In a recently-published paper written in 1959, author Isaac Asimov hit on an idea that now, seems fairly ahead of its time: That, while the act of creating is something most artists and thinkers and makers prefer to do alone, new ideas and concepts aren’t born in a vacuum.
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required,” he explained. “The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display. Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.”
Essentially, while artists and creative people usually prefer to actually conduct their work alone — that is why many of us freelance, in addition to enjoying the freedom of, say, working from home — the influence of others is undeniable. As the poet Maya Angelou explained, we are all an amalgam of our experiences.
“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us,” Angelou said. For that reason, she added, she tried to “make sure that my experiences are positive.”
Still, there persists an idea that, because the act of doing the work usually happens while alone, community is unimportant, and that both creation and execution — or even creation and general existence as a creative person — can and should remain solo pursuits. The notion of the artist as a single agent, much like the idea of the starving artist, pervades.
This fear could be in part because many creative entrepreneurs are concerned that the art that their industry is a zero-sum game, and that, by collaborating or fostering a healthy community, they may be setting themselves up for potential betrayal, or limiting the amount of work that’s available to them. This fear is especially true in the freelancer community, where jobs may feel sparse, and where helping others or making introductions can feel like a threat to your channels of revenue. And while competition within a market may drive some people to advance their craft and make higher quality work, for the most part, collaboration can actually be quite a bit more beneficial.
In her commencement speech before Harvard graduates in 2011, actor, writer, and producer Amy Poehler explained why finding community matters — because it makes you better at what you do more than competition ever can.
“As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own,” she explained, “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”
That idea — that collaboration is a way to not only find new ideas, but probe your own, is an important one. This is especially important for those of us who don’t traditionally put in work in an office. When you’re physically isolated much of the time, as many freelancers are, it can be hard to bounce ideas of others. And when you’re spinning on your own budding ideas and concepts for too long, you can end up in a creative rut.
The need for a collaborative space explains the relatively new trend of coworking spaces, which, as the freelance community grows, have become necessary gathering places. These inexpensive spaces offer the needs that an office or other communal space usually would — like a meeting room — while focusing on the needs of freelancers and other independent workers. But, thanks to the internet, community spaces can also exist online. Facebook groups for writers and artists, message boards, and other digital meeting places all allow for collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
“Surround yourself with a supportive community,” advises artist and author Lisa Congdon, “if you don’t have one, start to find one. And the internet is a great place for that.”
If nothing else, community is important because it can help get you work. Even if you never collaborate, the freelance community continues to run on word-of-mouth, which means the wider your circle, the easier it is to find work or make important new contacts.