Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Free-Agent Mindset

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 15, 2013

What is the Macro Change that’s going on in the world today? As fish never realize they’re swimming in water, is there something happening all around us that’s so apparent that we can’t see it?

Shaq of Orlando, L.A., Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland, Boston. We're all free agents now.

I think there is, and here’s how I’d define it:

We—meaning anybody now living in the globalized/digital/satellite-linked/worldwide-web world—are faced with the challenge and obligation to make a primal shift in consciousness. This shift is as cosmic, I believe, as the transition from illiteracy to literacy in the Gutenberg era, from farm to factory in the days of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and all the post-Industrial Age changeovers since.

I’m not talking about external changes. Those are obvious. What’s perilous and critical and what we all need to become conscious of is the stuff inside. How have we had to change our minds and our ways of thinking about the world and about ourselves?

Shawn has a concept he calls 3PV. Third Party Validation. What he means is the mind-set in which one’s sense of emotional security and self-worth is dependent upon the opinions of others. In other words, we don’t go forward with any action unless we think other people will approve.

Seth Godin talks about this a lot too. Seth decries the internal paralysis that stops people from acting until they have been “picked,” i.e. taken note of by Higher Authority and given permission to go forward.

“Pick” yourself, Seth urges. Give yourself permission to act. Don’t wait for some Third Party to tell you it’s okay or to provide a structure of incentive, punishment, and reward.

There’s a key insight here into the Macro Change we’re all going through.

We’re all having to adopt the Free-Agent mentality.

The Macro Change is a switch from being part of an organization (I hesitate to say “community,” though that’s probably the effective emotional term)—General Motors, Apple, the army, Harvard or State U.—to being Just Ourselves. But it’s not just being part of, it’s thinking like a part of.

Is it necessary to have an actual “job?” A salary? A boss? I’m speaking emotionally, not financially. Is our mental setup such that we are dependent for our inner well-being upon an externally-imposed structure? Are we capable of acting without external motivation or validation or reinforcement?

I was watching a documentary the other night about the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Talk about a vanished era. The players actually lived in Brooklyn. You would run into Gil Hodges or Carl Furillo in the produce section at Gristedes. A ball player in those days signed with a team and expected to play for them his entire career.

Koufax

Sandy Koufax played his entire career for the Dodgers, in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

Today you’re a free agent and so am I. Even in long-term jobs, we must think like entrepreneurs. Our 401-Ks are gone with the wind, along with Tower Records, Borders, and the steel industry.

The consciousness expansion and self-empowerment brought about (and required) by the digital revolution and its second- and third-generation follow-ons including globalization of manufacturing and the offshoring of Ozzie-and-Harriet-era jobs has compelled each of us, whether we want to or not, or realize it or not, to become our own one-person General Motors, IBM, U.S. Army, Harvard.

The web these days is chockablock with sites promising to teach “self-empowerment,” “self-motivation,” “self-branding.” Ninety percent of this may be hogwash and Amateur Hour, but the underlying imperative to learn these skills remains drop-dead valid.

In many ways that’s what this blog is all about—and has been from the start, though I myself am only starting to realize it now.

The switch we’re all having to make is from taking our identity and self-worth from being part of a Greater External Identity to being our own Identity.

The concept of Resistance is central to this alteration of consciousness, because the reason we fail to be self-motivating, self-validating, self-reinforcing is that we’re being defeated by our own Resistance.

This is a deep subject, worthy of far more examination than this space can handle in one day.

One closing thought: I suspect that much of the groupiness that upcoming generations display is a necessary and healthy counterpoise to this imperative of self-definition. People need community. Facebook, social networks, running in packs. I hate to say it but nativism, sectarianism, religious extremism, reversion to tribalism (whether in Baluchistan or the U.S. House of Representatives) are all part of the reaction to this Macro Change that the whole world is going through.

These are the prevailing winds.

This is the sea we’re swimming in.

This is the new stuff we have to teach ourselves.

It’s hard. It’s not natural. It’s scary, it’s uncharted, it’s lonely. And the dark side is never far away. (See the Boston Marathon bombings.)

But this is our brave new world.

We are all free agents now.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

32 Responses to “The Free-Agent Mindset”

  1. BG
    May 15, 2013 at 3:36 am

    wow, awesome article! It really reflects the challenges that I am going through – trying to pick myself, learning to dance with the Resistance, trying to free myself from external critics and “judges”.
    Thank you, your article gave me a sense of clarity :)

  2. Ingimar Sverrisson
    May 15, 2013 at 4:13 am

    Excellent article. I do wonder if the instead of this free agent mentality we will see a greater drift toward picking your own tribe. You do say we need tribes, the future might be on the lines of designing your own tribe, rather than being in a “loner” mentality.

