The Great Paradox Of Working Alone

I have a pack of Hubba Bubba strawberry-watermelon bubble gum sitting on my desk right now. One of my kids didn’t like the taste of it so they offered it to me. Win, right?

Sadly, it tastes like strawberry-watermelon linoleum. I’ve sampled paint chips that had a more satisfying flavor. It makes me want to upgrade to fluoride treatments at the dentist or suck on asphalt chips I’ve broken off from my own driveway. But it’s sitting there for a reason.

That’s right, I find comfort in a pack of chewing gum.

See, after writing an article recently about how to Feng Shui your desk, which included the ill-fated use of that term as an action verb, I’ve decided to outfit my desk with paraphernalia again. Things were starting to look a little sparse. Now, in addition to the aforementioned flavored floor tile/asphalt chip chewing gum, I have a Korg mini keyboard here (for when the moment strikes), a massive JBL speaker (it’s for review, honest), and a few other knick-knacks. And by “a few other knick-knacks” I mean a half-eaten chicken sandwich, my iPhone 5S, a router, and a cup of cold coffee.

Outfitting my desk is a happy diversion to working alone, like getting stopped on the way to the gym by a guy handing out free pizza slices. Well, thank you – let me just partake of that kind sir. Diversions are a way of breaking up the routine – it’s the good kind of diversion. (Not the bad kind where you look back on your day of overly long phone calls, inconsequential e-mails, and unbridled site browsing and wonder how you ever even graduated from kindergarten and started wearing adult underwear.) Without diversions, we’d all wallow in a pit of stupefying normalcy. We’d all be Al Gore.

So what’s it like having a job where you write articles by yourself?

Lonely. Desperate. Highly flexible.

You have to be a little anti-social and motivated to reach the masses at the same time. That’s like dieting on apple fritters and Oreo cookies while guzzling Pepsi by the gallon, I know. You feel like you’re getting some inner peace as you gorge yourself on sugar. The irony of my chosen profession – which actually chose me after a long battle with Corporate Angst – is that there is a great duality, what the musician Jeff Tweedy once called singing into the abyss where all you see is darkness but you hear feedback like there is someone there, watching your every move. Yah, it’s creepy.

I gave up reading comments to my articles long ago, especially any article that appears even slightly controversial. I can now tell when I post something that will make the loonies attack my verbiage like sadistic grammarians. They should not be allowed to own keyboards. I can write an article on leadership practices and expect to hear a few words of encouragement, especially since most of what I say about the subject is how much I sucked at being a leader in business. If I write about how parents should monitor the use of video games for Little Timmy a bit closer, I’ll expect a wicked backlash. Apparently, Little Timmy has some friends and they all use Twitter.

But there was one comment that struck a chord in me recently. I can only assume it was from another freelancer. He said something about relying more on social media than most, because it’s really the only way to tell there are real people out there. There are some days when you wonder if anyone is reading what you write or if they are all watching Jeopardy or taking a nap.

I’m not complaining. The paradox of working alone is that you are never really alone. There are millions of stay-at-home workers who, just like me, get up in the morning and consider a walk to the kitchen to be a horrendously long commute compared to walking across the hallway to your home office or – shudder – driving anywhere. But I’m not that isolated. A few days ago, I actually made a few phone calls. On Twitter, I had a 20 minute DM exchange about the weather in California. I guess it’s kinda sunny.

We have to decide as a society whether working alone is better for our psyche in the long run. An open floor plan in offices is a bit like trying to get sheep to play video games. It is not really in their nature. We were made to have balance, to think in peace and to play in chaos. But being a “knowledge worker” can also have a detrimental effect because you have to consciously keep the world at arm’s length. You have to shun people.

As an example: I used to have a handwritten note on my door that said “Emergencies Only” – a warning to anyone in the home to make sure the juicer was actually on fire or the car was now leaning off a ledge on a bridge with people screaming and running in all directions. I’d bark at my family and say “working” in a loud booming voice. I’m not proud of that. The message I was sending, of course, was that whatever I was doing was far more important than the juicer inferno or a hair-raising bridge accident.

I haven’t resolved the problem of working alone yet. Writing requires utter silence – and maybe playing the new album by The National. Testing gadgets is not something you can do while carrying on a conversation about insurance policies with your wife. The two can’t co-exist.

I sometimes work at a cafe downtown. I’m the only one there trying to escape from abject isolation while attempting to create some clearer separation between me and my cat. Everyone else is usually in a group. If there is a laptop present, it’s often set to the side like something that is not the total lifeblood of your occupational soul. I don’t know the waitresses name, but I blame it on the fact that she does not wear a nametag. I have never barked “working” to her (or any of the staff, thankfully) but I have thought about saying it to one particularly annoying patron. Dude in the corner, please stop slurping your coffee. I can hear you over The National.

I read a book recently about how we should make small changes for big results. I think the book is called Small Changes For Big Results but I’m not sure. The author writes in a clear and compelling style. The nerve! She probably also owns stocks and plays finesse golf on the weekends. Some of what she says sounds almost biblical. I’m still working on applying what she says. I plan to make a really small change related to eating fewer donuts. But I’m pretty serious about learning the names of the cafe staff to deal with my paradox. I won’t use the excuse that I’m heads-down in MacBook land.

In fact, I’m working there right now. Hang on a second.

Her name is Shannon.


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