Podcast: Working for Progress

I was interviewed by social entrepreneur, Dani Trudeau, on Working for Progress, a podcast that connects us all through conversations about how we craft our working lives and make progress for ourselves and others.

In this episode, I talk about my personal struggles and growth in searching for my place in the world over the last 25 years, as I globetrotted and career-hopped under the taunts of a fierce inner critic until I finally started learning how to live in harmony with myself – to like myself, in fact.

We talk about:

  • living and working in alignment with what matters to us
  • anxiety and depression in conforming and performing
  • taking risks and knowing when to quit
  • decoupling self-value from achievement
  • awe, human connection and being yourself
  • stepping out of the fast lane
  • doing our best for others by taking care of ourselves

I felt like I’d leapt off a cliff…It was painful and scary and uncomfortable, which sounds like I’m saying don’t do it. In retrospect though, that was the career path. I started to gleefully leap off, as I realised it wasn’t an abyss.

Have a listen to the 30 minute episode here:

Photo by Weaver Ignrvr on Unsplash

Be You

Why is it so important to feel like we’re doing what’s truly in line with ourselves?

Because doing so makes us feel incredible and leads us to perform at our best.

To live life well, Aristotle said we must “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us”. In other words, we live our lives at their best when we live in line with our strengths.

Why does using our strengths matter so much? According to strengths researcher and psychologist Dr Alex Linley, the answer’s really quite simple.

When we use our innate capacities, we feel authentic – like we are being our truest selves – and that influences our sense of fulfillment. It also energises us. Like a car alternator, using our strengths actually tops up our batteries.

Linley’s research found that when people use their strengths they have higher levels of vitality and a greater zest for life. They also don’t burnout, unlike when we’re working hard without tapping our key capabilities.

Such fulfillment and energy leads us to perform at our best. We’re at the top of our psychological functioning, feeling more alive, engaged and in flow. We learn better, because it’s easier to put down neural pathways where they already exist than to forge new ones. Naturally then, we also perform better.

The beauty of fully using our strengths is that doing so is actually the path of least resistance to reach our greatest potential.

Realising Strengths

It’s exciting to recognise the win-win nature of using our strengths. Of course, we must first know what they are, and there’s a good scientific reason for that. In his illuminating book, Average to A+, Linley asks us to run an experiment. Look at these words and notice how you feel:


Now notice how you feel when you read these words:


You probably feel somehow reduced by the first line of words, but elevated by the second. Words have a powerful impact on the way we feel, which in turn affects our thoughts and actions.

The power of such labelling is well known in psychology. When we label something, we pay it attention and treat it as real (good or bad). That’s why we need to identify our strengths so that we keep them in the forefront of our minds. Then we can really harness them. As Linley says,

“Without the capacity to describe them, it is easy for our strengths to fall between the cracks of our existence, becoming lost and forgotten rather than identified, nurtured, celebrated, and fully realised”.

When we realise our strengths – as in, identify them and fully understand them – we can then also ‘realise’ them in the sense of bringing them fully into being.

There is another good reason to identify our strengths:

“When someone has a strength, and we reflect it back to them, they have a eureka moment of realisation and recognition. They feel understood, validated, and valued. They feel appreciated for who they really are”.

So then, what are your core strengths? To find out, try the renowned Clifton Strengths Finder test or the free Via Survey. My personal favourite though is Linley’s Strengths Profile.


Linley, A. (2008) Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. CAPP Press: Coventry.

The Good Life Alternative to Achievement

Forget Goals and Sacrifice!

I rather hate the concept of ‘achieving goals’.

To me it smacks of grit, of grinning and bearing it, of suffering through. That sounds a lot like what Buddhists call craving (tanhā), said to be an origin of suffering (samudāya).

How many times have you set some lofty goal or expectation, imagining that it will bring you fulfilment, only to discover you’ve over-stretched and/or the end result is not all it’s cracked up to be?

Yes, intense focus on accomplishing a remarkable feat can take remarkable effort and determination. But, really, what are the trade-offs?

The gain=sacrifice mentality is a punishing race through life that doesn’t stop to appreciate the intrinsic magic and beauty of life itself. We’re not here that long; it’s a shame to waste it.

