One of the questions I get most as an independent creative is, “Don’t you get lonely?” Frankly, not often–I happily spend most of my days working alone, save when I ask my dog whether a font choice is too sassy or sterile or whatever (he often falls asleep during these conversations).
That’s not to say I don’t feel the crushing anxiety of operating in my own bubble. There are plenty of Friday Night Lights–worthy pep talks playing on loop in my head. But some degree of solitude is inevitable. The better and more focused we get at doing what we do as independent workers, there are fewer people who understand what that’s like.
Building something new might leave us feeling alone and invisible, but that solitude is everything–especially when it comes to creativity.
There are too many people who keep their passions at arm’s length, simply because they’re terrified of being alone. It’s a valid fear but a limiting one. We need more people who aren’t afraid to tell stories, build tools, and change communities. By embracing solitude, we give each other the permission to reach for what we really want, to fill the tiny voids we see in the world.
Here’s how I’ve learned to do that.
At the beginning of your experience working for yourself, projects are easy to dismiss–too hard, too silly, already done by someone more famous or impressive than you. And it isn’t just you. Other people are also pretty quick to tell you an idea is stupid. It’s seldom out of malice, but rather a well-meaning attempt to keep you from wasting your time. Still, the wolves of public opinion can begin to circle, rattling you to the point of not starting at all.
An idea, all on its own, is difficult to evaluate. You have to put it on paper to figure out what it really is; imagination only takes us so far. There’s a reason the startup world has created so-called “startup incubators.” Little glints of inspiration, if properly nourished, can have big results.
But that doesn’t mean your most creative ideas are doomed without the support of a tight-knit community. Individual grit is a more important factor than we tend to give it credit for.
Ideas are meant to eventually live in the real world, but before they’re fully formed, it’s too easy to lose your nerve. As a rule of thumb, I’ve learned that if something catches my attention, it’s worth fleshing out, even if it fails.
Your inklings and obsessions might be embarrassing, juvenile, or old hat. Just remember that at one time Twitter was just a silly status app, Slack was the billionth chat client in a sea of chat clients, and Harry Potter was yet another orphaned boy wizard.
Working by yourself can be a lonely experience for another reason, too. While there’s no one raising skeptical eyebrows about your work, there’s also nobody on the sidelines cheering you on.
So it’s important to learn how to cheer yourself on. I’ve found that that starts with embracing your own working habits. Come what may, you’ll know how to stoke your own inspiration under circumstances others would find distracting or unproductive–and simply developing that skill can feel empowering.
You’ll learn how to work when your couch and Netflix are calling your name, or exactly what Konami code to Google to get an answer.
I get a bit fixated on preserving my process work. It’s vital to have frequent check-ins with yourself to see how far you’ve come and all the avenues you’ve explored. If things get tough, you’ll want to be able to refer to past projects and confirm for yourself that it’s been tough before.
It’s also a relief to see that you’re getting better and better year after year. When I’m feeling down about writing, I’ll pull up some essays from years past, and it becomes obvious that I’m getting better.
A popular tactic I’ve seen is to create marketing pages or press releases for products that don’t even exist yet. Envisioning the end product, and who you’re building it for, can keep you focused on the work. I’ll often think of a younger version of myself who would have loved to read that story or use that app.
Sure, “keep going” probably sounds like overly chipper, vague advice–and it might be, but unfortunately, it’s some of the best I can give. Buddhists might remind us that everything is temporary. We typically regard this as an invitation to be present, to enjoy the good times, but we forget that it applies to the bad times as well.
In my experience, if you keep at anything long enough, no matter how infuriating or baffling it can feel, it’s impossible to stay a beginner forever. It’s here where abject stubbornness is a great asset. You’ve got to be comfortable with digging in and pushing like hell.
After all, nothing cures the loneliness and anxiety of doing solo work like doing the work. It’s the only way forward.