How Freelancers Are Redefining Success To Be About Value, Not Wealth

The old model of slaving for 40 hours a week in exchange for a paycheck is eroding. When you can control your own time, you can control your own well-being—and that might be worth more than money.

In an iconic scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort—the "wolf" played by Leonardo DiCaprio—launches his $40,000 Rolex into a sea of outstretched hands, as eager young stockbrokers lunge for it, nearly clobbering one another in the process.

The scene perfectly captures the infamous excesses of Wall Street in the ‘80s. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how it contrasts with the dramatic shift underway in the American economy.

The nation’s 42 million freelancers are rewriting the definition of success—and it has nothing to do with gold watches, but everything to do with time.

Independent workers are establishing a new way to work—and in the process, they’re cultivating a new way of life. Success in 2014 is less about wealth than it is about value—the value of time, community, and well-being.

As the availability of the traditional 40-hour-a-week job wanes, so does its appeal. Who wants to "clock-out" at the end of the day when you can dictate your own schedule?

Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding—it’s practical and efficient. Parents don’t have to "leave early" to pick up their kids. The idea of "killing time" until the clock strikes 5:00 becomes obsolete when that time is chiefly your own.

Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.

Freelancers often work independently, but being "on your own" doesn’t mean "going it alone." Freelancing successfully means building a network to line up new gigs, passing assignments to others when things are busy, and getting referrals from friends when they’re not.

It might be tough for one freelancer to afford renting an office on her own—but 10 freelancers can pool their resources and create a co-working space together. The same goes for sharing expensive office supplies and high-end professional equipment.

Independent workers value community, because collaboration and camaraderie are more than warm and fuzzy feelings—they’re the foundation of success in the emerging independent economy.

And freelancers recognize that a thriving business doesn’t mean much if you’re not taking care of yourself.

At some point, sleep deprivation in the workplace became a bragging right. With the old bargain, work came before everything else, including your health. And in exchange for slaving away, you got a steady paycheck and perhaps a decent benefits package. Today, independent workers are replacing that old bargain with something far better—and saner.

Freelancers value eating healthy, going to the gym or practicing yoga, meditating to reduce stress, and working in spaces with plenty of light and fresh air. For a freelancer, success in work means being healthy enough—physically and mentally—to enjoy life.

Independent workers make up a third of the workforce. By 2020, just six years from now, 40% of Americans will be working as freelancers, contractors, and temps. Some lament this historic shift away from salaried, full-time employment—but whether the future of work is a step forward or backward is up to America’s burgeoning independent workforce.

Freelancers are shaping the new economy. As flexible schedules and ubiquitous communication become the norm, the work-life balance that we’ve always struggled for is becoming achievable. As community and teamwork become more necessary than ever to thrive, the lonely, closed-off cubicle will make way for meaningful collaboration. And as the demand for healthy food and workspaces increases, industry will increasingly connect corporate profits and social good.

The American workforce is changing, and the definition of success is changing with it. For freelancers, freedom in work, health in life, and community in both are the ticking hands on the new gold watch. Soon everyone will be reaching out to grab it.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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  • Amber

    This is great. I currently work a full-time job with retirement and health benefits, and I also freelance graphic design on the side.

    My question is how do you full-time freelances plan for retirement? How do you get health insurance? These things are important, and while freelancing full-time is great now, is it in the long run? I'd seriously would like to know how everyone is freelancing full-time, because I would love to quit my 40 hr/wk day job, but I also want the best of both worlds. I want to be my own boss, but I want the security of retirement and health insurance.

