Free agents and the future of work

Today I don’t blink when clients or friends tell me they aren’t after the traditional employer-employee workplace arrangement. For many, the idea of working a 9-5 job, 40+ hours per week for a single employer sounds stifling. This wasn’t the case even 20 years ago. What happened?

Recently, the idea of being a “free agent” has gone mainstream. Articles vetting this idea are popping up in newspapers and magazines more and more (See the Star Tribune’s “Millennials thinking outside the cubicle”).

My first clear exposure to the idea that traditional employer-employee relationships might be shifting happened in 2012 in Salt Lake City.

I was at a conference for career services people and attended a session where we talked about how career professionals should advise students who are seeking out commission-only work, contract-based assignments, or who want to work seasonally or in part-time positions to accommodate other interests and goals.

This requires letting go of my own biases and getting in touch with shifts in how people and organizations think about work so I can help clients apply that information as they evaluate their own options.

Here is my list of the top 4 forces that I believe are fueling this trend:

1. The millenial generation

  • Millenials, those born approximately 1982 to the early 2000s, grew up in volatile times.
  • For many, 9/11 was a generation-defining moment.
  • While sometimes called “Generation Me”, they do exude a drive and passion for making the world a better place. For many, this fuels more passion for social entrepreneurship than entering the established “race to the top.”
  • They have grown up in a time when national student loan debt surpassed $1 trillion, outpacing consumer loan debt in the U.S.
  • The Great Recession necessitated that many of these young professionals take up a “portfolio” of work when their ideal jobs were scarce.

2. The rise of technology, the share economy, and rapid innovation

  • The online horizon is long, with ample opportunities for contributing via blogs, creating your own website, and creating a digital identity and brand.
  • Accessing markets for products and services is easier with the help of the web.
  • Online payment systems like the Square credit card swipe tool
  • The growing share economy makes it easier to both outsource tasks to others or make money on the side to fuel your passions (think Task Rabbit or Uber).

3. The minimalist movement

  • The simple living movements are gaining momentum as a growing number of people choose to “opt out” of the ideal of a large house and enough cars for each driver.
  • Entire shows are popping up featuring “tiny house enthusiasts” who desire to minimize expenses and maximize experience by choosing to live in homes 1,000 square feet or less, many under 500 square feet.

4. Infrastructure to support the “free agent”

  • It isn’t so lonely to go it alone. You can now join a co-working organization and pay membership dues to share office space and amenities previously only available in larger corporations.
  • Online groups help people connect and find one another for networking, brainstorming, and ongoing professional development.
  • Free online course sites, like Coursera, help people find new training and build new skills in an on-demand format.
  • Unions are even forming for freelancers.
  • Finally, health care reform means many Americans are beginning to feel safer uncoupling themselves from their employer-sponsored health care plans that may have previously kept them in gigs that were less than ideal.

What are your thoughts? Are you a “free agent” now or is it your goal? Do you worry about the risk of unstrapping yourself from the perceived security of a large employer?  What technology, tools, or services have made it easier for you to go it alone? What has surprised you in the process?


Fear + decisions

“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”
― Michelle Obama

One short little sentence, but such a profound insight. This quote resonates with me today because recently I have been leading several workshops that engage students and professionals in reflection on decision-making in their lives. Our conversations about decisions always end up with some time talking about fear and the very real struggle we experience trying to muster the courage to move beyond fear to make sound choices.

What are your biggest challenges to making effective choices? Does fear catch you by surprise or show up in your self-talk more often than not? How have you learned to trust your fear instincts to stay safe when the situation warrants, but be flexible in overcoming fears when they simply represent limiting beliefs? What grounds you in these chaotic moments?

Holding attention: Can the charming little tomato timer help me maintain focus on my purpose?

Like so many people, my mind wanders easily and my days get chopped up into fragments of time. The days begin filled with alternating blocks of appointments and work time, and then are peppered with impromptu interruptions from colleagues and clients. The work time never feels like it is enough, and perhaps it isn’t, but I must manage.

Photo by Sonja Langford, via

Photo by Sonja Langford, via

I have all the ideas and intention right there! Ready to go!  Until I find that yet another day slips away and poof! My potential for the day has no where to go. All that ambition and energy and anxiety is bottled up inside, packed in a bit more tightly as these days stack up.

It is challenging to feel connected to one’s sense of purpose when we are frazzled like this, but I recently played around with integrating a mix of using the pomodoro technique with meditation and found I got a lot done and felt better.

Here is how it went…

As happens at the New Year, I am a bit more reflective as I try to figure out what I can do to enhance my contributions and satisfaction in the year ahead. I had been thinking about how my goals and time interact, and finding myself reminded that how that dynamic shakes out has a major impact on my well-being.

My sense of hopefulness about my work and life, and my ability to come home at the end of the day and feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment for what I was able to contribute to the day vary greatly depending on how spacious the day felt.

So I wondered, how could I “fake” a feeling of more spaciousness in my day?

Pomodoro to the rescue!

