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?

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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?

Envisioning possibilities is hard

TessVigeland_FromAOLStory

‘No, no, Tess – go read “What Color Is Your Parachute!” Watch some TED Talks about finding your passion! Go take a class that you’ve always wanted to take!

Great advice… But inside my head – I was paralyzed. Getting your brain to really, really open up to all the possibilities – it’s so much harder than I ever imagined.”

-from Tess Vigeland‘s 2013 World Domination Summit talk, “What the Hell Are You Doing?!”, here in print or audio.

This afternoon I found Tess Vigeland’s familiar voice coming through my speakers while I was working on some planning tasks. Here was a professional with public radio superpowers, and she was talking about her own struggle making sense of her decision to leave Marketplace. Incredible.

Too often I think we assume there are two camps of people – those who have it together and are on a path, and those who are lost. In reality I think most of us are somewhere in between. We are broken, afraid, and struggling to find signs to reassure us that we will be okay. Career transitions are painful, even when they are fruitful. They leave their marks on us, challenging our confidence and assumptions we have about who we are and the world we live within.

When we are looking for work or trying to decide if we should make a change our dear family and friends who love us will just encourage us to open up and dream, as if we haven’t tried to do this. Yet when we are stressed by job changes and questioning whether we will be okay, it is very difficult for the mind to open up to creatively envisioning a multitude of possibilities for us.

While it is hard to dream in times of distress, stretching yourself to stay open and think big is essential for finding our way to what is next for us.

Next time you find yourself in that place, consider these three thoughts:

1. Know that you alone are enough. You are perfect and you and the gifts you bring are very much needed in the world.

2. Take heart in knowing you are not alone. Even Tess Vigeland feels overwhelmed by these major transitions!

3. Apply equal parts reflection, rest, and forward progress. When we are in the midst of chaos it can be tempting to push harder to work towards the certainty that we crave and yet these transitions require space and time to breathe in new life, energy and possibility.

Give yourself space to notice the uncomfortable or distressing feelings you are experiencing and try to decipher any meaning or lessons therein (I know, that sounds terribly naive, but try). And then rest.

Rest your anxious mind and heart. Give  your search a break. Live into the spaciousness of this moment and find balance between the reflection, rest, and forward progress. My hope for you is that in doing this you will be gentle towards yourself when you are feeling tender, and you will give your own inner truth a chance to be heard and to influence your path forward in a way that is both unexpected and glorious… maybe not right away… but maybe someday, and that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Recognizing “enough” in my life and work

Earlier this week I found myself in a nasty mood. My whole disposition to the world was one of irritation and bother. I was drained, unhappy, and frustrated by all kinds of small things that should have never even registered as irritants. I think many of us have days or weeks like this and like most things, they pass. What finally shifted things for me was going outside to sit in my comfortable Adirondack chair and read a book for a bit.

I should have sent myself to an out-of-doors timeout much earlier that day. It was clear I was burned out, tired, fatigued, and needed to rest and process all the chaotic thoughts and feelings stomping through my head. Yet I felt like I could not sit still and rest. There was one more load of laundry to be done, one more hour to spend business planning, one more visit to Facebook that needed to be made. None of it urgent and most of it not really even important to me in the grand scheme of things.

So when I found myself settling in under my oak tree to read my book I had to laugh at my selection: Wayne Muller‘s “A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough,” which originally crossed my path through a church book club that I was too busy to ultimately attend. I am not joking.

Wayne Muller's book, "A life of being, having, and doing enough" from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Being-Having-Doing-Enough/dp/0307591395

Wayne Muller’s book, “A life of being, having, and doing enough” from Amazon.

While I am not all the way through the book, it was surprising how much of it resonated with how I was struggling that day. It is as if Muller used my experience that day to illustrate his argument perfectly!

I kept coming back to this passage again and again:

“In spite of any compelling physical or spiritual benefits, we fear we have no authentic, trustworthy permission to stop. If we do stop to rest without some very good reason or some verifiable catastrophe, we feel guilty, we worry about getting in trouble, we feel we are just lazy, not carrying our weight, not a team player, or will be left behind. If we just put our nose to the grindstone, give it our all, do our best, give 110 percent, really put our mind to it, never give up, and work more efficiently, then we can, and should, be able to get absolutely everything on our desk, on our to-do list, on our calendars, finished, on deadline, without any mistakes, perfectly, every time.

