An American Editor

August 3, 2011

One Is the Loneliest Number

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about being a freelancer. Much of my thinking has been in preparation for my delivering the keynote address at the upcoming Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century conference (sponsored by Communication Central and set for September 30-October 1, 2011 in Baltimore, MD), along with the sessions in which I am involved. When I think of my 27 years as a freelance editor, I often think of the Three Dog Night song from 1969 titled “One.” Let’s set the stage and begin with Three Dog Night:

Over the years, I have heard many reasons why someone became a solo freelancer; not once have I heard as a reason the opportunity to make more money. Invariably the reasons focused on other issues, such as hating the corporate environment, hating having to deal with inferior bosses, wanting to be able to set one’s own schedule, the ability to choose to accept or reject work, and so on. Although there is some commonality to the reasons given, there is significantly more commonality when freelancers are asked about the negatives of going solo. The most oft-given complaint is loneliness — that is, the loss of water-cooler socialization. Thus, one is the loneliest number for solo freelancers.

It is because of this social loneliness that solo freelancers jump at chances to participate in online social groups, the substitute water cooler. Yet these substitutes have their own negatives, primarily that a freelancer can spend — and often does spend — too much time socializing online, so much so that the socializing interferes with earning a living. I’m not sure that there is an easy resolution to this problem; the balancing act that is required is not an easy one to master.

Yet forced change may be what lies in the future.

I’ve noticed on several of the online lists in which I participate that the number of solo freelancers who are seeking or accepting full-time employment with corporate denizens is increasing. Whereas a few years ago it was rare to find a freelancer who was actively (as opposed to passively) seeking to change career paths, today the active seeking is much more common.

None of the active career-path-change seekers bluntly says, “These are the reasons why I am making [or want to make] the career switch,” but I suspect that the top reasons are social loneliness, inability to afford health insurance, low earnings, and inability to set aside money for retirement, perhaps even in that descending order. Being a solo freelancer places a lot of heavy burdens on one’s own shoulders, burdens that are shouldered by corporations in the usual employer-employee relationship.

As I see it, every problem that the solo freelancer faces coalesces around the singular problem of loneliness, of not having that colleague in the next cubicle with whom one can share a cup of tea and the problems of the moment. The more time one needs to devote to staving off loneliness, the less time one has to spend working and earning and thus the less money one has to purchase health insurance, to set aside for retirement, to use for vacations, to pay life’s daily bills. Which makes me wonder whether going solo is really the right choice for most freelancers.

Not much thought, and even less acceptance, is given by solo freelancers to the idea that perhaps they should combine forces with other solo freelancers — not in an online forum but in an actual business relationship. The excuses given are myriad and although usually of molehill size, made into mountains. But our editing world is changing, its needs are different today than what they were just 5 years ago, let alone a quarter-century ago when I started my solo career, and maybe greater consideration needs to be given to putting aside the imaginary wonderful world of solo freelancing and to thinking about ways to go from one to more than one.

Yes, as the song says, two can be as lonely as one, but it is much easier for two to not be lonely than it is for one. We solo freelancers are quick to dismiss anything that might suggest that what we are doing is less than ideal; this has been true for the 27 years that I have been a freelancer. Yet what was once true, correct, and sustainable, is no longer true, correct, or sustainable. Not only has time marched on, but so has the way we need to conduct business, especially if making money is a key goal. If we do not recognize these changes and begin to address them, we can expect that we will be, for better or for worse, joining the ranks of those who now say, “Once upon a time I was a solo freelancer.…” There is no reason why “One” must be our theme song in perpetuity.

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