Building a work community when you’re going it alone

Courtney E. Martin on the secret to a successful freelance life

sea of people

Unlike our parents or grandparents, many of whom could count on working at one company their entire career, the average American currently switches jobs every 4.6 years. And in a surprising shift, 40% of the U.S. workforce is now freelance.

There are a lot of reasons for this, some worker driven, some not. But when you find yourself navigating both the freedom and uncertainty of freelance life, is there a secret to thriving in this new work world?


the new better off book cover


In a word, “community,” writes journalist Courtney E. Martin in her new book, The New Better Off, in which she re-examines the American Dream and what the good life really means.

The most successful freelancers, Martin found, have broad and diverse networks of “ideal collaborators” to help them through the highs and lows of freelancing.

Martin would know. At 36, she has never worked a full-time job. Instead, she has created a career out of various writing and speaking assignments. The upsides include enormous flexibility and being able to do work she cares about with people she really likes.

The downsides include financial insecurity and isolation.

“I think the financial insecurity is always going to be there,” she says. “But the isolation is something we can actually do something about.”

Here are some of Martin’s tips on how to fight the isolation and expand your community to help you lead a more successful professional and personal life.


Get out of your pajamas

One of the easiest ways to build community when you’re an independent worker is by setting up shop in a coworking space. Martin dedicates an entire chapter of her book to coworking, where people from different kinds of jobs work together in a shared workspace.

“You get the benefits of community that should exist in the traditional workplace, but in this case, there’s that voluntary vibe,” she says. “You show up when you want to, leave when you want to, and you’re magnetized towards people you genuinely like, not people you get assigned to work with.”

What’s more, according to a Harvard Business Review article she cites, workers in coworking spaces report higher happiness levels than those in traditional office spaces.


Be “kind, generous, and curious”

This may sound obvious, but the best way to build your professional network is to make friends. Be open and genuinely interested in getting to know a diverse group of people. The richest networks, according to Martin, are those composed of people working in a bunch of different fields.

“I think the biggest mistake people make with networking is when they think it’s a separate mode from just being a kind, generous, curious human being,” she says.

She warns against seeing these relationships as transactional, like that person at a mixer who works the room collecting business cards. It’s more about knowing lots of people and leaving room for serendipity.

“I think the biggest mistake people make with networking is when they think it’s a separate mode from just being a kind, generous, curious human being,” she says.


Courtney Martin
Photograph by Ryan Lash.


What about the introverts?

Brilliant networkers tend to be personable and skilled at cultivating relationships. But what if you find yourself on the shyer side?

Get savvy at social media, advises Martin. “It’s a huge gift for introverts.”

So if you’re timid and there’s someone you admire or would like to know, she recommends following them on Twitter and Facebook.

“Tweet their stuff and tell them you like it,” she says.

She also advises that you can stand out by mastering the art of the beautifully crafted email. Martin once helped a woman land a job after receiving such an email in her inbox. (The woman later wrote about the experience for the New York Times.)


Confidence is contagious

Last, and this may sound counterintuitive in a culture that thrives on competition, but when you’re cultivating new relationships, in person or online, don’t be threatened by those who are more successful than you. Be inspired by them.

It’s called “shine theory” and was coined by the journalist Ann Friedman. Essentially it means this: Being friends with smart, accomplished, interesting, creative people will make you look better, not worse. Their shine won’t eclipse you, it will make you glow as well.

“I really love that idea of not shying away from other people’s successes,” says Martin. “That kind of mindset propels you in a different way than if you’re seeing everybody else like ‘They are what I don’t have.’”


Emily Brady once landed a job through someone she met at the grocery store.

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