Generally speaking, humans fear being alone. It’s natural for us to seek community and companionship. With it comes safety, comfort. It’s how we survive as a species.
This has evolved with the modern age. At least in the United States, where I live and work, independence is a virtue. Working alone is becoming more and more popular. In our personal lives, steady partnerships are on the decline. It seems we are moving away from the “tribe” mindset of our ancestors. Or maybe we just go about it differently.
Even as we seek solitude in the physical space, we immerse ourselves in our online communities. Social media, however ephemeral, makes us feel less alone. We still surround ourselves with fellow humans, but we do it in different ways. We join Slack groups within our industry. We substitute person-to-person contact with likes and retweets. Online relationships are not better or worse than “real” ones, but it’s doubtful we can be fulfilled entirely by them.
Perhaps the quality of alone time has decreased with the rise of the internet and technology. Maybe we have forgotten how to make the most of that time. Whatever the case, it is clear that time alone can result in existential angst. Freelancing brings this into sharp relief.
Take, for example, this question I received from a reader:
"As a freelancer I sometimes feel alone and even if I like to create, often I feel a void, as if I had no goal or long-term vision. I do not know if you have already overcome that but maybe you have some ways to deal with this situation."
When we work on our own, we have no one to guide us, motivate us, validate our decisions, bounce ideas off of, complain to, relate to. This is the choice we make when we decide to freelance rather than work with a team. It’s a challenge, but it is also an opportunity.
In a team setting, we can become dependent and passive. Some of us tend to hide within a team and lose motivation. Even with people to guide the vision, we can still feel lost. Coworkers frustrate us, leaders fail us. The truth is that, whether we work in a team or not, we are solely responsible for our own success and failure. We alone must determine our vision.
But community and mentorship are still important, and freelancing doesn't mean we can't have it. It means we have to be more diligent, even aggressive, about seeking that out. Some of my best mentors are people who don’t know I exist. They are the authors of the books I read. They are fashion designers, philosophers, musicians, artists that inspire me. By following their work and learning what they have to say, I better understand where I fit in and where I want to go.
Having a community is important, whether you’re a social person or not. Sharing work and inspiration, giving feedback, a little friendly competition keeps us motivated. You don’t have to work in an office or even attend networking events to form your community. You can share your work with a couple creative friends on Slack. You could work in a co-working space alongside others and soak up the creative energy in the room.
As a freelancer, it’s easy to find yourself in survival mode. When you have many projects and deadlines to fulfill, you work soul-sapping hours to keep your head above water. When you have gaps in projects and new clients, you go in panic mode trying to find work and pay the bills. The unpredictable nature of freelancing doesn’t leave much room for reflection and planning for your future. You are more concerned with the day-to-day. So you have to consider your growth part of your work. Meeting up with a fellow creative for coffee is part of your job. Taking a couple hours to read a book or learn a new tool is part of your job. Doing a refreshing side project is part of your job. It’s these seemingly self-indulgent "tasks" that bring meaning to your life and to your work.
Freelancing is, unfortunately, lonely by nature. For that reason and others, it’s not the right fit for everyone. That’s OK. You don’t have to freelance just because it’s the popular thing to do right now. Or you could try freelancing part-time. You could lend your talents to an agency for two days a week. You could work part-time at an office. Companies are becoming more flexible and open to non-traditional schedules and contracts like this. Switch it up, see how it feels.
Or maybe, instead of looking for ways to fill the “void,” you can lean into it. With any other job, it’s easy to fill that space with meetings, gossip, happy hours and mandatory webinars. That may temporarily distract you, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to fill the empty space. Instead of focusing on the negative feelings that come to the surface – the fear that you’re doing wrong, that you don’t have a long-term vision – follow the positive feelings. If you feel an impulse to paint, take a 30-minute break and paint. If you’re excited about the work you did for a particular project, share it with everyone you know. If you want to pick up a book, pick it up and catch up on work later at night. Freelancing leaves it all up to you, which can either be scary or liberating.