Collaborating alone

by Kristin on September 5, 2008

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Yesterday at about 4:45 I was in a minor panic over having 15 minutes to get to a parent meeting at my daughters’ elementary school.

It wasn’t that I had to freshen up or drive across town or anything like that. The issue was that I hadn’t seen or even talked on the phone to anyone all day. It had been raining steadily since morning, and it seemed like every time I even thought about packing up my computer to walk or drive to a cafe, the rain and wind picked up. I decided it was a good day to hunker down at home, getting a lot of odds and ends done while enjoying the sound of the rain outside my dining room windows.

Working in that kind of isolation really throws me into a strange zone, though—one that’s difficult to snap out of. And a parent function at school is one of the most shocking forms of total social immersion—it’s nothing you can ease into.

There’s a lot to consider: the parents you want to talk with and those you should talk with; the parents you like and the parents of the kids your kids like; the ex-husband and the neighbors. You’re dealing with multiple layers of the social stratosphere.

It’s something I tend to handle well, but that also means expectations are high. And I was feeling extra rough around the edges. My smile felt pasted on, and even my voice sounded strange to me, like a recording, the first time I opened my mouth to greet the parents who were sitting near me, all at our kids’ desks in little kid chairs. Everyone else, I was sure, had spent the day practicing their interactions with other adults. I was at a clear disadvantage.

When I teach copywriting seminars for MediaBistro, I usually spend some time talking about the pros and cons of freelancing. As is often the case in life, many of the pros and cons are the same, or at least are rooted in the same reality.

Like the ability to work on your own. Many people think this is the greatest thing about freelancing—particularly if they’ve spent time in socially stressful and negative office environments. But for me, the working alone part was my biggest fear about going into freelancing, and it continues to be my greatest challenge. I’m a true extrovert. I think that means I’m someone who derives energy and ideas from being around others. I start to shrivel up after about five or six hours of complete isolation.

I’ve chosen a very solitary vocation, though, so I’ve learned to cope and even thrive within it. Partly because I needed more solitude in my life. I don’t naturally gravitate toward the empty, quiet spaces, but I can be gently trained into appreciating and even craving them, the same way salads and classical music can be tucked here and there into the everyday lives of children.

The other thing I’ve learned to do along the way, out of necessity, is to be more aware of my personality and needs, and then to be more intentional about making interaction and collaboration happen. Because it’s not naturally there, waiting for me to grab it, interacting with others has become a discipline of sorts, just like solitude is.

I make a point of picking up the phone and calling a client or designer I’m working with, even when email would do the trick. I pick Jason’s brain over lunch, taking advantage of his great problem-solving skills, in the process giving us connecting points in another area of our lives.

And when I don’t need to brainstorm ideas or get feedback, but just need to be around activity and people and the shot of energy they give, I head to the cafe—at least when it’s not raining too hard. Not only does it feed my work, it primes me for the other social situations life throws my way. Like parent meetings. Bonus.

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