As Lennon said, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.

Flexible Future Focus

So, does that mean we’d be better off abandoning all future aims?

While there might be some persuasive philosophical arguments for that, all things considered, psychologists argue we do need things to look forward to and to give us a sense of direction.

The key is not to pin all hope of happiness and fulfilment on ‘if’ (i.e. if I achieve this, that or the other, life will be better).

Instead, we need to learn how to find joy, meaning and satisfaction in the process by cultivating a flexible future focus.

With that in mind then, here’s our advice (after 25 years of sometimes getting it so wrong and just enough times getting it so right…):

12 Tips to Achieve Goals… the Good Life Way

  1. Ditch the dogma and instead cultivate a ‘flexible future focus’ on where you want to go in life.
  2. Set a focus that matters to you or excites you.
  3. Choose a focus that is something positive you want to reach for, not something negative you want to avoid.
  4. Begin any journey with a single, tiny, first step. Then take another. And another. And another.
  5. When you find gaps, plug them – upskill, seek advice, outsource, trade, collaborate.
  6. Don’t expect it to go without a hitch; be agile in changing tactics when you hit road-bumps and obstacles, and accept that you may well adjust the goals themselves. All goals are provisional, and the process is iterative not linear (remember John Lennon!).
  7. Celebrate successes, even small ones. Even if it’s just a fist-pump to yourself.
  8. When you feel like a failure, remind yourself of all that you can do and everything you have done well.
  9. Take it slow – when you’re sprinting, you’ve no time, space or energy for the magic of serendipity or your own creative and unconscious alchemy to ferment.
  10. Don’t go it alone, no matter what it is.
  11. Be forgiving of yourself – none of us lives long enough to be anything but a beginner.
  12. Forget what they tell you about the necessity of ‘grit’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘achievement’. That’s ego talking. What does your soul need to come alive? Those are the only ‘goals’ we’ll ever feel are worth pursuing.


Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Free Press: New York.

Tolle, E. (2004) The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library: Novato.

Wright, R. (2018) Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon & Schuster Publishing: New York.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

Podcast: Find the Right Way to Work for YOU

In August 2019, I had the pleasure of chatting with my friend, Stephen Warley, on his brilliant podcast Life Skills That Matter about crafting work that’s fulfilling, balanced and quintessentially ‘you’.

We talked about how stressed and unhappy I’d got after nearly five years running my first business and what that taught me about my own strengths, preferences and need to do things differently.

We spend so much of our lives doing what we think we should do. Realising that it’s not external reality but our deep-seated beliefs that keep us slogging away was a revelation for me and has massively influenced the way I work now.

Have a listen to the podcast (30 minute listen) or skim the show notes if you’re interested in knowing more about finding the right way to work for you.

Do What You Love

Know Thy Strengths

It’s not a question of becoming, it’s a question of uncovering what you already are, of letting yourself be yourself. Of letting everything that is not yourself fall away

Zen Buddhist belief

Each of us has a unique portfolio of innate strengths.

These are the things we look forward to, that we feel most ‘ourselves’ doing, that we’re energised by and lose a sense of time in, and that we sometimes find so natural we don’t even recognise them as talents.

Unfortunately, because of an innate negativity bias, our radars are set to notice our weaknesses, often leaving our strengths under-engaged and under-developed.

This bias is embedded everywhere in our culture. For instance, consider why it is that an appraisal at work quite often focuses on what areas we need to improve. Why doesn’t it identify what we do well and explore ways to apply and boost these aptitudes?

You might be thinking, but that makes sense – we need to get better for progress to be made. The problem, though, is that fixing weaknesses is an endless uphill battle. You’re always on the back foot, and the best you can usually hope for is mediocre outcomes.

Enhancing people’s strengths, however, is the path of least resistance to excellence – not just for the individual, but for the organisations and societies we operate in.

Bear in mind that something you struggle with or find a drudgery is someone else’s favourite activity.

When we each operate in alignment with our strengths, everything still gets done but to a higher standard and with less stress and far more enjoyment!