  • Many of your points are excellent, however, you leave out the part about how many freelancers never get to "clock out" because they generate their own income and if they stop working (finishing that assignment faster so they can move on to the next one, or marketing themselves to new potential clients), they don't make their required income for the next month. And many of the costs for freelancers are higher, namely healthcare. Freelancing is spoken very highly of in our culture, but we forget that there are benfits and drawbacks to every scenario. Interesting article in Slate relating to some of this: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2014/01/do_what_you_love_love_what_you_do_an_omnipresent_mantra_that_s_bad_for_work.html

  • So true, particularly the points about living a healthy life AND being productive in the workforce. I worked in too many office environments that emphasized staying late and pumping yourself full of caffeine as evidence that you were committed to your job. I am eager to see how the evolving freelance workforce will drive workplace expectations.

  • When I started my biz in 1989 I called myself a freelancer and people thought that meant I was working part time. Today, as a solopreneur I have a created a lifestyle business that allows me the flexibility, fun and freedom to do what I love with people I love working with. I get many calls from aspiring freelancers asking for my advice (on numerous topics) and now helping them is also part of my business. I've shared this article in several of the groups I'm involved in including the Freelancers Freedom Playground - a supportive community on Facebook. THANKS

  • "By 2020, just six years from now, 40% of Americans will be working as freelancers, contractors, and temps"

    Where did you get this number from and how did you arrive at this conclusion?

  • These ideas are at the core of Leancept, a company I've founded together with three other "free spirits". This is my second company, and built on what I learned building my first. When building the first one, I was initially excited to have the kind of freedom that I need to be productive, but old school thinking quickly turned that company into a 9-5 "clock out" operation. That inspired me to found Leancept.

    At Leancept, the rules are different. We embrace ROWE (www.gorowe.com) and we do not manage each other but are accountable for the results. As a result, we have enormous freedom on how and when we work. Meetings are few and highly focused. We depend massively on online collaboration tools like Sqwiggle, Google Drive and Trello.

    When we meet in person, we don't do business, we hang out and have fun.

    Thoreau put it in words: "Wealth is the ability to fully experience life"

    You can read more about us and our values and culture here: http://www.leancept.com/company.html

  • David Vincent McDonald

    Sara your point is spot on, I'll be sure to share it with my friends. And i'd love to talked to you about our new entity called #CoeXisT #CXT #ATX

  • Sara, I love this article because you're highlighting what freelancers achieve, perhaps in exchange of climbing the corporate, for something more valuable. Having said that, some tech companies are trying to create the laid-back, flexible environment, as if the employees were freelancing, except the workplace would be a second home. This is more effective for some.

  • Anthony Sills

    Great article Sara!

    One thing you notice about movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Wall Street, and others depicting the money-hungry 80s is that many of the so-called success stories had horrible health and lost their families in the process of building their careers. Success is definitely about value. Wealth may be part of the definition, but health and relationships are vitally important too.

  • This really resonates, salaried FT+ employment zaps your health & well-being after a while. In my case it helps to live overseas, where the money earned goes further.

  • This really resonates, salaried FT+ employment zaps your health & well-being after a while. In my case it helps to live overseas, where the money earned goes further.

  • As a stay at home mom transitioning back to the working world, I found the freelancing life a natural fit. There is so much to balance in family life and being healthy physically and mentally is an absolute must. Flexibility is key because we all have a natural tendency to slow down a bit mid-day and I find it better to use that time to have a nice lunch and take a walk or go to the gym and rest my brain. When I worked the corporate 9-5 life (ten years) that was impossible. And even then, the culture was that you ate lunch over your keyboard and 9-5 wasn't enough to finish the work so "dedicated" workers stayed even later.

  • So nice to read your article, Sara. It's because I'd had very similar thoughts in the last couple of years during my full-time underemployment and kept for looking for a way out. The shift is indeed happening and what I think we need most now is that more people will pause a little bit and start acknowledging their true, not paid-work-related, values. Greetings from Berlin!

  • Hey No Worries Here in the USA. No sense in walking away from a full-time job, if you still have it. Plenty of lay-offs happening everyday here. In my view, 30 something years into a career, a lay-off is that blessed opportunity to re-calibrate, reflect, re-invent and finally have 26 weeks to figure it out next steps : ) cheers.