How to find your inner economy in an outer economy that, more than ever, is willing to let you be you.
By Valerie Andrews
From The Optimist Magazine Fall 2015
Imagine no more drudgery—just years of doing what you love, stretched out before you. Work is never boring, because it keeps evolving. You don’t have to deal with difficult bosses or the dark side of office politics. You’ve taken charge of your career and become the CEO of your own life.
This is the future described in Cliff Hakim’s 1994 bestseller We Are All Self-Employed. In it, Hakim, a highly regarded Boston career consultant, laid out a plan for surviving and thriving in a new work world. The problem was, he was way ahead of his time. Executives and staffers kept clutching to the old reality in which a company, like a parent, provided shelter, familiarity and long-term security. Now that the corporate glory days are over, Hakim’s insights are proving indispensable, so I called him for a critical update.
First we talked about the global economy that experts refer to as volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous. In the years ahead, robots and AI (artificial intelligence) are slated to take over production jobs everywhere from the U.S. to China. The future of the car industry belongs not to conventional automakers but to upstart firms like Tesla and Google. Traditional laws of development and distribution no longer apply, and entire industries are in disarray as we enter an era of unprecedented innovation. Only one thing is clear, says Hakim: the future belongs to the self-starter. Familiarity with business services and new technologies is a must, and so is the courage to reinvent yourself.
Just a few years ago, rethinking work was a radical idea. Today millions of people are searching for meaning and purpose in their jobs. We have begun exploring our calling and our individual talents on a level that wasn’t possible a generation ago. Naturally, this transformation comes with challenges. Yet some believe there is an almost perfect correlation between the needs of society and the talents each of us brings into this world. How close to this ideal can we get?
To start, Hakim suggests we take our cues from tech entrepreneurs, some of whom have created as many as ten companies in their lifetimes. “Look at your career as a series of startups,” he says, “and become adept at re-tuning your ideas and re-identifying your goals.”
In his most recent book, 2007’s Rethinking Work, Hakim notes that success comes from defining the inner economy—discovering what makes you happy, lights your fire, gives you juice—then learning how to align your passion with the marketplace. What complicates this further is that our very notion of a career is changing. In the past, you trained for a specific job and performed a limited set of tasks. Now, over the course of your lifetime, you will explore many different capabilities, challenging yourself with each new venture, developing skills you never imagined and using more of yourself than ever before.
You might wonder, “Can I afford to reinvent myself in such uncertain times? Isn’t it best to play it safe?” Hakim counters that there is no job security anymore—so why not bet on your own growth? The key to success today is discovering your core talent and finding out what motivates you no matter what your job title is.
Early in my career, I left a major media conglomerate to investigate the issues behind the news. I’ve worked as a documentary filmmaker, educator and media consultant, and founded a nonprofit. The unifying thread through it all has been my endless curiosity about our changing culture, and the question “What happens next?”
Knowing what we value most is the life vest that supports us as we move into uncharted waters. When I first went freelance, people asked, “How can you be so self-disciplined? How do you deal with the constant pressure to line up the next project? The lack of a regular paycheck?” To me, this was part of the adventure. Each day, I was at my desk bright and early, feeling energized and inspired and grateful to be doing work I loved.
The search for a more satisfying work life may be occasioned by a full-blown crisis like your company being downsized or by a growing feeling of dissatisfaction on the job. Eventually the larger questions start to form: Do I live to work or work to live? Is my work sustainable—is it healthy for body, mind and spirit? If I want to change my focus, where do I turn for encouragement and support? What follows is a report from the front lines on rethinking work and new opportunities for reinvention.
1 Find a Freelance Niche
Corporate downsizing has dumped hundreds of thousands of workers back into the job market at the same time management is turning up the pressure, demanding longer hours and an almost slavish devotion from their remaining staff. The result is burnout and increasing alienation. Is it any wonder that so many workers are loath to jump back on the hamster wheel?