Labelling Strengths

Words have a powerful impact on the way we feel and think. When we label something, we pay it attention which brings it into the foreground of our lives. That’s why we need to identify our strengths. As psychologist Dr Alex Linley says:

Without the capacity to describe them, it is easy for our strengths to fall between the cracks of our existence, becoming lost and forgotten rather than identified, nurtured, celebrated, and fully realised”.

Consider how you feel when you read these words:


How about when you read the following?


Words have an enormous effect on the way we feel, which in turn impacts on our thoughts, beliefs and actions. Despite what your parents and teachers may have told you about playground teasing, words do matter.

Strengths, Flow and Happiness

Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” – Confucius.

When we are using our highest capabilities, we often enter a state of ‘flow’. Flow is the experience of being so fully engaged in what we are doing that we don’t notice the world around us or time passing. We are ‘in the zone’.

The experience of flow is strongly linked to wellbeing and life-satisfaction. For the sake of our health and happiness, we need to be using our strengths regularly and experiencing flow.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013) Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. Ebury Publishing: London.

Linley, A. (2008) Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. CAPP Press: Coventry.

Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Free Press: New York.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

For the Love of Coworking

This post was written in 2018 for my beloved coworking community, Tribe Porty in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Why is it that coworking at Tribe is so very pleasant?

It’s because we’re all a bit in love with each other…

I’m not talking about secret trysts and unrequited infatuation; it’s what psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson calls ‘positivity resonance’. AKA, love.

Every time we fully engage with people, whenever we feel we’ve clicked with someone, and all those moments we share a feeling of mutual connection, it’s love, says Fredrickson.

Seen in this way, love isn’t some rare, lofty state, enjoyed only when all the stars align and feelings are intense between two (or a select number of) people.

Instead, love is experienced in the micro-moments of real-time connection we can get all around us. In other words, when we resonate with people in person, anytime, anywhere, we get a dose of love.

It happens when you smile at the driver giving way and they smile back. It’s when you stop for a chat about your dogs with a stranger on the beach. It’s when you’re actually present with the people you spend time with (rather than checking your phone or worrying about your to-do list).

At Tribe Porty, love abounds when someone offers you a cup of tea, you share a joke across the hotdesk, or you grab a bite with whoever’s in reception!

The thought of this might be making you feel warm and fuzzy, but what’ll blow your socks off is the impact positivity resonance has on our brains and long-term health and wellbeing!

Each of those momentary experiences of connection deepen the bond and commitment between people because we become biosynchronous; that is, our neuronal emotional responses literally mimic each other. We genuinely feel with the other person, because our neurons fire and neurotransmitters release in synchrony with them.

Isn’t that lovely?

What’s more, micro-moments of connection optimise the functioning of the vagus nerve, the link between brain and heart. Doing so steadies heart rate, regulates blood sugar and improves immune response, which are vitally important for the body’s health.

High vagal tones also help us maintain attention and deal with emotions, which together improve our social skills. And since being socially adept means more opportunities for positivity resonance, a virtuous cycle is born!

Next time you’re reaching for a left-over Nairn’s oat cake and your hand brushes a fellow Triber’s so that you both have a giggle, go ahead. Tell them you love them. They’ll get it.

Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

Unhappy at work? Change it!

Is work a means to an end, or a means in itself?

While the answer to that question might depend on a whole slew of factors, in the end it’s those who see work as a calling that have a much better time of it.

According to Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor in Organisational Psychology at Yale University, people who are passionate about their vocation are much more engaged, productive and satisfied. Importantly, it’s not necessarily the job itself that matters, it’s how you look at it.


In a pivotal study, Wrzesniewski et al found that people conceptualise work in three different ways: JobsCareers or Callings. For some, work is a mere necessity to earn a crust – it’s just a job. For others, work is a career that enables advancement and the opportunity for prestige. For one particular group though, work is meaningful and rewarding in itself; it is a source of considerable enjoyment, identity and contribution. For these people, work is a calling.

That’s nice. But getting to do fulfilling work might seem like a pipe dream to many. Does it have to be though?

