I am one of 15 million Americans now working completely on my own. I love controlling where, when and how I work. But after working remotely for 9 years, I believe we have to recreate ancient tribal structures to sustain this new way of living.
In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, anthropologist Sebastian Junger argues that humans have evolved over millions of years through group survival, for food and self-defense. For the first time in history our money system and technology allows us survive independently without a tribe, but the lived experience runs against our genetic programming.
So solopreneurs fight two battles: 1) earning a living and 2) working in isolation.
I know these challenges intimately having been self-employed since 2011. It took me five years to achieve my ideal work-life: working where I wanted to when I wanted to. But who was I helping to feed and defend? No one. Despite my freedom, I had never felt more lonely.
So how can solopreneurs support their flexible lifestyle and need for tribal belonging?
Find a New Family for Peer Support
While studying correlations between primates’ neocortex size and group sizes, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist, theorized that human beings could cognitively maintain roughly 150 casual friendships. “Dunbar’s Number” has been used to explain the average group size of hunter-gatherer societies (148.4) and company sizes of professional armies throughout history (100-200).
But I focus on Dunbar’s “rule of 3,” that shows human social groups are often hierarchically structured in series of 3-5 (closest support group), 9-15 (intimates you can confide in), 30-45 (friends you’d invite to a dinner party).
That nucleus of 3-5 people would usually be your partner, best friends and family – those you seek in times of trouble.
The challenge is that sometimes your partner, best friends and family can’t see you as an entrepreneur. As my parents still say nine years in, “Darren, get a job!”
It’s also difficult to open up to employees, if you have any.
That’s why you must find a new inner circle where you can be vulnerable, get feedback and find emotional support. Masterminds, popularized by Napoleon Hill, are one solution. You find 3-5 other solopreneurs to share, advise, and keep you accountable. Helping other members and getting outside perspectives on your business is game-changing. Andrew Carnegie attributed his success to his Mastermind group.
I also think it’s important to find 3-5 longtime friends who support you being your own boss, with whom you can share your struggles.
I update a list of these close 6-10 friends weekly. Am I in touch? Have I helped them? These are your new support circles to lean on in tough times. Help them before you need anything. It’s the best investment you can make to cope with the emotional challenges of working alone.
Join Tribes that Serve a Bigger Purpose
After investing five years of blood, sweat and tears into my business, I was able to make more than my former salary, working two days a week.
Yet it was during my highest earning year that I was closest to depression. Why? I would work online, alone in cafes, and return to an empty apartment. I depended on no one and no one depended on me.
Sebastian Junger writes, “A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.”
How can you make your work – and the freedom it affords – bigger than you?
In addition to delivering great experiences to your customers, this could be spending more time with loved ones, volunteering for cherished causes, or contributing to communities that support your life’s passions.
Now that I controlled my work week, I could spend four precious weeks with my parents or mentor at week-long youth leadership events. Weekly salsa socials also give me a deep sense of group belonging. I became a solopreneur to spend more time doing things I love. Why not feed and protect those communities with my time, money and attention?
Contributing to a tribe seems wired into our DNA. Research from Duke University’s Lalin Anik suggests that pro-social incentives – rewarding good work by spending money on teammates instead of on oneself – helped pharmaceutical salespeople, sports teams, and bankers achieve significant gains in happiness and job satisfaction.
Working alone falls outside 200,000 years of human experience. We must find tribes that protect and feed our solopreneur identities, and that let us contribute to causes larger than ourselves. Anchoring the freedom we crave to our nature as social animals gives us the best chance to sustainably do great work.