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