Job Crafting

In an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks about a study conducted with hospital cleaning staff. While some staff outlined their roles in terms of the job descriptions, others said they were ‘ambassadors for the hospital’ or even ‘healers’. These staff altered the work they did so that it was more meaningful, an act termed ‘job crafting‘. That is, unofficially redesigning work to increase engagement and satisfaction, leading to resilience and flourishing.

Such job crafting sometimes jeopardised the cleaners’ contracts, like when they visited patients they thought were lonely, or stewarded elderly visitors to the exit so the patients wouldn’t worry about them getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors. One woman even switched the pictures around on coma patients’ walls, hoping that the change in stimulation would aid their recovery.


The same principles of job crafting are implicit in ‘intrapreneurship‘. When our work starts feeling stale, instead of leaving we can try carving out a role that fits better within the current organisation.

Can you pilot a new project, train up in an emerging skill, or take/trade responsibility for a growth area? Doing so, you become the go-to person for that specialism, and you’ll have re-written your own job description. You also gain the recognition (and ideally the remuneration) to boot, not to mention marketable experience to ease the way for future career changes.

Career Pivot

When we’ve got the gusto and are in the position to make a career overhaul, incredible things can happen. I’ve got a hunch that a lot more people out there could be blowing their own socks off with the work they’re doing.

Career strategist and author, Jenny Blake, uses the term ‘high net growth individuals’ for people who prioritise meaningful work that utilises their strengths and provides ample opportunities for learning and having a positive impact on others. These ‘impactors’ ask three essential questions of their roles: What did I create? What did I learn? What did I contribute?

Blake characterises these people as being allergic to atrophy, entirely unwilling to simply phone it in, to the point that they may get physiological symptoms if stuck in a position that doesn’t allow them to create, grow and make a difference doing something that feels authentic.

Blake points out that radical advances in technology have reinvented the world of work. Change has accelerated, with product life cycles going from 10 years to 10 months or even 10 days. Many roles have been automated, changing the nature of the work we do, and new roles that never before existed have emerged from brand new industries. The project-based economy is on the rise, with workers being helicoptered in to deliver on a single piece of work before moving on to the next gig or working on several projects at once.

Blake’s point? Career change is the new normal, so we’d better get good at it. The subtext is that we’d also best put to use our ‘magic sauce’ – that thing we’re talented in and love doing. In her practical and insightful 2016 book, Pivot, Blake shows why it’s not just acceptable but worthy to want to do wildly enjoyable work.

As researchers like Wrzesniewski are discovering, when we love our work we do it way, way better.

Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

Intolerable Boredom

We underestimate the seriousness of boredom.

We think children are ‘just whining’ when they complain of boredom. Bored adults are ‘lazy’, ‘unimaginative’ or ‘hyperactive’. If generous, we sympathise with the experience of boredom as we would a mild toothache that’ll pass.

Yet boredom is a known threat to wellbeing. Nothing makes that clearer than considering the central role boredom plays in the punishment of prisoners. Locked away, the prisoner suffers the drawn-out malaise of time expanded. As added punishment, they are placed in solitary confinement away from stimulation.

It’s hard to deny the severity of boredom under these conditions, but for many of us, of course, life is not a prison and we can access a plethora of stimuli. For some though, profound boredom pervades.

Boredom proneness

Sherlock Holmes is renowned for his proneness to boredom. When ‘the game is not on’, he is famously drawn to the thrilling escape of narcotics. Holmes is the archetypal hyperactive mind who is chronically understimulated by normal life. Suffering from a so-called low boredom threshold, he is one of two distinctive personality types prone to boredom, says psychologist Professor John Eastwood. The other type finds the world so frightening they retreat, and boredom ensues.

It’s not only these extreme personality types who suffer stultification though. Boredom is a complex phenomenon experienced widely that has only recently gained traction in research (2017 marked the fifth International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference and the seventh Boring Conference). And there’s still little understood about it, as this vague conclusion in Live Science from a 2012 review of research into malaise demonstrates:

“[Boredom is] some combination of an objective lack of neurological excitement and a subjective psychological state of dissatisfaction, frustration or disinterest, all of which result from a lack of stimulation”.

