4 Life Lessons from Squirrels That Apply to Freelancing

By Sheeva Azma

I like to take walks a lot, and, especially in the fall and winter months, I often see squirrels on my path, frolicking around in nature, chasing each other, or hard at work looking for and burying nuts.  I often watch squirrels curiously because, as a neuroscientist by training, I am fascinated by behavior — whether human or squirrel behavior. I have learned a lot from my interactions with squirrels and thought I would share a few lessons from squirrels in this blog post.

1. Planning is key to freelance success. 

In freelancing, your income stream is inconsistent. Some months, you will make a lot of money, and other months your funds will be scarce.  It all depends on how much work you can take on, and what work is available. That’s why planning is key.  Plan ahead for when work is scarce by setting aside money in the more lucrative times.

Just like squirrels are pros at hiding nuts for the cold winter months, freelancers can anticipate tough times by being resourceful in good times.

Squirrels are pros at planning for tough times. The term “squirreling away” comes from squirrel behavior. They bury nuts in anticipation of finding them a few months later, in the cold months of winter, when finding food will be a challenge.

2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket — diversify.

Most squirrels that are hoarding nuts for the season are pros at what is called scatter-hoarding, in which they store nuts in the ground in many different locations. Scatter-hoarding works for squirrels because the more far and wide the squirrel buries their food, the more difficult it is for competitors to find them.

Like squirrels, freelancers have a lot on their plate – and it can be difficult to keep track of it all. It can be easy to chase the dollar, but that can make one lose sight of what is important to them — whether it’s spending quality time with friends and family, pursuing one’s non-work hobbies, or both.

Freelancers have a lot on their plate. Diversifying — and approaching it all with a balanced mindset — can help.

I find that spending time doing things that are non-work-related serves to ‘charge’ my mental energies and focus, which helps me get more work done later. As a result, I find that time away from work is time well-spent.

3. Be smart — trust your gut and learn to set boundaries.

While one may think that squirrels randomly bury nuts in the ground, the truth is that their methodology for hiding away their winter food stash is much more complex. It involves “chunking,” or grouping buried nuts together according to different traits, such as nut type and size.  They then use a mental map to retrieve up to 95% of the nuts they have scatter-hoarded over the season.  Their work doesn’t go to waste, though, if they do not retrieve their buried nuts — many trees sprout as a result of squirrels’ hard work.

Squirrels are also very intelligent, and if they sense that a predator is watching them bury their food, they will stop and pretend to bury food instead, effectively “faking out” the predator.

Squirrels and humans both benefit from intuition to guide decision-making.

Squirrels rely on their keen intuition and mind to make decisions, and you should, too. It can be confusing navigating the world of freelancing, especially when talking to clients who don’t seem like they would be a great fit. One of the best lessons I learned in freelancing was to trust my gut and say “no” when I felt that something was off.  The year I resolved to trust my gut and say “no” to clients more, my freelancing income doubled!

4. Be creative and adapt to life’s challenges.

From watching the squirrels on my walks, I noticed that they often take unusual-seeming paths.  For example, a squirrel may climb up a tree, then jump to a nearby tree’s branches.  They can travel across trees this way, by walking onto overlapping branches.  Squirrels have an advantage over humans, despite their small size, in that they are fast and can quickly leverage their ability to travel via a network of interconnected trees to get away from predators on land.  This also gives them great flexibility in where they are going.

The truth is that, as freelancers, we never stop to consider all of the different paths we have in life and the freedom and flexibility we have. As freelancers, we have the ability to pave our own paths for ourselves.  Like squirrels, we can create new paths for ourselves in life with a greater level of flexibility than people who work a regular 9-to-5 job.  We can define our work entirely on our own terms! Perhaps the freelancer’s version of traveling through trees like a squirrel is to say no to boring or low-paying work, using the time saved to pursue hobbies instead.

As freelancers, we have the ability to pave our own paths for ourselves.

By remaining adaptable to the challenges we face in life, and approaching problems with creativity and enthusiasm, with all of the different options we have at our disposal, we can overcome even the most difficult challenges.

photo of cute squirrel sitting on a tree branch
Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Finally, despite the fact that squirrels are often hard at work in these winter months, they are extremely cute and make for excellent walking companions. Squirrels do their own thing and, for the most part, do not care what other animals think of them.  It can be difficult to tune out the noise — for example, your fellow freelancer bragging about making six figures on Twitter — but it’s important to do so to give yourself the mental space to make your own decisions.

I have learned a lot about squirrels from my observation of them and I really think that the lessons I have learned have helped me in my freelancing.  If that makes me seem a little bit nuts, then so be it.


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