You know what scares me? Being trapped.
I’m not talking about the kind of claustrophobia that keeps people out of crowded elevators. I’m referring to "career claustrophobia," a stagnation that stifles even the most promising careers. Surprisingly, this dysfunction is so pervasive today that scarcely anyone notices it.
Peer inside the hidden comforts of the traditional job offer: you apply for a job, they make you an offer, and you accept the position. This arrangement is so common that nobody questions it. But if you step back, you’ll notice how that job now dictates what, how, where, when, who, and even why you work. Like it or not, you just relinquished control over your career.
I call this the employment trade-off, a tacit agreement between organization and employee: "We provide you stability and security. You give up your freedom and authenticity."
If this is what "having a job" means, do we—especially those of us in creative fields—really want a job, knowing how freedom and authenticity are both crucial to our success?
Most accept the trade-off because, as human beings, we not only crave stability and security, but we also believe that’s just how the system works. Yet, if we discard the notion that a full-time job—no matter how good—is the defining measure of success, we will see clearly that what we really desire is a great career, which leads me to my main point: Never let a good job stand in the way of a great career.
For some of us, that means resisting the employment trade-off, which may seem like a scary proposition until you realize that three fundamental shifts are already eroding the premise upon which it was built.
According to business author Daniel Pink in his bestselling Free Agent Nation, a whopping 50% of U.S. workers will be free agents by 2020. Stability and security, he believes, are actually "incompatible with freedom and authenticity," and, conversely, freedom and authenticity will be the only sure paths to stability and security in the future.
We are also seeing the emergence of the connection economy: the landscape that gave birth to the traditional job is changing, no longer driven by a scarcity of items, but rather an abundance of choice.
As noted entrepreneur/public speaker Seth Godin explains, "The chooser has too many alternatives, there’s too much clutter, and the scarce resources are attention and trust, not shelf space." In other words, a great career is like a meandering journey along a complex web, touching hundreds or even thousands of small companies and free agents.
Finally, our culture has adopted the generosity paradox: In the past, we were taught to protect ourselves from scarcity: "Take what you can. Always look out for No. 1!" Today we’re learning that, by giving ourselves away, we move toward growth and opportunity.
In a Science of Generosity Initiative study from the University of Notre Dame, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson noted: "By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are formed in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves."
Considered together, these shifts are fundamentally transforming the world in which our careers live and breathe. If you’re ready to brave the changes and pursue freedom and authenticity as a dynamic individual responsible for your own career, consider mastering these five free-agent mindsets:
In the connection economy, those who master the art of connecting will flourish, so get out from behind your computer. Building a reputation with influencers and decision-makers is hard. Like Seth Godin said, in an economy of infinite choices, what matters is attention and trust. Grab the one. Earn the other.
Be open to employment contracts, part-time work and freelance gigs—arrangements that force both sides of the table to work hard at a good relationship. Many companies will consider alternatives to the full-time position, but you have to ask. And don’t forget to have an exit strategy. Your career goals tell you why to get in; shouldn’t they also tell you when to get out?
Live below your means. Remember: no savings = no flexibility. Don’t miss out on a life-changing opportunity because you can’t see past your end-of-the-month bills. A rainy day fund (10% to 20% of your income) affords you the luxury to calmly pursue amazing career opportunities over fear-driven, "I can’t miss a single paycheck!" decisions.
Get serious about sharing. Don’t pretend to own any client. Don’t ever white label people or companies that you hire. Be massively collaborative. Work with everyone you know, even new people you don’t know. Partner with your competitors.
Master the art of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. And don’t just be helpful; be massively helpful. Offer to help even when it doesn’t directly benefit you, and you’ll be amazed by the response.
In the end, the journey is yours. If you desire freedom and authenticity, master the free-agent mindsets and resist the employment trade-off. Don't settle for a good job when you can have a great career.
—Joel Pilger is founder of Impossible.