It’s been 16 years since Daniel Pink foresaw a seismic shift in the American workforce in his groundbreaking book “Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way We Live.” His prediction of a rising tide of freelance workers was right on target.
A report released last month by freelancing website Upwork and the labor group Freelancers Union estimates that 57 million Americans – or 36 percent of our country’s workforce – are now working part-time or full-time as freelancers. By 2027, more than half of American workers will earn some or all of their income through independent jobs.
About two-thirds of today’s freelancers are working independently by choice rather than by mere necessity, the report found, driven by their belief that working for themselves and building a diversified roster of clients is a better path to security than the traditional non-freelance model of having a single employer.
The downside: Not having a regular paycheck can take a toll on personal finances. With the feast or famine nature of independent work, the report found that two-thirds of freelancers have to draw on savings at least once every month to cover their expenses, as opposed to just 20 percent of those who are not freelancers.
Dorie Clark is on a mission to accelerate their success.
“The elephant in the room of modern entrepreneurship is that even people who seem to be at the top of their game aren’t always monetizing successfully,” she writes in her new book “Entrepreneurial You,” published last month by Harvard Business Review Press. “Learning to make money from your expertise is a different skill set from what’s needed to become excellent at your work or well known in your field.”
Clark, who lives in New York City and has family in North Carolina, is a longtime instructor of marketing and communications at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and an independent marketing strategy consultant and speaker whose client list includes Google, The Gates Foundation and the World Bank. With “Entrepreneurial You,” she has completed a trilogy of books that distills the wisdom of hundreds of thought leaders, entrepreneurs and experts she has interviewed in recent years. Together, the books provide a roadmap for navigating what Clark defines as the three major phases of success as an independent worker – all of which she’s lived personally through a career that’s taken her from journalism to politics to nonprofit leadership to her current work.
The first phase, covered in Clark’s 2013 book “Reinventing You,” revolves around this question: How can I make big changes and position myself for the career I want? It’s a process, she explains, that starts with self-awareness, including understanding our reputation, skills and gaps and developing a sense of our next destination. An exploratory phase follows, with emphasis on testing options, honing new skills and leveraging mentors. Rather than waiting for a perfect career to reveal itself spontaneously, she says, “we get good ideas by starting in small ways to move in the direction of things that interest us.”
Once we’re in the right field, we need to ask the next big question: How can I work my way to the top and ensure that others recognize my expertise? That’s the subject of Clark’s second book, “Stand Out,” which published in 2015. In her work with clients and audiences around the globe, Clark has found that this second phase is the toughest for many people. It requires a certain degree of self-promotion and a willingness to stand apart from the crowd – traits that are frowned on in many cultures and often uncomfortable for self-aware individuals who are leery of becoming self-centered. Clark offers guidance on ways to differentiate ourselves in a crowded marketplace while maintaining integrity – namely through finding a breakthrough idea that you are passionate about and then building a following around it.
“Entrepreneurial You” takes us into the third and final phase of the independent worker’s journey: Now that I’m doing work I love and am increasingly well regarded for it, how can I create a long-term sustainable business that rewards me emotionally, intellectually, and financially? Clark explores the nuts and bolts of building a personal brand, creating multiple income streams through coaching, consulting, speaking, blogging and other activities, and the developing an online presence through courses, digital products, and partnerships.
Even at that point, though, the work never really ends. “Successful entrepreneurship should be thought of as an ongoing pilot, not a finished state,” Clark writes. Her books offer an indispensable resource for the journey.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a Founding Partner of HQ Community, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.