I’ve written and rewritten this essay so many times now I’ve forgotten what it originally looked like. In the beginning it was going to be the short(ish) story of my first year with WordPress and the lessons I’ve learned about myself. It always ends up being a long and boring story of a year of my life without ever getting to the purpose of why I want to share it. I’ve decided to over simplify it as much as possible, in order to get to the ‘why’. If you really want to read about my ‘WordPress Year 1’ you can probably put most of it together from reading my blog for 2016.
So in the spirit of TL:DR:
After an amazing first WordCamp experience at WordCamp Cape Town 2015 I chose the path of freelance WordPress developer. My current situation doesn’t lend itself to being employed full time and I decided (at the time possibly stupidly) that building WordPress websites was what I was going to do. It would be easy right?
I had a developer license for the Divi theme and all I had to do was find small business clients to build websites for. What could possibly go wrong?
I spent the first year banging my head against a quite a few walls, trying to expand my mind, my skills and my experience to reach a goal that, for me anyway, was wholly unobtainable. In the end I realised the what I needed to do was trust in myself and my experience, find a better system for obtaining work and focus on the areas that I was actually good at.
I also learned the importance of community.
What follows are the notes I would send to myself, were I able to send a time capsule back one year, to be read on January 1, 2016. Hopefully it helps someone else out there.
The WordPress community is an amazing thing.
I’ve often said that the reason everyone in the community is (mostly) so open and welcoming and helpful is that it was founded in the spirit of open source. Open source software at it’s core is about being free, open and available, the ability to question a specific solution and find answers to problems and being able to extend and adapt to new requirements. The WordPress community is that in spades. Sure, there are some aspects of it that can get brutal or nasty, sometimes some parts of the community feel unheard or ignored and when I read about things like that it makes me sad. In my experience it has been a positive part of my journey. From the local WordPress South Africa Slack team, to the two WordCamps in Cape Town and Johannesburg I attended this year, all the way to the international Slacks, forums and Facebook groups, almost everyone I’ve dealt with is positive and supportive. I’ve contacted CEOs and owners of premium WordPress business, asking them questions via Slack. Every time they answered. In what corporate culture doesn’t the owner or CEO of a company take time to answer some random developer question? I’ve met some amazing people, locally and internationally, in person and online, and they have all been the same. Friendly, helpful and willing to answer questions. I can honestly say that without the help and support of the WordPress community I would have been able to make it ‘on my own’ last year.
Being a freelancer is more about finding your purpose and less about finding clients.
I spent the majority of 2016 trying to force myself down a new path. One where I had little or no experience and where I was surrounded by giants. My gut told me that clients would be looking for websites. So building websites with WordPress became the logical step. However I am not a web designer, a content strategist or an SEO expert. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, ‘How hard can it be?’. I soon learned how hard. While it is good to try and expand on your weaknesses, trying to earn an income this way is eventually going to kill you. The path to true work/life fulfilment lies at the intersection of that which you love, that which you are good at, that which the world needs and (most importantly) that which you can be paid for (the Japanese call it ‘Ikigai’, roughly translated as ‘a reason for being’). The two biggest mistakes I made was thinking that because of WordPress there would be no work for a PHP developer. I soon learned that the reality was that because of WordPress there was an abundance of work for a PHP developer, I was just looking at it the wrong way. Once I knew what my Ikigai was, finding the right platform and clients to match that became much, much easier.
Never judge your experience based on someone else.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the most up to date of developers. I only recently really grasped the concepts of name spacing and I still don’t quite get the whole MySQL character set thing. And that is ok. Being a developer is more about solving a problem then the tools to use to do so. There isn’t one ‘right’ way to build a plugin. There are a few recommended ways, which often differ from each other in small but important ways but they are all ‘the right way’. The important thing is to pay attention to things like standards, simplicity and security. Everything else can be learned from others. The beauty of an open source project is that everyone is learning from the community. So whatever I don’t know I can learn from someone else. At the end of the day the community benefits and you benefit. (also, refer back to ‘The WordPress community is an amazing thing’).
Look after yourself.
These seem obvious, but I soon found myself in some very bad patterns. Sleep was the first to go. It is way too easy to end up working until 1 or 2am, ‘just to get this one thing finished’. That’s great if you can sleep in the next morning, but when you are guaranteed to be woken at around 7am by your 5 year old, it soon starts adding up. Once the sleep deprivation starts the bad food choices kick in. Coffee becomes more of a crutch than an enjoyment and meal time decision making is ruled more by what tastes nice than what is healthy. Eventually you end up getting sick for a week and you are so run down you get nothing done until you recover, meaning your earning potential lessens. So you start trying to work longer hours. It is a vicious cycle. The problem, however, is actually a bit deeper….
Your time is valuable.
The quickest way to the downward sleep/life cycle is to devalue yourself and your time.
Learn to estimate better. Spend more (paid) time on researching the intricacies of a project to ensure you have thought about everything you can, then estimate accordingly. Otherwise you end up realising you missed something half way through, and you have to make a choice. Usually that choice is to suck up the time and add the feature. That is the wrong choice.
Your time is valuable. It is better to admit to a client that you missed something and that you will need to adjust the time line or quote than to try and kill yourself to make it based on your original estimates. Worse case the client says no and cancels the project. Learn and apply the knowledge to the next one. Better case they agree to give you more time but not more money. Well at least you aren’t going to kill yourself to get it done. Best case they understand everyone is human. I’ve rarely found clients who don’t get it.
You are capable.
Have you ever experienced this? – You have a project coming up. You’ve done all the ground work and made sure you’ve estimated to the best of your abilities, but suddenly you are gripped with fear/concern/worry that the actual project is going to be above your capabilities. So you keep putting it off and do other less important things, trying to build up the courage to tackle it. When you eventually sit down and start you realise it is well within your capabilities and had you started sooner you would probably be done already, instead of now where you are a bit behind and you’ll have to either work in some extra time to make that deadline or come up with some excuse as to why you missed it.
All. The. Damn. Time.
Stop it. You can do it. You’ve done it a 100 times before. Trust in your experience and yourself.
So in short, sleep more, worry less, rely on those around you and just get on with doing what you do best. It isn’t really much simpler than that. I’m still trying to figure out why I tried to make it more complicated than what is is, but perhaps that is another journey in the human psyche, for another day.