The last time when I was freelancing about a year ago, I was in a difficult place in my life. The money I was making in web development was great, but on a personal level, I was working through a lot of issues involving my family, my relationship and–it felt this way at times–my existence. Some days I remember feeling completely incapacitated by crippling anxiety, unable to get out of bed save for going to the bathroom, unable to move except to bang out a few lines of code here and there.
As painful as it was, that time was also a period of enormous growth. I read somewhere about a neuroscientist who wanted to promote a new metaphor for the human brain: our mind is like the Earth and our thoughts are like the weather. Well, it felt like I was terraforming a new planet about a year ago because I was learning for the first time in my life how to love myself. That wasn’t something I had ever been taught, neither at home nor at school.
(Looking at my peers, most of whom seem to be in a similar position, I feel like people in their 20’s can be divided into two groups: those who learn self-love and those who don’t.)
This time I’m flying solo again but with an emphasis on game development, a much riskier enterprise than web development and where the returns on investment tend to be more hypothetical than real. It’s also an area of programming that I have no prior experience in, save for a few games I made as a kid in QBASIC on my dad’s old Packard Bell in the 90’s. I’m plagued daily with self-doubt as well as a good dosage of fear and self-judgement.
Yet I feel hopeful because I feel equipped with emotional tools that I didn’t have a year ago. I’d say that the biggest three are
- Self-awareness of how I’m feeling
- Knowledge of how to articulate my feelings as needs
- A lack of shame around satisfying those needs and asking others to help
Self-awareness of how one feels is a deep life skill that people don’t seem to take seriously. It starts with accurately knowing whether you’re angry, sad, happy, fearful, horny, or some other basic emotion, which is a serious accomplishment in a world where emotional expression, at least speaking as a man, is modeled as either “good” or “blah.” In my case, it took me years to realize that I had never been given the chance to feel like I could feel and accept my emotions safely without having them talked over, used against me or taken away from me.
Knowing how to articulate one’s feelings as needs means moving from “I feel sad” or “I feel lonely” to “I need to sit quietly for an hour to process” or “I need to find community.” This skill is about understanding that our feelings aren’t ephemera that we should work to ignore, but rather that they are indicators and sign posts pointing to our needs. There’s a radical implication here. Given that our feelings indicate needs and that at any given moment we are feeling something (except when we’re depressed), we’re always in need, even if that need is simply to quietly feel whatever we’re feeling at the moment. I’ve found this idea to be the only reliable bedrock principle in my life. Beyond all the fickle narratives we tell ourselves about our meaning and purpose, one’s emotions are always present without justification or meaning.
It took a lot of effort to accept the idea of myself as a permanently needy creature. Our culture loads so much shame around the idea of being needful or having our needs met. We’re told to base our lives on more abstract notions like honor or duty or sacrifice, and the blueprint is always given to us externally from school, religion or family. We’re urged to follow the Truth, whatever that Truth is, and not to deviate from the Path, whatever that Path is; deviation is Sin. It took a lot of time for me to unwind this kind of thinking and to accept that to take care of my needs is to honor my existence–indeed, it honors the very meaning of (meaningless) life. And it’s OK to ask for other people to help! Actually, that’s how we make friends, by asking others to help us feel loved and admired.
I’d like to write in detail at some point about how these kinds of emotional skills can form the core of an enlightened and sustainable approach to business. I’ll say that having these skills makes me feel equipped to handle the ambiguity, emotional uncertainty and lack of structure that comes with freelancing and solopreneuring. While I may have the skills, however, it feels like I don’t yet know how to apply them in my new context. I don’t know yet how best to satisfy, say, my need for structure or my need to feel connected, both professionally and in terms of friends.