Ah, a subject too close to my heart. In the Human Freelancer book, I wrote about our propensity, as tortured creative geniuses, to retreat to our meaty bastions – safe from the perils of the big bad world.
Yet still I keep doing it.
I’ve just emerged from an extended sabbatical from existence, interfering with tanking systems in my basement.
Turns out I’m not alone either.
Every freelancer will admit to spending too much time alone, and how they ought to get out more.
Why do freelancers isolate themselves?
Here’s my theory.
Us creative types love to make things. We enjoy loosing ourselves in flow-state, immersed in the process of creating things. That’s inherently something we do alone, away from the distractions of society.
When we’re in creative mode, we can control the variables – we’re on safe, familiar ground.
Now, contrast that with running a business. That necessitates getting out there and exposing your soft underbelly to the slings and arrows of failure – finding work, networking, getting feedback on your work.
These things are largely beyond our control. And they’re the total opposite of where we feel most comfortable.
Have you isolated yourself without realising it?
Speaking from experience, here are some clues that you might have isolated yourself.
- Dwindling support network of friends and contacts
- Lack of client work
- Obsession over one project or thing
- Unhelpful behaviours
- Hyper-cynicism of the outside world
Isolation might feel comfortable, but it’s no good for your wellbeing, or your prospects as a successful freelancer.
What we can do about it
Creative focus through withdrawal is just one part of living a healthy, fulfilled life. And it’s a significant part.
But it’s not the only part.
Also high on the wellbeing list are a sense of belonging, helping others, being part of something bigger, and finding connection with others.
Whether you like it or not, you’re a social creature, and your body and mind need healthy balance.
Think of it like your diet. If you only eat one kind of food, at the expense of neglecting others – you’re more likely to get ill though malnourishment.
There are practical steps you can take to reduce isolation too. Here are some that have helped me pull myself out of my wretched grief holes:
- Admit you have a problem (I’ve realised isolation is cyclical, with the periods becoming deeper and more profound every few years)
- Join a coworking space to meet likeminded freelancers and creative people
- Combine activities you find difficult with something you enjoy (this is why networking events host guest speakers, plus free booze and food to offset the awkwardness)
- Make time for things you love outside of work, yet engage you with the wider world
- Join networks of people with similar interests through Meetup or Eventbrite
- Find any excuse to interact with someone (call up an old contact, do a random act of kindness, run an errand)
Yes, that last one can be a bit pitiful. And it does leave you feeling like an abandoned pensioner craving a chat with the postman/woman. In my darker moments waiting by the letterbox, I concluded that isolation is symptomatic of a broader problem – that of toxic neoliberalism and its idolisation of the self (see point 5 in the first list above). Alas, fixing systemic societal failures is beyond the scope of this article.
Isolation isn’t inevitable
It’s an ever-present threat but it’s also manageable and avoidable. Suffering in isolation isn’t a compulsory part of being a freelancer.
Just keep an eye on it. Acknowledge that when it happens, it happens because you need isolation – to recover, or focus on your creativity.
Aim for balance too – that healthy variety of getting out there and putting your talents into the service of others, versus needing time to withdraw, reflect and hone your creativity in private.
Listen to me chat about this shit
Tomorrow I’ll be recording a podcast talking all about isolation, taking questions, and analysing the perennial problem that is isolation – with Matt Essam of the Creative Life Accelerator.
LOOK! There's a book full of this shit and more!
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