This upheaval has led to a new phenomenon: the rise of the free agent. These -freelancers are globalizing design and content and information presentation. -Companies can now hire freelancers anywhere in the world to do anything from a voice-over gig to -coding work, track their progress and pay them with a single app. One estimate puts the online staffing market at $5 billion by 2018, although others view that as wildly -conservative.
There are also plenty of people who are going it alone without the helping hand of placement agencies. A magazine photographer moonlights as a real estate broker, citing her “artistic eye,” while a former journalist bills himself as a researcher, grant writer and dog walker. A graphic artist who lost her job in the recession now supports herself and her young daughter by doing beadwork, holding estate sales and organizing other people’s homes. These undaunted independents are adept at pitching new markets and patching together a variety of skills.
Freelancing is a fast-growing sector of the economy in both the U.S. and Europe. In America, it will account for one-fifth of all jobs by 2020. In the Netherlands, it has grown by a staggering 92 percent in the past ten years, and we’re seeing surges in Greece and Italy as well. This portion of the workforce is now organizing across national boundaries. A European Forum of Independent Professionals recently formed to advocate for freelancers’ rights.
A recent survey in Milan, Italy, shows that full-time freelancers are generally satisfied with their life path, noting an increased sense of freedom and autonomy. Some participants report a greater ease in blending their work and personal lives. Others appreciate the chance to stand up for their values. One 48-year-old consultant who resigned from her job after a mishandling of a client notes that “your reputation for honesty and integrity is important. It becomes your personal brand.”
What do you need to know to succeed in this milieu? The freelance life isn’t a long-playing record; it’s a mash-up. You’ll have to repackage and reposition who you are and what you do—without losing sight of your central talent. As a free agent, you will have to do your job without a boss to guide or second-guess you, and without the perks of a corporate expense account or a year-end bonus. On the plus side, it’s a great way to try out a new career, help pay the bills or cobble together a variety of interests. The beauty of the freelance economy is that there are many ways to make it work for you.
2 Adopt a craft
Freelancing means using your talents to meet other people’s needs, but adopting a craft goes one step further. It’s about -drawing on your own creativity and mastering a -time-honored skill.
A few years ago, Harvard economist Larry Katz predicted that good middle-class jobs in America would come from the reemergence of artisans. Katz used this term very broadly to include all kinds of skilled labor—the art history major turned contractor who installs -beautiful kitchens and ceramic tiles; the former theater -major who provides thoughtful, engaging caregiving to members of her community.
In Europe, there is a long-standing artisan community that goes back to the Middle Ages. This lineage includes the guitar makers in Madrid, the winemaking families of Burgundy, the weavers of Venice. Machine-made goods are still no match for handmade leather shoes designed by a young cobbler in -Orvieto or the intricate silverwork sold at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Cottage industries are on the rise as well, as more workers make and market products from their homes. This includes the weaver, the potter, the basket, bread and cheese maker, the global crafts collective Etsy and a host of fair trade websites that allow us to support a “village economy,” from the glassmakers in Moravia to the carvers of M-ozambique.
Then there’s the maker culture—a do-it-yourself movement that has spawned a variety of gadgets. Makers have launched companies like littleBits, Particle (formerly Spark), Shaper, LightUp, Roominate and Othermill, often raising their startup funds on Kickstarter. At last year’s Maker Faire in Rome, the theme was 3-D food printing. One of the hot exhibits was the Nonnabot from Mondopasta, capable of printing spaghetti and ravioli. So watch out for new products in the category “artisan meets high-tech.”
3 join the sharing economy
Airbnb and Uber are offering new alternatives to working in an office cubicle and a chance to be your own boss. You can join this portion of the sharing economy, marketing your services online or through mobile apps. Although Uber doesn’t publish driver salaries, the average take is probably between $40,000 and $60,000, substantially more than minimum wage.
