I have a not-so-secret crush on Kenny Rogers. There are grainy Polaroid photos of me performing The Gambler in my grandparents’ basement when I was three; at 14, I had front row seats to see Kenny Rogers perform and felt dizzy with excitement when he reached down and touched my hand during his opening number.
You don’t have to like Kenny Rogers — but really, why wouldn’t you? — to appreciate his most iconic advice: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”
The chorus popped into my head last week after a phone conversation with an editor.
Several months ago, I signed on for a major project. It wasn’t going well. Thanks to logistical challenges and unexpected expenses, the assignment became a major source of stress. The editor had no idea about the problems when we scheduled a check-in call.
After we exchanged a little small talk, she said, “You’ve been given an impossible project. This is so much bigger and more complex than it needs to be given the timeline and I wanted to offer you the option to back out.”
Shocked doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Quitting never occurred to me. In fact, the thought of backing out of a project that I committed to made me feel a little sick.
While we were talking things over, she said, “As one woman to another, not editor to writer, I think you should seriously consider the option [of walking away].” I asked for a few days to think about it.
Kenny Rogers kept singing in my ear: “Now every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’ is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep…You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Sticking with a time-consuming, less-than-lucrative project that required a ton of travel — and, to be honest, didn’t excite me — kept me from pursuing projects I was passionate about. I backed out.
It’s the first project I’ve signed on for and not completed. But it’s not the first time I’ve turned down work.
Freelancing is perceived as a feast or famine business and writers are often tempted to take every assignment that comes their way. But one of the most important skills a freelancer can learn is — sing it with me — knowin’ when to walk away.
One of the writers on a freelance forum I belong to suggests asking three questions:
Am I going to have fun?
Am I going to learn anything or make good contacts?
Am I going to make bags of money?
She believes that if you can answer “yes” to at least two questions, go for it.
It’s a good starting point, I think. I’d argue that making a living as a freelancer requires limiting the number of gigs that meet the first two criteria but fall short when it comes to financial ROI.
Looking back, I can admit that the project I signed on for met just one of those criteria. I should have said no from the beginning. Lesson learned.
In the week since I made the decision not to continue with the project, new work has come my way and I’ve made significant progress on another long-term project I wanted to pursue. Once again, Kenny Rogers was right: “…somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.”
What factors do you consider when deciding whether to accept a project?