Many times I have heard productivity folks talk about “the pomodoro technique” and I always thought it sounded charming. A darling little tomato timer is all it takes to have clarity and find productivity? How cute.

So I tried it a couple afternoons this week, paired with very brief “mindfulness moments”, I will call them, and it was promising.

The pomodoro technique, according to Wikipedia, is a time management approach developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. To give it a try – simply set a timer for 25 minutes and have a short break of maybe 5 minutes in between sets. There are several apps you can download, but the ones I tried were clumsy so I used this free tomato timer website.

I tried this for 2-3 hour blocks of time on a couple of occasions when I felt terribly crunched for time and I found it helpful. I was certainly better able to maintain my focus for the 25 minutes. It also helped me increase my focus on the task at hand. The freedom of knowing the timer was there helped me to let go of all the other tasks awaiting me and really attend to this one task that I selected to work on during that time block.

I also enjoyed the breaks. Five minute can quickly turn into 30 if you aren’t careful when taking breaks to check social media, news, or look at email. It helped to have a timer for those breaks as well. The limited time also helped me to be more purposeful with my breaks. I got up to fill my water and walk around much more, and when a colleague started talking I had a real reason for saying, “I’ve actually gotta run and get back to something…” because my timer was running.

A cool addition I made to the experiment was using the Calm app for some of my five minute breaks. In this way I integrated mindfulness moments into the productive sessions too. I could feel the stress levels decrease with this, and I suspect this freed up my mind to really focus when it was time to start up another 25-minute work session.

Perhaps the best result I found is that at the end of the day I could leave work feeling like I really did what was reasonable to expect I could do given the time that I had available. I made small but steady progress on things that I prioritized to be most essential for the day. Leaving work I felt more lightness and ease as compared to other days when I am more drained, frustrated, or over-stimulated by information overload.

The freedom to let go of what did not get done, while also feeling heartened by the progress I made on things that reall mattered to me was a refreshing way to end my day.

Give it a try, and if you do, let me know how it goes!

I am eager to hear how you find the integration of the cute little tomato timer concept with a quick meditative break. Is it helpful? Do you feel lighter at the end of the day? Could you hold your focus more comfortably? What new ideas did you come up with to enhance this time management frame work even further?

$62,998… would you major in STEM for this starting salary?

Yesterday, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), released their January 2015 Salary Survey report, which showed that engineering majors are expected to be the highest paid graduates for bachelor’s degree students graduating this year.

That number in the headline? The average starting salary of new engineers, according to NACE.

If you knew that in your first year out of college you could make that kind of money, would you major in engineering?

Maybe, but maybe not – and it’s a shame.

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey - see

NACE chart on top salaries from January 2015 Salary Survey – see

What’s STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. Salaries are high for these students right along with the demand for new STEM grads.

Here in the U.S. there is a significant shortage of STEM professionals. Some debate how significant the needs really is, but I can attest from personal experience that my husband, who is an engineer, is contacted frequently by recruiters and headhunters.

So how great is the need? Around this time last year Ira Sager explains in an article he wrote on the topic (“With a shortage of STEM graduates, Accenture hopes to grab them early“)  that I found on In the article, Sager quickly summarizes the situation:

Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade. … Currently the United States graduates about 300,000 bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields annually. Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.” — quoting “a 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology”

So the number of new STEM professionals we need isn’t 50,000 or 100,000 people. We are talking about huge numbers of professionals when we start throwing around the word “million.”

Recently I have been talking with colleagues and friends about the reasons people do not pursue careers in STEM fields. Clearly money isn’t everything. In our conversation two myths stood out to us as potential reasons why people avoid STEM:  

1. STEM seems too hard. 

In my career consulting work I see how quickly students foreclose options that require math and science. It is such a shame. True, math and science ability is necessary for these fields but I believe many more students could persist through the required coursework with appropriate tutoring and support. What happens to a student in elementary and middle school sets the stage for their confidence in math and science and their concrete skills in these areas.

Since having greater exposure to friends in STEM fields I question whether I was too quick to foreclose these paths for myself. False beliefs can be one of the biggest challenges to student decision-making about major and career. I think this was certainly the case for me. I had a false belief that I wasn’t smart enough to hack it in math and science and I probably created my own self-fulfilling prophecy.

I may be right. In his great book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough, explains the impact mindset can have on performance when he highlights the findings of Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, who found that people have one of two types of mindsets – “those who have a fixed mindset, who believe that intelligence and other skills are essentially static and inborn, and those who have a growth mindset, who believe that intelligence can be improved.” She also found that those who think they can improve their intelligence actually do improve their grades (Tough, p. 97).

Maybe my mindset was too fixed.

2. STEM seems a bit boring. 

I can tell you right now this is not the case. Growing up I craved a career where I could help people and be creative. I never guessed a career in math or in technology could get me there. But I know understand the world differently at my age than I did at 16 or 21.

For me, it is true that my math and science classes were a bit boring. The concepts seemed abstract and the work seemed futile. I couldn’t understand how I could apply my learning to real-life situations that were relevant to people – the people I cared so deeply about. Engineers I talk with often say that the coursework you have to complete in engineering majors is surprisingly different from what it is actually like to be an engineer.