Existential angst

Philosophers and writers, on the other hand, have been debating boredom widely for millennia. Existentialists especially have taken up tedium’s cause for the feelings of meaninglessness and isolation it evokes, such as Kierkegaard in Either/Or and Heidegger in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

While the jury remains out for a full scientific understanding of boredom, what is generally agreed is that it involves decreased motivation, isolation, disconnection, insufficient stimulation and reduced attention, and it arouses deeply unpleasant feelings of existential anxiety. At its core, boredom is a problem of time, attention and meaning. Time stretches out, nothing can occupy us sufficiently, and things feel pointless.

The value of boredom

Yet there are benefits. Ennui has driven human innovation from the dawn of time. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions should be adaptive not destructive, so boredom, while unpleasant, may serve to encourage our curiosity. Professor Heather Lench says boredom “stops us ploughing the same old furrow, and pushes us to try to seek new goals or explore new territories or ideas”. Dr Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire found boredom led to higher performance in tests for creativity, possibly because “tedium encouraged their minds to wander, which leads to more associative and creative ways of thinking”.

Benefits aside, we mustn’t dismiss the experience of boredom as trivial or childish. It’s not just an odd turn of phrase that we say, “bored to death”, “dying of boredom” and “kill time”. The suffering from boredom can be intolerable.

Boredom and depression

Boredom is both a cause and symptom of depression. “Boredom is the average state of melancholia, whereas melancholia is the pathological state of boredom,” said Fromm in The Pathology of Normalcy. When depressed, life loses its colour and the monotony of nothingness can drive a person to utter despair, even oblivion. And when bored, like prisoners deprived of stimulation, a person is vulnerable to the black hole of depression.

Eastwood says that people are more prone to boredom when they feel their lives lack meaning and fulfillment. He found that when research participants were coached to see meaning and purpose in their lives, they were less bored during the tests that followed. Boredom, it seems, is indeed an existential condition.


In their 2007 book, Boreout, Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin write about the dangers of a lack of meaningful work. ‘Boreout’ (in contrast to ‘burnout’) describes the under-stretched worker who is so bored it negatively impacts their productivity and engagement. Management consultancy Sirota Survey Intelligence found in their 2008 study that “being bored has far more serious consequences for an organisation than being overworked”.

Critical theorist and social psychologist Erich Fromm believed boredom to be a response to industrial society in which workers engage in alienated labour. He argued that the thrills and novelty we seek in consumerism are a mere distraction from the tedium induced by this alienation. In our neoliberal, consumerist society, perhaps Oliver Burkeman is on point when he writes, “boredom feels more intolerable, these days, because there’s so much stimulation to be had”.

In 2016, French perfume executive Frédérik Desnard sued his employers for €360,000 for ‘boring him’ out of his €80,000 per year job. Indeed, Mann says boredom can have “severe” consequences, leading to stress, depression and risky habits that can ultimately shorten life expectancy. Yet boreout is not a recognised psychological condition.

In a BBC interview, Natasha Stanley, head coach at Careershifters in London, compares the “insidious creep” of boredom that leads workers to question “what the point of their life is” to the proverbial boiling frog. Drop a frog in boiling water and it’ll hop out. Put it in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat and it’ll boil to death without noticing.

Beware the rising temperature…

Further reading:

Sandi Mann, The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good

Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Just an unfocused, entitled millennial?

Millennials get a bad rap. In an interview that went viral on social media, author Simon Sinek gives an unforgiving indictment of millennials, saying managers struggle to manage them because they are unfocused and entitled. He laments their belief that they can do anything in life, saying that they demand work that makes an impact and has purpose but quit as soon as the fire splutters.

Sinek’s sentiments have been echoed again and again in the public discourse: it is not okay to burn strong and fast then stop, you have to stay the distance. Aside from the fact that Sinek probably overstates the ‘millennials problem’ (sounds like the usual young people today hyperbole), he reveals a common prejudice towards a certain section of society. Not millennials. Scanners.