What’s made this new phenomenon possible? Especially in Europe, where part-timers make up nearly 20 percent of the workforce, people have more time—and, in a volatile economy, more motivation to pursue such ventures. As startups from food shopping to maid service join the sharing economy, opportunities increase. Those who can do the math and calculate what their time is worth are most likely to find stable work. To succeed in this new sector, you’ll have to analyze the competition, track your progress, find additional resources or workers as needed and set a reasonable timetable for expansion. Today it’s possible to become an entrepreneur with no capital investment—just a tidy apartment in a good location and a well-kept car.
But beware of blowback. Earlier this year, Parisian taxi drivers clashed with police while protesting their loss of revenue to Uber. Upscale neighborhoods are passing ordinances clamping down on Airbnb, for fear of noisy tenants. So if you’re headed for the sharing economy, do your homework. The most successful Uber drivers offer rides in underserved areas, while the best Airbnbers vet their renters and make sure they have a legal right to offer short-term sublets.
4 Learn by doing
A few years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) were just videos of traditional college lectures, requiring the same passive attention and note-taking. Today they are decidedly more practical, teaching everything from hands-on management skills and accounting to how to build a robot or master jazz piano.
MOOCs allow you to bypass the teacher and go directly to the how-to portion of the task at hand. You are the one in charge of your education, and you get to set the pace. The creators of these new programs know that self-motivation is the primary guarantee of your success. The problem with traditional classroom education is that it’s based on external motivators and incentives, like grades, GREs and scholarships. Yet it’s a firm grasp of inner values that drives people to achieve.
Free online classes can be a powerful resource for those learning on the job. Here you can pick up practical skills, from Web design and accounting to managing a startup. In an era of information overload, look for material you can metabolize quickly. Choose a course that feeds both your confidence and your curiosity. Tech companies were among the first to grasp that some of the most successful people are self-taught. Google used to hire college graduates with perfect SATs. Today the firm looks for candidates with take-charge skills, many of whom haven’t finished college.
5 Forget about the money
Too many people get stopped at the “security checkpoint” in their search for satisfying work. The solution is to take money out of the equation, at least temporarily, and instead consider the talents you want to explore, the kind of people you want to attract as colleagues or customers and your best environment for growth.
After 15 years in public relations, Bronwyn Saglimbeni felt it was time for a change, so she started asking, “What part of this job do I really love? And what do I enjoy so much I’d gladly do it for free?” Her answer: helping people be authentic. Today she has her own company, working with CEOs to hone their messages for TED talks, prepare them for media interviews and develop active listening skills. Known for her irreverent humor, Saglimbeni encourages CEOs to take a risk and share something deeply personal with an audience. She is now one of the most successful media coaches in Silicon Valley.
Taking money out of the equation helped Saglimbeni connect with her passion, but she also had a long-term plan. In 2002, she started Bronwyn Communications while keeping her PR gig going, tapering it off in 2008. Her first year as an executive coach and media consultant, she made 5 percent of her corporate income, the next year 10 percent. Now, 12 years later, she’s doubled it. “Most of us just can’t turn off the revenue spigot,” she says, “while we wait for the business to build momentum.” This self-starter also managed to achieve another lofty goal: better work/life balance. That translates into a full summer off, with time for reading and dreaming, walks on the beach and picnics with her family.
“When you do something you love and there’s a demand for it, everything falls into place,” says Saglimbeni. “You can achieve real soulful success once you find the nexus of your passion and the marketplace.”
6 Embrace creative disruption
“These days, you have to be an instigator of continuous change,” says Tim Jellison, founder of Fresh Look Strategies in San Francisco, who has consulted with large-scale enterprises like Microsoft for more than 20 years and now specializes in the startup ecosystem, one of the most dizzying segments of the new economy. What applies to any startup operation, says Jellison, now applies to creative types as well.
With the advent of iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and other streaming services, business models for the music industry have been upended. Performers have to move beyond their comfort zones and function as managers and promoters. The upside of this is that they can now produce and sell their wares in a marketplace that was previously dominated by big corporations.