  3. May 15, 2013 at 4:14 am

    We cannot depend on our financial system, our elected officials, our banks, our food sources, government entitlements, or a sense of safety. We are bombarded with conflicting, unreliable “advice” about everything from multiple sources.

    Maybe it has been a long time since we could depend on these things, but we thought we could. We have all, in one way or another, been in for some rude shocks.

    So, we all have to figure out how to negotiate this maze of unreliability. The good side, as you say, is that we will have to come up with creative and individual solutions to how to live in this new world, where nothing can be taken for granted except our own integrity.

    • May 16, 2013 at 3:22 pm

      Susanna, I love your phrase “maze of unreliability.” I hate to say it but this week’s bundle of political scandals (and the faux outrage in response) only reinforces that more …

  4. Mike
    May 15, 2013 at 5:48 am

    The social consciousness ebbs and flows in a determined and hence predictable fashion. Check out Pendulum (no affiliate) and you’ll see that the authors have put together compelling evidence describing precisely what you’re writing about in this blog.

    Cheers,
    m

  5. May 15, 2013 at 5:53 am

    Brilliant, and at just the right time. Thanks for the wise words, Steve!

  6. Colt
    May 15, 2013 at 7:19 am

    I think the key is to realize that community is not bad. It just is. We were all born into the “human community”. We carry on the English language game as best we can. And they say that the most remarkable thing about time is that it keeps showing up, and look we are all here.

    Resistance is merely the time it take for grace to be converted into gratitude.

  7. May 15, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Yes, technology is destroying institutional walls built to coordinate activity, thereby making us more independent. However, it is, at the same time, making it easier to build social walls around groups of people.

    So, walls are only good to the extent that transparent windows are designed to bridge between groups of people. The disadvantages surrounding group think can be eliminated if there’s a design for information to flow between groups transparently.

    A design where technology bridges provide efficiency and human bridges provide effectiveness.

  8. Smitty
    May 15, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Great read! We as society are constantly bombarded with everything imaginable. Music, tv, friends, fashion and trends. I believe these are some of the things that has us stuck in a never ending cycle.

  9. Nathan
    May 15, 2013 at 8:31 am

    This free-agent mindset is something that psychologist Robert Kegan has been talking about for years; in his latest book with Lisa Lahey, Immunity to Change (Harvard UP, 2009), it’s called the “self-authoring” mindset. The same idea is explored using other language in his earlier books In Over Our Heads (Harvard UP, 1994) and The Evolving Self (Harvard UP, 1982). What Pressfield calls “resistance” is one form of a larger force that Kegan and Lahey call “immunity to change.”

    Speaking in Kegan’s terms, it’s important to keep in mind that the “self-authoring” mindset is not the end of the road of self-development. Kegan and Lahey speak of a further mindset called the “self-transforming” mindset.

    Furthermore, we all have to navigate a world in which there will always be an immense, chaotic, evolving mixture of mindsets (including our own). We’re not only working on our own mindsets, we’re always working with other people’s mindsets as well. Kegan’s friend, the management researcher Bill Torbert, wrote a helpful book on this problem: Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership (Berrett-Koehler, 2004).

  10. Basilis
    May 15, 2013 at 8:59 am

    So much wisdom in this post…

  11. May 15, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Yup. I think that’s one reason college football is so big right now, too — college players are still very much loyal to their team for life. They are NOT free agents. Also, there are real rivalries in college football. The more these things are absent in the rest of life, the more we yearn for it wherever we CAN find it. As much as free-agentism may be the wave of the future, I think pro sports missed out when they moved to free agents and lost the rivalries.

  12. May 15, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Well said. My personal division is employment. I’ve been self-employed (called freelance in my industry) for many years, and one of the first things it taught me, is to divide the world into employees and the self-employed. Its not just a question of where you get your paycheck from. After a few years you learn its larger than that. Its a question about control and self-perception. Pretty much everything your post mentions, and more.

  13. May 15, 2013 at 11:03 am

    If the power of Resistance derives from fear of being expelled from the group, I wonder if the shift toward free agency make us better or worse and beating it. Better I hope.

  14. May 15, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Charles Handy wrote about this decades ago in “The Elephant and the Flea.” Brilliant insightful book.