Scanners & divers

A ‘scanner’ is a term coined by author and career coach, Barbara Sher, who categorises people as either scanners or divers. Divers like to get deep into what they do, and they stay the distance because they’re built to. They’re the specialists. Scanners, on the other hand, prefer to alight briefly before moving on to the next project. They love new ideas and challenges, and are driven by a passion for learning, so when they’ve got what they came for they leave. Scanners are generalists (or polymaths, or Renaissance Men and Women).

The problem is, there’s a deep-seated distaste for scanners embedded in the cultural psyche. No less so than in many scanners themselves, who often feel ashamed of their polymathic leanings and try to bury them and conform to diver behaviour. This becomes clear when reading Sher’s list of scanner statements in her 2007 book, Refuse to Choose!:

“I can never stick to anything.”

“I know I should focus on one thing, but which one?”

“I lose interest in things I thought would interest me forever.”

“I get bored as soon as I know how to do something.”

“I can’t stand to do anything twice.”

“I keep changing my mind about what I want to do and end up doing nothing.”

“I work at low-paying jobs because there’s nothing I’m willing to commit to.”

“I won’t choose a career path because it might be the wrong one.”

“I can’t pay attention unless I’m doing many things at once.”

Scanner guilt

Sher says scanners are taught they’re “doing something wrong and must try to change”. In her compelling TED talk, Emilie Wapnick explains how scanners (she calls them multipotentialites) learn to feel flawed because society expects them to choose one path. She argues that ‘destiny’, ‘purpose’ and our ‘one true calling’ are “highly romanticised in our culture”, so that people with multiple interests that wax and wane are left feeling abnormal.

Wapnick points out that the question, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, keeps kids up at night worrying about the answer, but “it does not inspire them to dream about all that they could be”. As Sinek’s comments show, imagining you can be anything – or everything – is seen as a problem.

Scanners at work

The thing is, there’s not only room for both divers and scanners, but also the need for both. In the workplace, divers and scanners live symbiotically, balancing each other out and together creating enviable results. Any project needs someone with the fire to start it and someone else with the focus to finish it. That’s the point of team work. And every field benefits from the pairing of someone with a broad overview and multidisciplinary background with someone with specific, expert knowledge. Yet, do a Google search for ‘starters and finishers’ and you’ll get a disproportionate number of articles telling us how to get better at finishing.

Despite the residual prejudice, there is an increasing call for generalists in the workplace. Changes in the economic climate mean that specialist roles are becoming more generalist. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Vikram Mansharamani says it’s generalists – with their varied experience – that our global and connected economy requires. He cites robust evidence that generalists are better at predicting outcomes in the face of uncertainty because of their breadth of perspective. “The specialist era is waning”, says Mansharamani.

And with the explosion of AI and machine learning, and, with it, the looming automation of our jobs, who do you think is best adapted to survive the cull?

Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, in a recent Guardian article says that the safest jobs are those involving considerable creativity and building complex relationships. Two things generalists often do best. What’s more, experts advise us to diversify our careers and deploy multiple talents in order to stay employable. Sounds like a scanner’s dream! “We’ll all have seven or eight jobs, with the average adult working for a number of companies simultaneously”, predicts Futurist Faith Popcorn.

The coming era of scanners

Wapnick says multipotentialites have three strengths: idea synthesis, rapid learning, and adaptability. These are highly desirable in this time of massive economic change and ambiguity. Those who can pivot in the direction of market needs stand the greatest chance of surviving and thriving.

“As a society, we have a vested interest in encouraging multipotentialites to be themselves. We have a lot of complex, multidimensional problems in the world right now, and we need creative, out-of-the-box thinkers to tackle them,” says Wapnick.

So, Simon Sinek, perhaps your unfocused and entitled millennials are, in fact, the newly adapted generation for the future. And maybe all the scanners out there with hang-ups about their allergy to single-minded focus are coming into their own.

Freelance Revolution

What should I be doing with my life?

It’s the school leaver’s question, the quarter- and mid-life crisis question, and possibly the question you ask most days. But what the hell is the answer?!

Some lucky folk find their way into just the right kind of career for them, and any dips in enthusiasm along the way are remedied by a change here and a promotion there. Life and work apparently glide together in contented equilibrium.

