Why I gave up freelance freedom to return to the corporate grind (Part One of Two)

For more than two years now, I’ve been writing a weekly blog on my thoughts and experiences as a freelance speechwriter, something I’ve been since leaving IBM in 1993. I loved IBM and writing for senior executives there; in fact, I met my husband at IBM.
I left because I was eager to do two things—first, write a screenplay, which I did, and, second, start my own freelance speechwriting business, which I also did.

Over the past 18 years, I’ve been fortunate to have a client base made up of C-suite executives from IBM, Southern New England Telecommunications (SNET), Pratt & Whitney, Deloitte & Touche, Raytheon, The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, The United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (Rome) and BioCrossroads (Indianapolis).

My freelance business allowed me the flexibility to increase or decrease my workload as life circumstances warranted—to take on more assignments/clients when my husband and I were saving for a down-payment on a new home after adopting a newborn; less when raising our son or when speechwriter’s burn-out required a short break.

But as other entrepreneurs will attest, the two sides of the freelance coin are independence and loneliness.

Memberships in writers’ groups—both virtual and actual—including IABC and PRSA went only so far in overcoming the isolation I felt, especially when my family moved from my home-state of Connecticut to Indiana (where my husband was born and raised) five years ago.

But perhaps most important, in writing for a variety of executives in a variety of industries, I realized that I knew the individuals and their products and services much less than I wanted to (the exceptions were IBM and SNET, where I had worked).

I would learn as much as I could as quickly as I could in order to do an assignment, but my writing lacked the range and robust confidence of one who knows a business, its executives and its strategic issues deeply and thoroughly. Consequently, my writing was less passionate, personal and powerful than I wanted it to be, knew it could be, and my clients deserved it to be.

The executives I wrote for never mentioned any of this, mind you, and were pleased with my writing. But it was something I knew in my heart.

In addition, I missed the sense of purpose a corporate setting provides—being part of a cause greater than yourself. A cause that involves the success and well-being of the company, its employees, customers, investors and the community at large. And a cause—for companies with a significant industry heritage—for which you are both story-keeper and storyteller.

I missed being proud to tell people where I worked, like I was at IBM. I wanted to be challenged, stretched, fully “used,” in the very best sense of that word, and to provide strategic value to a company again.

I believed the natural gifts and talents I possessed had grown and developed over the years—years I had devoted not only to the writing itself, but to taking speechwriting seminars and webinars, attending conferences, reading countless books, getting smart about social media, writing and getting feedback on my blog, and learning from other speechwriters, as well as industry leaders and influencers with whom I had developed professional relationships over time and across space. More than ever, I believed, I was ready to bring something valuable to the corporate table.

In addition, I missed the energy, collaboration and creativity of a fast-paced and exciting work environment. I missed the brainstorming, the feedback, the “atta-girls.” I missed being accountable and responsible to someone and something other than myself. I missed the way being part of a group actually makes you more innovative and more creative than you are by yourself.

Scott Page, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, agrees. He has studied diverse thinking and found that groups of similar people get work done faster. But when diverse teams work together, the outcomes are superior. Diverse teams routinely outperform teams of individuals with similar ways of looking at a problem.

There’s a reason for that. Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, believes it’s this: “Diversity makes teams more creative because the friction that results from multiple opinions drives the team to be more original and do more complex work.”

That was the environment I longed for – one in which I would be an integral part of a diverse team, interacting with other smart people whose strengths together were greater than each individually.

I always think of this in terms of singing. One singer can sing beautifully. But when two or more diverse singers come together to perform a song, the energy, the competition, the pure joy of singing lifts the session to a whole new level. Give a listen and a  look at this, a performance of the Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” by the cast of The Sing-Off, and see if you don’t agree.

This I missed, and more—the camaraderie of swapping stories about the weekend, the new baby, the Yankees. Small things, silly things, just the fabric of our lives (with apologies to the Cotton Board).

Because of all this, I began to think more seriously about returning to a corporate environment. Time had marched on: Today, our son is in high school; my husband retired from IBM after 25 years, enrolled in graduate school and is working toward a master’s degree in library science.

And so I began to put my toes, ever so gingerly at first, into the employment pool. Eventually, I threw myself into the deep end. And over time, as life sometimes allows, I became a regular Esther Williams or, to be more contemporary, a Dara Torres.

Torres, you’ll recall, is a nine-time Olympic gold medalist who became, at age 41, the oldest swimmer ever to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team. She competed and won silver at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

Next time, more about taking laps in the employment pool, toweling off and receiving the ulitmate prize.

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