    I finally wrote my own manifesto book last year with my take on it: “You Don’t WANT a Job.”

    Everyone will eventually be a free agent. Those who don’t make the shift emotionally, but wait for it to be thrust upon them externally, will suffer needlessly.

  15. Allen
    May 15, 2013 at 11:53 am

    I agree with everything you’ve said – however – most people can’t make this shift alone or maybe make it alone quickly enough. We need training in how to make the shift and still make a living.

    Or am I just speaking as a nearly 70 year old trying to keep functioning within that huge shift?

  16. May 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I’d say that the Resistance is our animal selves that finds the status quo safer that this new, unknown, scary thing. I think we need to honor the fear and then consciously take itty-bitty steps toward our new Free Agent life.

  17. May 15, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    As I read this it struck me that tribalism is the norm, but it can exist at several levels. Physical tribalism where we gather with congruent types, not by race, creed, or color necessarily, but by “us” not “them”, i.e. the Army (and even there the tribes shake down into branch, corps, company, platoon, squad) has always been around, but now we have the opportunity to engage in mental, or social tribalism via the internet powered medium that allows us to hob-nob with people who are like minded. Pick your social medium, group of blogs, twitter feeds to follow, and you are defining your tech tribe. Fortunately, outsiders can also interact so the insularity of the private club/tribe is at least breachable by “other thought” and opinion. While these “outies” can be shouted down or flamed into silence, they cannot be eliminated and therefore we are subject to outside opinion in a way that may be unique in history. We are free agents indeed in that we can hear and read and follow up without the pressure of group-think to defer us.

  18. May 15, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    The book I wrote has sat untouched on my desk for weeks as I try to give myself permission to illustrate it. Your article has helped me see I don’t need permission to be myself. The Resistance I have been fighting has a name now. Thank you Mr. Pressfield.

  19. May 15, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    This idea of picking yourself is something I first came across in Robert Ringer’s book “Winning Through Intimidation.” (No, it’s not about intimidating others.) He talks about the idea of self-appointment and Leap-Frogging to where you want to go (his term).

    While that book has a definite business emphasis, it’s worth reading just for the thought-stimulating effect of it. Personally, I recommend the original version from the ’70’s over the re-written version that came out a few years ago.

    Really a good read. And he self-published it at first, and later it became one of the best selling books of the ’70’s. We can have success (however we define it, even financially) by picking ourselves. :-)

  20. May 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    Conscious awareness is a rising phenonomen which we are all progressing through in one way or another and while this article only touches upon the edge of it, it is on the right track. Good to see such as this in “mainstream” commentary.

    Enjoy your expanding experience. It is quite a ride I can tell you

    Elizabeth

  21. Alex Benjamin
    May 16, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    There is one little symbol that
    simply defines who we really are as artists and marks mostly everything as tainted and smeared by the feces of our egos. ©. I thoroughly agree that resistance blocks our true selves and that “Self” is attached to God. One question. If creative works are derived from “Self” and “Self” is connected to God, who are we in all humility to own and copyright those works if those creations are a direct result of connecting ourselves to God? To truly free ourselves from our egos we must forfeit all our ownership of proprietary works and submit them to the public domain for all to enjoy such as Beethoven’s symphonies, Shakepeare’s sonnets and plays, and Van Gogh’s paintings. True artists must be like monks that live in poverty while begging for food. Artists that live in mansions and drive expensive vehicles are still slaves to their egos and will never release the creativity of their true selves.

  22. May 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I’ve believed this since reading Daniel Pink’s “Free Agent Nation” a number of years ago. And I believe we have been in transition – thanks to technology – since at least the ’80s although many of us don’t recognize it.

    I think “resistance” may be my middle name. But one thing I’ve learned since becoming an originally reluctant “Free Agent” is that letting go of resistance to embrace the future with curiosity and delight at the possibilities makes life a whole lot more fun.

  23. Sherry
    May 17, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I love the use of the term “free agent” for setting yourself apart from the general mindset of the masses. However, I believe there are more people like me out here that have a “free agent” look on life and are hunting for an explanation of what is going on in this new age. I recently came across Ho’oponopono, an ancient Hawaiian belief that has really made me rethink my approach to every day. Your free agency and the Ho’oponopono way cross paths.

  24. May 18, 2013 at 8:16 am

    In one word, Brilliant!