Then we can rest.

But this ridiculously impossible moment never arrives and we cannot take that first step back. So we keep going. And going. Without permission from culture, workplace, community, or even our own inner, grinding work ethic, how can we know it is time to stop — for now, for today — and know that what we have done, and who we have been, is absolutely enough? It is time to put it down, let it be, go home, and call it a day” (p. 6).

 

This blog is all about finding, claiming, and living out one’s purpose in life and work. So you might expect me to be an expert in this area, but in truth, I am like so many other writers before me: I write to understand, rather than to tell.

Reading the words from that passage prompted all kinds of questions to pop up at me from the page:

  • Why do I feel that unless I am physically weary or mentally empty I have not done enough?
  • Why do I see each day as a struggle to prove my worthiness through productivity?
  • While I may believe it intellectually, why do I struggle in practice to accept that I am enough just as I am, even without being perfectly productive?
  • Who’s permission am I seeking to be “done enough” to rest?
  • How can I better tune into the cues in my life that I’ve had enough, been enough, and contributed enough that day or week or season?
  • Why is it such a struggle for me to practice self-compassion to myself by recognizing when I have found “enough” in life or work?
  • And perhaps the scariest question of all: If I did finally feel I had done “enough” for a day – What on earth would I do with myself????

Like me, I’m sure reading over the passage I quoted above sparked all kinds of questions and concerns in you. What resonates with where you are struggling? In what ways are you proud to stand in your own truth and know when you have had enough? What strategies or tools do you rely on to recognize when you have found “enough” in your life or work each day? I welcome your wisdom!

Why hating work is problematic

In their recent New York Times article, Why You Hate Work, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath shared recent research findings that provide ample evidence for what we intuitively know: We hate our jobs.

Turns out, those of us in the Unite States are slightly better off than many of our global peers. According to the article, “just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of people who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent.”

The article focused on core needs that must be met for us to feel that sense of engagement so many of us are lacking (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual). However, I couldn’t stop wondering: What does our global community lose when only 13 percent of us are feeling connected at work?

Engagement, as defined in the article, is “involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort and energy” and when we experience engagement in our work, not only is individual well-being improved, but typically organizations enjoy better results – from business performance to reduced costs due to decreased errors and injuries, among many other factors.

From a sustainability perspective – it is a win-win. Do right for people, and they will have more to give to your cause. If we want to sustain our ability to operate our business, live lives well and with the capacity to raise and care for new generations of problem-solvers and thought-leaders, then hating work is hugely problematic.

Fortunately, the keys to success, are relatively simple: 

Renew – find ways to support a culture where employees take breaks to restore and renew. Do this right, and the authors suggest we could see nearly 100 percent of people feel inclined to stay with their company – and – employees may enjoy twice the sense of health and well-being.

Value – encourage supervisors to actually care for their employees – or at least do enough so that employees feel cared for.

Focus – create work environments where people can actually focus on what they do best, without interruption. In the age of technology we live in, this may be easier said than done.

Purpose – support individuals in finding positions where they are able to derive some sense of meaning and purpose from what they do.

As a career development professional, of course I am keenly drawn to anything having to do with helping individuals from all backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and education levels find work that is fulfilling and helps them feel a sense of integration in their life – but the beauty of the authors’ article is that the other steps are fairly simple. Perhaps difficult to enact, but in reality, they are relatively simple and cost neutral changes that can be made in most organizations.

It’s a shame that more of us are not outraged about the epidemic of missed opportunity that we all suffer from when only 13 percent of employees globally feel that sense of connection between life and work. This epidemic is not only crucial to personal vitality, but it is also vital to the sustainability and success of enterprises across the globe.


Schwartz, T. & Porath, C. (May 30, 2014). Why you hate work. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/why-you-hate-work.html?_r=0 

 

 

Fake it until you become it.

Recently I asked the students in my career exploration class to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk video as a “reading” for class. It was easy to assign because it is so relevant to helping them both academically and professionally.

