It's the hardest thing to ever do as a freelancer, and probably the most important than any "yes" you'll give all year too: simply knowing when to say no. Often these offers will be obvious on the surface, and as with all things will be good or bad depending on when you come to them in your career. But not every opportunity that rolls into your inbox is one you should take, the ones that arrive when you're hurting financially, or the ones that seem like tremendous opportunities for exposure and a new relationship- these are the hardest to decide over. The rough part? That you really can only develop this denial kung-fu by doing it wrong first. Mostly it will be due to uncontrollable forces like timing and schedule, and learning how to recognize a job will put you through hell to make the deadline, and could negatively impact the quality of that work is the more common and also the hardest no you will ever have to give. Saying no can also mean you get back benched in an editor or AD's eye. I've largely found this not to be the case myself, but it does happen, and it is a real risk you run in denying a job. But better to walk away from a mess than make that mess yours. Learning how to weight the realities is the stuff success is made of.
Look at any building and you'll notice sprinkler systems, fire escapes, outward opening doors... And know that each and every feature that's there to save your life only came after their absence allowed others to perish. As creatives we are used to skillsets, techniques and mastering tools, but learning when to avoid a project requires a level of insight and understanding that is less tangible, and often cautionary. War stories are a shared tradition in freelance work. Take a bunch of freelancers out to a bar, and within ten minutes tales of darkness and survival, AD conflicts, marketing fails and more unfold like sea captain's songs explaining peg legs and mermaids. It is how we cope and survive as a species. however, no matter how terrible another's tale of woe is, none can much forewarn and teach like having a canon ball hit you in the chest yourself. It's simply how we learn: We can't repeat a mistake without having made one in the first place. And we don't know for sure we did it right until after we had to decided to do or not do.
I'm not an overly mystical person when it comes the the synchronicities of the universe- but each and every time I have had to make a hard call and say no, even when it was impractical and risky to do, I have been rewarded by another one I really wanted that arrives after- and one I would have had to decline if I had said yes to the wrong job. These moments are like karmic reassurances to me- an affirmation I have chosen well. Sometimes that realization doesn't come until much later. I had one gig I wanted to do very much, but it didn't pan out and I had to decline under their insisted terms only a year later to find the guy that replaced me on it taking heat for deeply scandalous publicity missteps having nothing at all to do with his work, but tied to him because he was the face of the car crash that unfolded. Ultimately I find the only time I feel like I really blew it is when I dabble in regret, which I don't recommend anyway. Regret assumes a different path you had the power of choosing, and the assumption that by wishing for it enough you will get the chance to redo it again someday. Every choice you make builds you forward in some way, and the bad ones probably service this the most. You don't get to cherry pick the good paths of your life or career without robbing you of the lessons the bad ones had to teach you. Be philosophical, learn from the wrong turns and the right ones will come. I promise.
Ultimately the two of the three variables that have helped me steer clear of most of the calamities, were this: Good advice from my close confidants, and listening to my gut feeling. The second one gets sharper and more acute with experience as I've said, the former, well... I could not paint the need for outside advice more strongly no matter the hyperbole. Your community of peers, or your spouse, or your manager/agent... whomever the resource is, use it and get it. I am blessed with all three and tap into those resources weekly. I could not guide myself through my working life without them. An agent or manager can help you navigate the realities in ways unparalleled by anyone else. I am fortunate enough to have the reverend Allen Spiegel on my side in this way, and have been for more than 20 years so far. He never tells me what to do except in rare occasions where I have insisted he help, but he has never steered me wrong nor could I have avoided half the land mines along the way without him. You community is another essential resource. In many professions people working in the same field are enemies- fellow jackals chasing after the same felled antelope/ There are many who see and operate in our field with that attitude, but I don't ascribe to that outlook at all. I think it's a warped way to see fellow artists and frankly is largely what fuels my skepticism of trophies and art awards. While yes, I guess technically you are in competition with your peers for work, it's not a race your usually aware of. You may be in contention for a job with your best friend, but like as not, unless your editor or AD is manipulative or just unprofessional, (highly rare cases and a lot less frequent than legends may elude to), you'll never know it. The other thing that cuts against this competitive garbage is to make sure that if you pass on a job, do your best to recommend friends you think would be good for it. I do this all the time, and it comes back to me as it will you. Don't think of it as jackals barking over a single meal, but a community that shares supports and stands up for each other. It's a happier place to be and one that will reap untold opportunities for your own career, and others as you rise together.
The third one is your personal ethos. This is definitionally individual and the sooner you get a grip on what your red lines are the better. If I hadn't said no so often to Conan based on how the book traditionally depicts women, I would have never had the opportunity to do Conan in a way that made me proud. And it remains to this day one of the most important professional experiences of my life as a result. The no in that case led to a much better yes later. Find your moral line, and hold it. You will be rewarded for it believe me, and conversely, you will be punished for violating it. Remember that the things you do for publication will be published, seen by many and one of my favorite Jeff Jones warnings he ever gave was this: "Careful of what the jobs you say yes to, when you should really say no. Those will be the ones you'll be asked to repeat doing again and again".
Bottom line is, you're going to chose the wrong door sometimes. If you're lucky, those wrong turns will be low impact and few and far between. But no matter what and when they are the most important thing is to make sure you Monday-morning quarterback the hell out of it. (Do this for the successes too). Understanding why a choice was wrong or right is the best defense against repeating the mistake again later. And life is a bitch about not paying attention to lessons you should be learning: you will face them again and again until you get it right. So the sooner you learn, the better you'll be. I'm 45 years old and the choices aren't easier, they're harder. Wisdom helps immeasurably, but when you get older the stakes are much higher and the consequences and risks infinitely more powerful. Unless you know it's a slam dunk, take a day or a breath to really let it sit and see if your ambivalence is based on something real, and not just a leftover from a fight with your girlfriend, or something else polluting your clarity. Ultimately in the end, whatever I say here won't matter because no one can tell you how to ride a bike well. You got to do it and you got to fall and skin your knee while doing it. It's okay and we all go through this and no matter the station of anyone in our field, we all go through it still. This is why you drink with your friends at cons because that's where the war stories are best heard and told. SO get out there, bruise your head, scrape your knuckles and get knocked on your ass. That's how you learn to stand back up, that's how you learn to rise.