If you work in the design or technology industry, it doesn't take long for your skillset to become outdated or your design aesthetic to become stale. Every potential client job I've ever had inevitably asks either, "How well do you know ___________?" or, "Can I see a recent design example of ____________?" If you don't have solid answers to those questions, chances are you're not landing the job. In the same vein, basing your reputation on a website that hasn't been updated in months can be just as bad. Simply put, falling behind is devastating in the freelancing industry and here's why:
Technology and Design Speeds Madly On
Unlike many other occupations, you probably aren't using the exact same knowledge base you used 5 years ago. Developers should not be using old versions of programming languages and designers probably shouldn't still be relying on heavy grunge overlays. When it comes to these fields, it is assumed, just by being part of this industry, that you keep up with your trade. Don't think that you're going the "extra mile" by learning this stuff -- realize that you're just doing your job in an industry that doesn't slow down.
You Are Dispensable
There are times when it's easy to pride yourself in the fact that you have ____ years experience at ______. Back when Flash was more relevant, I would sometimes boast that I have 10 years Flash experience. But the reality is that I've seen better Flash designers and developers who started under 2 years ago. While I'm still relying on old methodologies and deprecated knowledge, they're learning and implementing the latest stuff. I may try to convince my client that my years of knowledge and experience demand a higher hourly rate, but am I being dishonest? Don't fool yourself -- being amazing at something in 2007 may not translate to the present. If you don't think you're dispensable, you'll find out soon enough.
The Web is Public
At any given time on the internet, you can find several examples of excellent design pieces and well-documented development examples. Unfortunately, this also means that anyone can easily compare your work to such examples. The internet has leveled the freelance playing field in such a way that your work has to be able to stand up against all the other great work out there. You can't tell a potential client that you do great work -- because many can tell for themselves and you better be up to par.
Opportunities Follow Fresh Ideas
The web is moving faster than ever as more and more young people pour into the industry. How can you expect to land great opportunities or partnerships if you're lackadaisical or ignorant about the technologies that new companies are using? The short history of the internet has shown that if you're not at the forefront of new technology, you often miss out.
So where do you go from here?
Keeping up with the industry can be tough for the freelancer. Unlike your 8 to 5 employee, you typically don't get paid for reading through a programming book or spending a couple hours perusing design magazines. So what are some good (and efficient) ways to keep ahead of the curve?
- RSS - This should be a given, but it's amazing how many web workers still don't receive RSS feeds. There's no better or quicker way to see what's going on than finding a couple dozen RSS feeds that constantly inform you.
- Magazines - Some people classify magazine subscriptions as money wasters. But with magazine subscriptions being so inexpensive ($8-$20 a year), and magazines themselves being so portable, you should always have one to pass idle time whether you're watching a ball game or waiting for an appointment.
- Books - I personally think it's worth it to buy a few books a year and actually read them (because they're business expenses, you'll be saving a bit as well). I realize that books can be outdated rather quickly, but considering what some people pay for design or programming courses, spending $100 a year for informative, educational content is always well worth it. And with a Kindle or iPad, you can easily bring these books with you.
- Side Projects - Experiential learning is usually the most helpful. Make it a point to do an occasional project for the fun of it, or perhaps pro bono for a friend, organization, or charity you like. It's not "efficient" from a fiscal standpoint, but if you can align such projects with improving your portfolio, creating business potential, or just having fun, then more power to you.
Whatever you do to stay current, you must enjoy learning if you want to stay in this field. No matter how busy things get, make sure to always set aside time to avoid falling behind.