Amy’s research focuses on the ways in which body language and physical poses shape our experiences, specifically looking at how physical poses impact testosterone and cortisol levels… which in turn, significantly shape success.

In her talk, Amy encourages people to “fake it until you make it” because doing two-minutes of “power poses” – like standing with hands on hips or standing with arms up as if crossing a finish line – will increase testosterone and decrease cortisol levels, which are key to performance and success. Then she goes on to say, it isn’t just faking it until you make it, we really ought to fake it until we become it.

We are actually changed as a result of those experiences.

Reading the reflections my students wrote in their journals helped me see just how applicable Amy’s research really is to daily life. Sure, doing the “power poses” could be helpful preparing for job interviews… that makes sense.

I did not expect to hear students describe the ways this video helped them reflect on their body language in various contexts of their lives. For example, a couple of students observed that they demonstrate low-power poses in class, and they questioned why this was and dedicated themselves to trying to show up more confidently in class. Incredible!

From help with job interview prep to addressing bullying in schools to instilling confidence in students as they go off to college this research can help us all live to the fullest of our potential and navigate challenges that we encounter along the way. Best of all? It is free! FREE! Doing a “power pose” for 2 minutes before a big event or to start the day, costs nothing and can yield significant effects.

As Amy Cuddy says in her talk, “I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

Vulnerability in (even) considering the question

It boggles my mind how hard it is for us to pause and objectively assess ourselves. I am certainly guilty of this.

It seems many of us are more comfortable considering the ways family or society expects us to be than really deeply considering our own identities, hopes and dreams. Peeling back the layers of outside expectations creates a vulnerability in realizing we are not entirely sure what rests in our core. Who am I, really? What do I really want? How can I be sure??

 Image

Until this spring I never appreciated how strange I am for spending so much of my energy living these questions (I devote an insane amount of my mental energy lingering here!). Teaching an undergraduate career exploration class this semester only solidified my belief that while these concepts are difficult to engage with fully, they are absolutely essential to personal and professional success… and more importantly, happiness. And this takes hard work. Lesson learned: Thinking about who we are, who we want to be, and the life we want to live is harder than I realized.

In my class I had the students develop a presentation to explain their personal definition of “meaningful work”. I asked them to explore the forces and people that have influenced how they think about meaningful work and share their perspectives with the class. While I expected it would take them some serious reflection time, I was surprised when many of them confessed that they had never really considered what meaningful work was, or could be. Many of my students are first-generation college students who have been fiercely dedicated to their goal of just getting to college. This has required their complete attention. But this simple truth only fuels my fire to nurture those sparks that lie within them.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to deeply consider one’s identity and life aspirations. So few of us have a choice about how we spend our days. This is part of what drives me to support all students, but especially those who are lost, as they engage in questions of what their personal and professional purpose might be. My drive to support them in mindfully finding a fruitful way forward is grounded not only my desire to help this one student, but also in my hope that this student can maximize their privilege to unleash their greatest gifts to meet the deepest needs of our world. What a richer world it would be if more people had the privilege of intentionally choosing the work they will take up in their lifetime.

For today I do not have answers about how to push for more focused consideration of these deep career questions, but I take away a need to temper my drive and better respect the vulnerability, space, time, and natural rhythm that all must come together for glimpses of an individual’s deepest passions to shimmer though the noise and distraction of daily life. Praying for the gift of patient persistence to (carefully, mindfully, respectfully, and responsibly) push for more…

 

Image source: http://delvespot.com/2013/01/why-and-how-im-being-more-vulnerable/

Hold fast to your passion

The natural human spirit is irrepressibly radical; it wants the unattainable, yearns for the impractical, is willing to risk the improper. But as we conform ourselves to the practicalities and properties of efficiency, we restrict the space between desire and control; we confine our intention to an ever-decreasing range of possibilities. The choices we make — and therefore the way we feel about ourselves — are determined less by what we long for and more by what is controllable and acceptable to the world around us. After enough of this, we lose our passion. We forget who we are.

Gerald May, from The Awakened Heart, as quoted in Wayne Muller‘s book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough