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When success makes you lazy, blame your cognitive bias

A true story about how my business just ground to a halt.

I've run my own freelance design business for 20 years. The past few years have been exceptionally busy —never a shortage of work — and more profitable from one year to the next. I’ve won design awards, soaked up the praises of my clients, cashed in personal-best earnings, and thought I’d hit a peak and found my business flow.

And I did! Until I didn’t.

When I had more good clients and projects than I could say ‘yes’ to for many years in a row, I began to believe it would always be that way. I thought I was so good and so in demand that I’d never have to go hunting for work again. If it happened for a few years in a row, maybe I finally figured out the formula for success?

I truly thought I had. I wrote years of articles sharing what I’d learned and hoped others could follow my path to freelance freedom.

But the problem with success is that it breeds bias.

My confirmation bias built a false sense of security. Business was so comfortable that I stopped seeing the small red flags where I needed to improve, in favour of believing things would always stay this good or grow better.

My self-serving bias made me believe I deserved all the credit for my past years of success, when in fact there was probably a large element of luck and privilege involved.

Those biases made me lazy. They gave me permission to spend less time building new relationships and polishing the inbound work funnel. They made me less resilient to bad luck and timing.

No good thing last forever. Luck and timing always catch up to you eventually.

2022 is the worst year of my adult life. Many aspects of my personal life have imploded this year. But my business was always the saving grace — the one thing I could rely on to stay stable when the rest of my life was being thrashed by the storm of pandemic, stress, relationships, fatherhood, inflation, and recession.

A series of poor luck all over the past few weeks has seen the stormwater finally seep into my business life, and I must admit I wasn’t prepared. I’ve been madly shovelling to refloat the boat, but I’m trying to condense what takes months into weeks or days.

Although that’s a bad metaphor. It’s a drought I’m in, not a flood. My freelance work has dried up for the first time since I can remember. And my previous success and biases have left me horribly equipped to handle it.

I’m looking to the sky hoping for rain, but I’ve forgotten the prayer that makes it fall.

This isn’t the first time I’ve hit a major setback, but it happened at the worst possible moment in my life when my financial flexibility is at its lowest point in a decade. My confidence told me I could budget based on last year’s record-high income — as if it was a given that I’d repeat it again next year. The universe quickly came and slapped me in the face for my naivete.

My mortgage and my family may be the ones who pay the price if I can’t right the ship soon.

So you scramble like you always do when backed into a corner, and hope some scraps come your way to hold you over until the universe rebalances again. The idle time gives you plenty of opportunities to check your biases and build up resilience for the future. Time to decompress and prioritise mental health.

I’m still mid-scramble. I’ll let you know how it goes when I crawl out the other side.

2023 is the year the whole world is due to turn a corner toward something way better than this. It will be for me. I hope it is for you as well. Just make sure your bias doesn't get in the way of the change you want to come.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.