Dan Kennedy, a classically trained composer-pianist from Amherst, Massachusetts, made it onto the top ten New Age charts with two albums, Intuition and Bloom Road, doing his own marketing and promotion. “It’s hard to list all the different tasks I perform in a given day,” says Kennedy, whose job includes making music videos, calling radio stations, booking his own concerts, working with recording engineers and creating press kits and promotion materials for his next CD—not to mention his other regular gig: teaching. “Sometimes I have to remind myself to walk over to the piano and write a song,” he says. “But the payoff for approaching my career like a business is getting to make music every day.”
As the publishing industry implodes, authors are also becoming full-time self-promoters. Sadly, most writers who debut with major publishers can’t make a living from their books. Research shows that there are more self-published authors able to earn their keep than there are those under contract with big houses like Hachette and Penguin.
No longer confined to the U.S., the self-publishing phenomenon is spreading throughout Europe. With 50 Shades of Grey, British author E.L. James scored an overnight success. This year, German self-publishing began to gather steam as well. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Emily Bold and Nika Lubitsch explained how they networked and used social media to make their books a success. A recent report on author earnings concludes, “Far from feeling desperate, many self-published authors are highly satisfied with the self-publishing process, and are savvy enough to hire their own editors, marketing and legal experts.”
7 Start out as a social entrepreneur
Millennials aren’t waiting “to do well in order to do good,” as management guru Peter Drucker once advised. The most idealistic generation of all, this group started giving back in their teens and early twenties and plan to devote their lives to public service.
On a backpacking trip through India, Adam Braun was approached by a young boy begging in the streets. “What do you want most in the world?” he was moved to ask. “A pencil,” the child replied. Braun reached into his backpack and gave him one—then watched as a wave of possible futures washed over the boy’s face. Over the next five years, Braun backpacked through more than 50 countries, handing out thousands of pens and pencils. In 2008, with $25, he founded Pencils of Promise to increase the quality of education in developing countries.
In the past ten years, more young men and women around the globe have started nonprofits and foundations geared to social causes. In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani, was shot in the face by a Taliban henchman for daring to speak out in favor of girls’ education. Her fellow activist Shiza Shahid, 21, flew to her beside to manage her medical care and protect the family from the media circus. The two young women had met four years earlier, when Yousafzai, at 11, was blogging for the BBC and reporting on the increasing violence of the Taliban regime. Shahid had organized a camp in Islamabad, a safe haven where Yousafzai and 25 other young girls learned how to be effective activists and social entrepreneurs.
Yousafzai recovered from her gunshot wounds, determined to continue her campaign. An overnight celebrity, she might have chosen a seasoned fundraiser to lead her organization. Instead she asked -Shahid, who had recently graduated from Stanford University and was working as a McKinsey consultant in Dubai, to be her chief strategist. Together they started the Malala Fund with grants from the World Bank, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Last year, Yousafzai became the youngest person in history to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
To satisfy this new generation’s desire to do good, many business schools now teach social entrepreneurship. Innovative programs can be found at Stanford and Harvard in the U.S., Oxford University in England, and France’s INSEAD. The Ashoka network’s Youth Venture starts training even younger, with an international program that gives children between the ages of 12 and 20 the skills they need to change the world.
The young idealists typically work on a bare-bones budget and depend heavily on peer support. So what kind of work space do they favor? The Impact Hub is an “office collective” where, for a monthly fee, members can also give lectures and presentations, sharing their insights and honing their next ventures. Billed as “the nexus of money and meaning,” the Impact Hub caters to a global community of 11,000 activists and creatives in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia—another indication that work has moved out of the cubicle and into a vibrant, collaborative setting.
8 Give back as a second act
“It used to be we fit ourselves to the job,” one boomer executive confided. “We went to college, took the right courses, applied to work at a big company and did whatever they asked of us. It was very much like the TV series Mad Men: we focused on selling and making people want whatever the client made. Now we boomers are starting to put our values first, and asking, ‘What can I get behind?’”