In engineering, you go to meetings with people, you may get in a lab or go out to do a visit on a project site, and you spend a good deal of time trying to think creatively and solve complex problems that impact people. Much more creative, enterprising, and connected work than I would have guessed… and anything but boring.

Still, what could change in math and science education that would expand the concepts beyond the calculations and help demonstrate, earlier on for students, the ways in which these concepts can be powerful tools to create amazing change in our world? Linking the sometimes tedious work of math or science to the big picture could be a big help for students on the margins.

Where to go from here? 

The significant demand for new STEM professionals is a national issue that needs greater attention. I understand that not every student will be interested in majoring in STEM. However, if fewer than 40% who are interested and start as STEM majors finish, more must be done to help these students find the academic and co-curricular support to thrive. We also must do a better job making it inviting for more students in to these fields.

As a career coach and higher education professional, I feel a responsibility to at least explore a bit with my students to see if they may be open to STEM, to challenge false assumptions students hold that may be barriers to them finding success and happiness in these fields, and to raise awareness about the realities of the occupations so many of us are quick to dismiss. I won’t try to steer students towards majors in math or science over art or history, but I will try to create space for the student to hold these STEM fields in their minds as possibilities for as long as is possible before they move along.

What are your thoughts about STEM? What assumptions do you have about the need for more STEM professionals in our country? Looking back at your younger self, would majors in science, technology, engineering, or math excited you? Why or why not? What can we do in higher education and in the K-12 system to make these possibilities more inviting to a greater and more diverse range of students in the coming years? 

Don’t be the one to get in your own way

“Life throws enough obstacles your way – don’t be the one to get in your own way.” These are the wise words that came from my mouth today when I was presenting a workshop for first-year college students seeking support selecting a college major.

It is good advice. In both my personal life and my professional experience I see this over and over again. Life is challenging, and significant obstacles will come our way regardless of the steps we put in place to control for them. Illness finds you, a car accident happens, or someone you love dies unexpectedly. Everything is shaken.

What surprises me – and maybe it shouldn’t – is how often we are the ones to get in our own way. We are on track to apply to graduate school until we suddenly decide we can’t hack it and we never submit our finished application. We worry that studying abroad will be too expensive and so we never explore the option (my biggest regret from college!).

Or sometimes it isn’t a big thing that blocks us from our own happiness. Sometimes little thoughts here and there add up to have a collective impact on our mindset in big ways. I’m not good enough, smart enough – who am I to think I could do that anyway?? And then we quit or, potentially worse, feel really shameful about ourselves for a long time.

(For more on shame – check out the brilliant Brene Brown, who writes and speaks beautifully on this topic. To me – shame is the “nasty ick” feeling that lingers and makes me want to shrivel into myself… but you may have other ways of describing how shame shows up in your life).

So, here it is… New Years time.

My resolutions this year are something like:

1. Try to take to heart my mother’s sage wisdom: “be gentle to yourself” and my 99 year-old grandmother’s frequent wisdom: “be cheerful, be kind.”

2. Don’t be the thing that gets in my own way.

I like to think #1 sets the backdrop for #2, which will be really tough. Good news though! I’ve already been working on it personally, and am practicing more mindful attention to this phenomenon when this comes up for my clients. Each time a client is struggling under their own self-created barriers it can be a chance for me to not only help them see things differently, but it can also be a good reminder to me that I am on that same journey right alongside them.

The first step is in noticing what is going on. Clearly seeing the self-talk or story you are creating for yourself that is detrimental to your goals. So often we aren’t even aware we are putting up our own walls and challenges for ourselves.

In my experience I have seen how incredibly hard it is for us to stop our little minds from thinking pesky thoughts. Thoughts like, “I’ll never be able to succeed in that career anyway – how could I have been so dumb to consider the possibility anyway? I’m such a failure.” These thoughts come our way even when we set resolutions to “not get in our own way”!

The practice for this New Year, is to lean into the pesky thought more deeply. Hold it and really feel how yucky it feels. That’s no fun, but I promise, it is important. Then, push back with a little affirming self-talk: Yes, I know I may feel afraid to try, and I may doubt myself, but I am a good person and a hard worker and if this is a career I really want I need to find a way to keep moving forward even though I feel scared right now

You aren’t somehow magically “not afraid”. You don’t wake up one day this year feeling like the dynamo you always hoped you would be. But each time your self-doubt or self-sabotaging behaviors rear their ugly heads in your world, you pause to acknowledge them, lean into them, and then just do your very best to detach yourself from them – remembering that at your core you are gifted and have contributions our world needs very much and we have to parse out that pesky thinking to get along with the life you are meant to live.

As I said in the beginning of this post – “Life throws enough obstacles your way – don’t be the one to get in your own way.”  While I’m wise enough to know this is a wise statement, along with so many of you this year, I am hoping to spend this New Year taking this wisdom to heart so I can get out of my own way just a little bit more.

Wishing you all bright things for the New Year!