I don’t know many of those people.

For most, it seems, work is ‘good enough’ and it’s the extra-curricular that generates most life satisfaction. There’s a lot to be said for this; work puts dinner on the table and enables a lifestyle that has the potential for genuine satisfaction.

But for some people, ‘good enough’ work is not, well, good enough. They want work to be incredible.

Out there right now is a whole universe of highly motivated and capable individuals who want to wake up excited for the day ahead and to feel that they are doing the best with their talents. As the adage goes, we spend at least a third of our lives at work so we’d better enjoy it.

Jumping out of bed

How can we be satisfied at work? Dan Pink, career analyst and author of Drive and Free Agent Nation, says work satisfaction comes from having autonomy, mastery and meaning:

1. Autonomy – the desire for self-direction.

2. Mastery — the urge to get better at something.

3. Purpose — the yearning to do something meaningful that has an impact.

Pink gives the example of open-source software, such as Linux, to illustrate people’s willingness to create exceptional work with no financial benefit to themselves. He also describes how software company Atlassian gives its developers a day every quarter to do whatever they want, no holds barred. It’s a fun 24 hours, with beer and food in a relaxed environment, and the innovation it yields is outstanding.

Google used to do something similar when they encouraged employees to take on ‘20% projects‘ where they could work on anything they wanted of potential benefit to Google for 20% of their working week. Gmail was the offspring of one such passion project.

It’s clear from these examples that it’s possible to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose with the right employer. Especially, perhaps, in workplaces that adopt a ‘results only work environment’ (ROWE), where employees have no fixed hours and are instead measured on output.

Increasingly though, plucky workers are setting out on their own. There has been a revolution in recent years with the rise of the gig economy – that is, freelancers contracted by organisations for short engagements (aka ‘gigs’).


Gigging often gets a bad rap in the press, with companies like DPD, Deliveroo and Uber accused of exploiting independent workers because contracting rather than employing them means they get no benefits or protection.

On the flip side though, freelancing for many – white collar workers especially – can be lucrative, and the flexibility and opportunity appealing.

“Critics might argue that self-employment equates to exploitative working practices. However, this is an archaic view of what is becoming a revolutionary form of business… Instead of working 9-to-5 for a single employer, they are leveraging their advantages to make earning money more relaxed and enjoyable,” says David Shadpour in Forbes.

Remarkable advancements in technology have enabled freelancing, breaking down traditional barriers to getting work. With cloud-based platforms proliferating, global freelancers can get hired wherever they are. Busy parents, including so-called ‘mompreneurs‘, can piggyback on technologies that enable home-working on their own timetable. Solopreneurs (solo business owners) and side hustlers (those who freelance alongside other full-time work) have the digital tools they need to do their thing.

Often overlooked are the cultural barriers that freelancing can sidestep. According to the Financial Times,

“for women [in the Muslim world], in particular, the gig economy is liberating. It provides an unprecedented opportunity to bypass cultural constraints on their time and mobility”.

Most appealing to many, though, is that you can carve out a niche to fit you like a glove. For the restless, pioneering types who eschew convention and the constraints of a single specialism, being an independent worker can mean forging a very individual career path. The so-called ‘protean career‘ allows workers to work in line with their character, aims and values, prioritising self-fulfillment above other measures of success.


For organisations, the advantages of contracting talent – even white collar contractors who are paid more than full-time employees – are lower overheads, faster turnaround and the benefits of a motivated freelancer’s targeted efforts.

If Pink’s right about the motivating force of autonomy, mastery and purpose – and he certainly seems to have disrupted popular carrot-and-stick ideas of motivation (not that he’s without critics – see this analysis) – then freelancers have the potential to be highly productive. It’s win-win for workers and organisations.

As organisations and workers adapt to technological, economic and social changes, the nature of ‘working’ is set to evolve. According to a recent BBC article, online freelance marketplace PeoplePerHour predicts that 50% of UK and US workers will be going it alone by 2020.

If you’re thinking of going freelance then, it looks like you’ll have company.

Further Reading:

Read more about the protean career on the British Psychological Society website and in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.