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We all know that having a community helps, in ways large and small. It helps, for example, to know a neighbor who has skills as an electrician, because when something electrical goes wrong in the kitchen, we can knock on the neighbor’s door and ask for help. He comes over and fixes it. And when my handy neighbor needs my help with a writing assignment for his class at the local college, he comes over and knocks on my door, and we sit together on the porch editing and reworking the paper for as long as it takes.
Is he taking advantage of me, the creative professional? Am I taking advantage of him, the electrician? No. This is what community is all about: helping others when we can and asking them for help when we need it.
Community isn’t transactional: it’s a feeling, a sense of belonging and a groundedness that’s based on trust, caring, empathy, and, when push comes to shove, being there for others. Community helps us live longer, happier lives, as countless studies have shown, and it helps our freelancing life too.
Seek to help, first and always
Building community certainly helps grow my freelance business, especially when it comes to getting (and giving) client referrals. But this doesn’t mean I’m transactional, continually monitoring the “gives and takes.” I don’t help other freelancers in order to gain client referrals. I help them because I genuinely care for their well-being. I tell these freelancers so, but I do far more than just tell them so.
I show up at events and for cups of coffee and lunches. I pick up the phone and call them. I celebrate their success and help extricate them from challenging situations with their clients. I spend time each week with freelancers (designers, writers, and others), listening to how they’re doing and sharing experiences.
Community creates emotional safety
Building community is simple. We do so by creating what psychologists call “emotional safety” for others to be wholly themselves, to express their feelings, ideas, and identities. When everyone in beaming and calling each other “rock stars,” or “superstars,” I know I'm not witnessing real community.
In “real” communities, people can safely express their struggles, fears, and inadequacies, alongside their dreams of rock stardom (by the way, rock stars also struggle at times). One of the ways I build community is by talking about my own failures, my experiences with mental illness, my constant (often painful) efforts to grow and restore and grow again.
The freelance life is hard, in case you didn’t get the memo. If I’m not sharing my struggles as a creator, a business owner, a person, then I’m not being real with myself or others.
Opening the door
When I model psychological safety, I also open the door for others to enter as themselves in all their glorious and beautiful complexity. It might sound as if “showing our scars” is what community is about. Not true. I find engaging in community to be joyous and funny and enlarging. In community, there’s laughter, there’s crying (sometimes with laughter, sometimes in catharsis from the suffering inherent in being human), there’s silliness, and an appreciation of differences.
You don’t build community by impressing people with your financial success, with how “perfect” you are (God help you), and your overall sense of contentment with the world. Sometimes the most meaningful thing you can do is sit silently with another who is suffering, offering your presence as a way of saying “You are not this mistake, this failure, this pain, and you are not alone.”
So often, we don’t need to provide advice (you’ll get over it, move on, forget it, nobody cares, screw the bastards), but what we need most is each other, the simple act of community, which can also be a profound act of love.
How I keep it real
I’ve suffered from social anxiety most of my life and have been hospitalized because of it. I therefore find it supremely ironic that the most effective restorative practice in my own personal and professional life has been engaging in community, reaching out to others (especially freelancers) with a sense of trust and caring. Of course, I meditate, exercise, listen to music, write, and have multiple other restorative practices.
But is it is by engaging in community that I’ve found the most joy, growth, and calm. I’ve found that I’m not alone in my suffering, in my creative struggles as a freelancer, and that my mental health struggles can even offer others a safe, sympathetic space to express their own personal struggles (which are often creative struggles, of course). I’m still trying to embrace the joy and possibility community has given me, the sense of wholeness it brings.
Living the creative life is a never-ending challenge, and it goes far beyond business to encompass who we are as human beings. It is only in the last few years or so, due to the stellar examples of other community-builders (all of them working in demanding, creative careers), that I’ve viewed myself as someone with the capacity to build community.
I don’t view community as just a place or a feeling, or as a way to build my freelance business, but as a therapeutic practice. And it’s a practice we can all strengthen every day by seeing people in all their complicated, messy humanity (ourselves especially), connecting our struggles and joys with theirs.
So yes, community-building is indeed about growing a successful freelance business, but it’s also a way to build a meaningful life and a better world where people offer and provide support to each other.
Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a freelance B2B Brand Storyteller who connects brands and customers through engaging stories. His clients include Sojourn Solutions, The Boston Globe's BG Brand Lab, MITx, abas USA, and The National Center for the Middle Market. His website is www.ChuckLeddy.com.