In 1997, San Francisco social entrepreneur Marc Freedman began building a movement to tap the vast skills and experience of people in midlife and older—now the largest and most powerful segment of the workforce. He founded an -organization called Encore.org to encourage this group to follow their passion and create strong second acts. He also launched the Purpose Prize, -giving away more than $5 million to hundreds of social innovators over 60. Called “a MacArthur genius grant for retirees,” this award, says Freedman, “goes to everyday heroes who see a problem they can’t ignore.”
Charles Fletcher, a former telecom -executive, created SpiritHorse, a global network of -therapeutic riding centers for people with -disabilities—offering services free of charge. A human resources expert, -Kate Williams had gradually lost her sight by age 65, then started a job-training program for the blind. With no funding, Williams started working with Adaptive Technology Services to create software that would help these individuals to overcome -employment barriers and function in a sighted world. At 63, David Campbell, a technology executive, sprang into action after hearing about the -devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia. When he learned that the Internet was still working, he got on a plane, armed with a wireless router and some duct tape. His group, All Hands Volunteers, has now helped 45,000 families in six -countries.
What’s astonishing is the level of financial risk these activists assume in order to improve the lives of others. “They fund their efforts in a variety of ways—downsizing a home, raiding a retirement account, taking a side job,” says -Freeman. “And the prize money they receive usually gets plowed right back into the project. Never before have we had such a well-educated, affluent and highly skilled generation with the time and resources to help others.
o what’s next? Artists have long known the value of fearless experimentation. “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life,” advised sculptor Henry Moore. “And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.” This is the nature of reinventing work. We are always focusing on a goal beyond our grasp, with the faith that we are moving ever closer to it.
Together we’ve been making some extraordinary progress. To begin with, we’ve entered a new and profoundly creative dialogue about our occupations and our sense of calling. Toronto’s Centre for Spirituality at Work is asking Canadians to examine how they feel about their jobs: “Does your daily work inspire or exhaust your spirit? Is it mostly about making a living and getting things done? Or can it be more than that, so you have more life, do work that matters to you, and create a better world? And how do we do what we do with more love, soul and purpose—so we not only get the job done, but raise, inspire each other, and deepen our humanity?”
We’ve also started to talk about work using terms like “authenticity” and “presence.” The Buddhist concept of right livelihood views work as a spiritual practice, a way to love and serve. Surprisingly, this notion has been embraced by traditional corporations. At some companies, meditation rooms are now as common as cafeterias and gyms. After so much misbehavior by corporate CEOs, spirituality and ethics have taken center stage. In one survey, 85 percent of American workers said their leaders’ spirituality had an impact on their organization, noting the importance of a company’s code of ethics and its adherence to the Golden Rule.
Finally, there are strong indications that we are moving toward what sociologist Lewis Hyde calls the gift economy. “Unlike the sale of a commodity,” he writes, “the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved.” This means viewing work as a vital energy exchange, a way of building both connection and community.
Turbulence in the marketplace requires us to be ever vigilant and to continually adjust our goals. Yet there is the sense that work is something we create, much as an artist fashions a body of work—from our unique skills and passions. What I find terribly exciting is this synergistic process: as we remake our work, it is remaking us.
As we do so, we have opportunities to discover our heart’s desire, to find out what we’re made of, to give back in new and stunning ways, to make our institutions and professions more responsive to human needs. We may feel vulnerable as we temporarily cast off that outer shell. But this is the discomfort necessary for our continued transformation. The economy is but nature’s tool, requiring us to surrender the old and be made anew.
Valerie Andrews is a journalist, media consultant and founder of Sacred Words: A Center for Healing Stories, in Mill Valley, California. This fall, she is leading seminars on late blooming, exploring creativity after midlife and reinventing work. Find out more: themediamuse.com.