchain.

dja klikni se meni nekaj dnara

Thank you for this great article. I wish you success because the way to write a good article will get to the best. Thank you again

piha mha drsk

Good read, this might motivate me to start writing again :).

Such a grat post

Nice ! Journal @andrewmcmillen
Really fallen Interesting To read
Good Job Bro..

Thank you for sharing your freelance journalist experience.

realy great post

Very awesome motivation, if everyone consistence they will rich the success, thanks for your motivation

Good posting

El éxito, en cualquier cosa que hagamos, depende de la persistencia.

I exactly appreciated with you, need to hard laborious with patient, and make mind as tolerated from the criticism person, but need to criticize from other for successful life, for that you would be insisted to your mind but need to some supported person from where you got inspired, but i am here so many helpless , sometimes really depressed for my success. please pray for me, i want to success in my life @andrewmcmillen

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wow right bro with nice post.

Incredible! I am very impressed. No kidding, it was really worthy to read! :)

journalism is the best!!!! haha for real great post!


Amazing post!

Hello sir. You motivated me to do better in writing. Cheers!

Wow these are some great quotes! I love your post You definetly have my follow and upvote! I would appreciate if you could check out my profile I am new to Steemit :)

Congratulations @andrewmcmillen, this post is the most rewarded post (based on pending payouts) in the last 12 hours written by a Superuser account holder (accounts that hold between 1 and 10 Mega Vests). The total number of posts by Superuser account holders during this period was 850 and the total pending payments to posts in this category was $3971.76. To see the full list of highest paid posts across all accounts categories, click here.

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Hello Andrew . Ive just registered . I see you make good posts .Can you give me some advices?

Thanks for sharing your insight @andrewmcmillen

Good job men
Have a nice day

Great job as a freelance journalist,keep it up.

yeah its motivated

As a gigging musician and painter I find #3 to be of the utmost importance in the creative process. It's not enough to harbor some intense creative potential-- We have to foster it every day by doing the things required to keep the flame alive. We have to find a way to be constantly inspired and reminded of that inspiration that drives us. You've got to always be hustling too though-- That's what makes it difficult. It's not enough to be Debussy if you want to make an impact-- You've got to be Debussy at his best and at the same time Debussy's manager/PR at his best simultaneously without having your spirit broken. No small feat! Glad to hear of your successes in journalism. Thank you for sharing them with us. It's tremendously positive.

Thank you and great post and also positive post to achieve the goal thank you.

Being a freelance journalist how were you treated by the big mainstream news channels ?

I am a print/web journalist, so I haven't had any experience with "news channels". I have written for some of the biggest newspapers and magazines in Australia though, and I've found them (or more specifically, their editors) generally excellent to deal with, and usually welcoming to freelancers if the story idea/s are good enough.

success achivment is too hard but look like ice cream they cant eat lol
right way of achivment is struggle

nice bro story

adding to my earlier post, If you ever looking for fresh , genre bending music, you should check out this band called "+E " from washington DC, they invented this style of music called " Dirty Indie" its like indie rock but more lofi and diy .

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"Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful... Persistence and determination alone are all-powerful". Already scribbled it down and placed it on top of my desk. I think it's funny, because I've been named 'diamond', 'brilliant' and 'talented' so many times in my current profession that's absurd how little those words mean to me. To me, it's more about sitting my butt down and working on a text that's amazing to me and to others, not about the innate skill-set I might or might not have (update, I don't). Being driven, constant and above all, cohesive, it's what makes you stand out. Thank you for this amazing post!


I feel you. Sometimes I am also lazy or without idea so kudos to you.

I feel you sometimes. It's hard to come. Up with a good write up but then writing relaxes me.. Kudos to you

Thank you for this post........journalism has always interested me but photo journalism. I always wanted to be that guy getting that one and only shot while sittin right in the middle of the hell itself..... But it never happened ..... So at times I feel like its dead time....

just create ur history

Good for you

have mantras are the cornerstone of life progress for sure.

hey there your writing is very good..i appreciate to your blog...well done....

I keep asking myself how people do to be a "freelance writer", how do you start? what are you supposed to do if you don't have the right contacts? This is a very inspiring article, thank you very much

Good post! excellent content is interesting and I like it, keep it up friend, success in steemit!

Give me SBD. You post very nice

Motivasi dalam hidup adalah hal yang sangat penting. saya Muraz Riksi dari Indonesia. saya manusia yang hobinya nuli terutama sastra.

Fantastic post , shared and follow