Networking: the Dark Side of Freelancing

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Networking: The Dark Side of Freelancing

Freelancers work in isolation.

I’m not in a studio, or an office block. I’m not rubbing shoulders with other designers. There’s just me.

Usually, I love it that way. It’s comfortable. But it does leave me short-resourced — I need to ‘network’ to find collaborators with complementary skills, like photography or website building, because those people aren’t sharing my workspace.

That’s when I hate being a freelancer. Networking events tend to be full of chest-beating posers who are only there to make themselves look impressive. It’s like a professional first date, where people will only show the best side of themselves and pretend that’s the side they wake up with every day. I come away feeling small and humiliated.

Last week, Design Assembly ran a meet-up of creatives in my town for a 10th anniversary screening of Helvetica, a typography documentary, at my local cinema. The pragmatist in me kicked up a fuss about going — ‘Why would you pay $30 to go see this thing?! You can watch it free on YouTube!’ — but I countered it by saying I wasn’t going for the documentary, or free promotional Adobe mouse pads. I was going for the people. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but this was something I had to do. I’d meet people, and I’d ‘network’.

That was the intention. One of the good intentions that only pave the road to hell.

The first surprise was that this didn’t look like a group of pretentious chest beaters, after all. One of them was even wearing a hoodie. Another looked and sounded like Ian Paget, which was like a visual reminder to my psyche of what I was here for. (If it really had been Ian Paget, or any other name I’d long recognised and admired, I might have actually frozen. It happened when I realised that the guy taking real estate photos of my house was Tim Whittaker.)

The second surprise was that it didn’t matter. Apparently I was to be crippled by social anxiety, anyway. As the evening progressed, nerves and ineptitude got worse — almost as if my inner pragmatist was in such a snit about being made to go, she’d sabotage the whole experience and make it useful for nothing more than a blog post.

At least I knew how to answer, this time, when one of the facilitators asked me where I was from. At another networking event I’d been to, while I was still in design school and writing for a technology magazine, I’d interpreted, ‘So where are you from?’ as a personal curiosity of my home town, and later wondered why they were looking at me awkwardly as I talked about streets and suburbs.

This time I knew she didn’t really care where I was from. She wanted to know where I worked. (Ah, the irrationalities of social semantics…) ‘I’m a local print design contractor’, I said, and was gratified to see she found this a relevant and acceptable answer.

That was the only successful part of my performance. The coffee I’d bought for courage and comfort only made me need to pee halfway through the film. (I was the only one.)

I was tense throughout the whole film, feeling like I was watching it from the middle of a stage. I couldn’t distract myself by chronically checking my email or Facebook, because I’d taken a seat near the front — everyone else would see the light of my mobile screen. I’m not adept at the networking dance, but I’m pretty confident that’s not how one makes friends.

After the film, the facilitator invited everyone to a local bar, for mingling. I had no idea where this bar was, but everyone else seemed to, and believe it in walking distance.

I didn’t want to go. But if I went home now, this whole event would have been for nothing. I needed to socialise, right? This was the whole point of coming out here. So when I saw a small group of attendees walking away from the cinema, I quickly followed them — before my brain could figure out what I was doing and send me screaming like a pterodactyl in the opposite direction.

I followed them into a place with a logo that always made me think of Hogwarts, and watched them go the counter to order their drinks.

I didn’t want a drink. Partly because I wanted to legally drive home. Very soon, if possible. But mostly because alcohol tastes like paint stripper, and I didn’t want anything that would make me pee even more, anyway.

So I sat at the nearest table. By myself. In a bar. With no drink. Feeling very uncomfortable, and certain I was going to be kicked out for hogging a table.

One of the facilitators recognised me (You’re Eve, right?), and invited me to the big table where a bunch of attendees were sitting. I was regrettably uncool in my relieved response: ‘Oh, thank you!’

Dammit. Real smooth. Surely it would get better from now, though.

It didn’t.

I was sitting amidst a group of strangers, and I couldn’t breathe. I was shivering with prolonged muscle tension.

Someone asked me if I lived in town. My brain froze, and I forgot where I lived. (When the silence had gone on too long, I just said ‘yes’, hoping it was true.)

An agency director asked if there were any print designers among us. My brain froze, and I didn’t say anything. (I waited for someone else to, so I could add, ‘Me too’. We’d just gone to see a film about a font. I’d assumed most of us would have been print designers.) An agency director was essentially asking to network with someone like me! Opportunities don’t get clearer than that! If there had been one moment in the whole event that I could have made useful, it would have been that one!

Yet all I did was try to breathe past my throat, as the conversation moved on to someone who was a technical writer.

Everyone else at the table left quickly, after the first person had. Ironic, that I’d walked in desperate to leave, yet ended up being the last one of the group to do so.

It was open mic night at the bar. Several times the MC invited anyone in the room to step up for a go at standup comedy.

I entertained the idea. Really.

Sure, it’s a manner of public speaking, but it doesn’t require back and forth. It’s not the same. It’s all on my terms. I thought I could just get up there and narrate my evening thus far, but with all the wit and smartassery that had gone on in my head, throughout. I’m not good at looking professional and impressive, but I’m good at getting people to laugh at me.

It would have made a great ending to the story of my experience. Maybe would have even made it worth it. I like to think that if the MC had given a few seconds after asking if anyone wanted a go, that I would have done it. But the guy didn’t talk with commas, and then the opportunity was over.

Which made the night finally, officially, a waste of time.

I came home with no names of potential collaborators.

I needed to take a shower at supernova degrees Celsius just to relax the muscles that had been tense all night.

I’d paid $30 to see something freely available on YouTube, and to spend the evening with perpetual professional stage fright. Or, I could say instead, I bought three promotional mouse pads for $10 each.

Stupid.

I don’t even use a mouse.

I hate networking events more than I can articulate. Why can’t meetings of local folk still be held online, where people type instead of talk?

I’d kick ass at that.

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1 Comment

  • Nigel Jones
    23 Oct 2017

    I was chuffed to see a new blog! Writing is something in which you stand out. I would like to hope that you have some real life experiences that soars in tandem with your writing creativity – truly repeatable memorable milestones. Wishing you future incredible times.

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