Articles - 30th October 2020

Expand your network in depth, not width

Words by Marisa Bate
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Seven months into the arrival of Covid-19 and it is still increasingly easy to focus on the negatives; raising infection rates, falling budgets, limited social mixing, maximum panic, confusing talk of tiers and traffic lights. People often describe freelancing as a rollercoaster, a heady mix of highs and lows you learn to ride with a certain sense of thrill. Yet ever since March, it has felt as if this rollercoaster is plummeting downwards at breakneck speed.

But perhaps I’m too hasty at giving into the doom-scrolling and the catastrophizing. Because while I’ve lost work, money and confidence, like so many others, in this time I have found something else.

I have discovered that I had a network of people to lean on that I didn’t realise was there. Before the pandemic, these people were contacts, friendly voices I knew from Twitter or the world of work in some way. Maybe we’d manage a coffee from time to time, run into each other at an event, but mostly we’d just occasionally exchange a few tweets, offering likes and retweets. These people were in my universe, their faces and names were familiar but they were scattered and fairly distant.

And then we couldn’t leave the house. And maybe in response to feeling trapped, stuck within the same four walls, and mildly terrified about what was happening, I began to reach out to these very people and these people started to reach out to me.

An author who I followed on social media DM’d me for the first time and we shared long, honest and vulnerable messages about how we felt each morning when we woke up. We shared our fears about working and how we were finding ways around that. It was an unexpected and very private source of support that reminded me how we can find strength in kindness and hope in collaboration.

A woman I’d only ever exchanged emails with rang. On a sunny Tuesday morning in spring, I sat in the garden and talked with her for over an hour. We ran through the inevitable conversation checkpoints: when can you see our mothers, are you managing to get food, etc, etc, but then we moved on to much bigger subjects. We swapped stories of projects we’d been working on and the private dreams we’d hung off them. She helped me push to the limits of my creativity, a place I’d never been before and this helped fill time, scratch an itch, speak to some part of me that needed to make something because the world had stopped turning.

Just the other evening, I made my way to see two other women I know. They are freelancers running their own marketing company. We’ve known each other for years and despite a meeting some time ago now, we only see each other on the internet via LinkedIn or Twitter. Yet I felt the urge to contact them and suggest we meet face-to-face, drink some wine and talk about everything. And it took a load off – to say the very least. We laughed, we were honest in our fears but hopeful. They made me feel better. They made me feel like everything might be okay after all.

Before the pandemic I would have described these people as “contacts”, “work friends”, “people I knew from the internet”. But in the turmoil of coronavirus, they organically and effortlessly became something else; they became confidantes, mentors, life coaches and, mostly, friends.

We’re often encouraged as freelancers to expand our contacts list as wide as possible; to “reach out”, connect, network, and find work. And there’s a lot of value in that. But if we only focus on ever widening the net, we’re missing something equally valuable that we actually already have.

Transforming those relationships from a friendly but distant virtual hello to a considered, deeper mutual connection has been transformative for me – and hopefully them. They have given me confidence to press publish on blogs I’ve written in private. They encouraged me to have a stab at writing a play. They have recommended books and podcasts and courses that speak precisely to where I am right now. They have offered unconditional kindness, they have listened, questioned, helped, challenged, encouraged, comforted and supported. And if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I might have never known what was truly there. I might have scrolled by, without a second thought. Instead, I have expanded my network, not in width but in depth. And because of that my foundations feel sturdier knowing the strength of the support I have.

As we head into winter, and that rollercoaster still might be heading in the wrong direction, take some time to look at who is around you. Send them a message. Say hello. Ask them how they are and show your own vulnerability. You might be surprised with what you find.

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