    Your blog and your books have helped me to understand the power of fighting through Resistance. For many years I have made decisions that will give me the best chances of avoiding that “scary, unchartered, and lonely” place, but I am now realizing that if I am going to live out my potential, there is no avoiding it. The third party, pick me mentality only leads to disappointments, pain and heart break. Not how I want to live my life. So I will commit to the cultivation of me, work to have more wins than losses, and embrace and appreciate that lonely, yet fulfilling road ahead. Thank you Mr. Pressfield!

    Now back to work

  25. May 19, 2013 at 5:28 am

    It’s definitely a good sea to swim in. Thanks for yet another thinkable article and see you out there in the water :)

  26. Heath
    May 19, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    To me, Steven you’ve described a rapid radicalization of the structure of capitalism. Almost in the same way as a caricature. Its interesting how you explain the rise in individualism by citing our new propensity for “resistance”.
    Interesting our hierarchy of needs suggest that this resistance, ultimately leading to individualization, is a human’s last priority, only once all other needs (more pressing needs, that is) are met and satisfied. Suffice to say that this new state of independence is somewhat transcendent because of this- A sigh of great relief after climbing the long staircase that has been humanities continuing evolution starting with primal tribes, to dictators, to republics, democracies and so forth. And finally, with advancements in technology, we’ve reached a digital age that has allowed us human beings to gather and collect knowledge and information without relying on other humans–particular those of higher power. That’s the sigh of relief if you ask me– liberation.

    I remember vaguely one of your quotes from Gates of Fire. something to the effect of “a man is nothing without his city.” It is a psychological need of every human being to feel like they belong to something bigger. It is there for emotional support and encouragement, and ultimately it feeds our ego. Now this age has passed, and I wonder what psychological travesties will follow for humans now that this part of the hierarchy of needs is essentially being skipped. When you mention this new age as being lonely, I think that explains it. With greater independence, we will all have less emotional support, and less fuel for our egos.

    My ultimate question is, will this new era make us stronger, or weaker, as individuals, and as a collective population?

  27. S Crawford
    May 20, 2013 at 6:12 am

    This blog post has stopped me in my tracks to sit down and write this to you. I just had a kind of epiphany or whatever about this concept.

    When I was a kid, the first sentence I apparently spewed out was something like: “Me alone” as in “get off me and let me do this by myself, I wanna walk all by myself” etc. Naturally, being a toddler, I fell straight onto my face. But I got up again and learnt how to do things my way and how to listen and follow my instinct/gut/intuition which BTW has never failed me so far.

    But there are times when we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need to allow others help us. We need to delegate stuff. We have to work in a team to achieve our aim. We need to lead a team or even be led. Humans are pack animals, so we naturally form communities or groups. But when it comes to defining our own individual identity, you are SPOT ON. BULLSEYE! And I realised there and then that – actually – all this ‘Individualism’, or whatever people may call it, is not bad, it’s good!

    During WW1 and WW2 we hung around in bunches called ‘nations’ or ‘countries’ and 1 country would view the other as a solid, indistinguishable ‘unit’ of wankers/morons/idiots and wage war against each other, no matter what (or even why). ‘Cos “that’s what we all do as a group, right?”. We were bossed around by emperors, kings, dictators, presidents and chiefs.

    Today, as you rightly pointed out, with global technology, travel & business it’s a different kettle of fish. (Excuse the reference to your fish analogy). Individualism is beneficial because we’re no longer defined by our physical location or country or community (i.e. the whole of France) but by our ‘creative territory’ or aspirations and beliefs. Of course, this mixes everything up! We’re going into ‘shuffle mode’. We are forming groups across boundaries and countries with like-minded spirits, driven by our enthusiasm, work, creative urges. Yes, that can go down the ‘dark side’ (but what can’t?). But on the whole, it’s very good. So now the previously indistinguishable ‘unit’ of wankers/morons/idiots turns into a ‘collection’ of many different individuals, most of whom are very nice and sensible people. In fact, we know them and have probably interacted with them via email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter or Skype. This makes it a lot harder for dictators & kings alike to sell us the concept of large-scale war or conflict. Well, so I hope at least. Surely that’s a good thing?

    An example from my background before I stop boring the pants off you: I’m German, live in the UK, my husband is English. My father living in Germany is Hungarian, my mother was German. My Hungarian grandmother emigrated there from Slovenia. My German stepbrother just married a girl from Singapore where he works. My German stepsister’s boyfriend is Dutch, he works in Germany. During a recent family reunion dinner my husband blurted out the truth as a joke: ”You’ve all teamed up with foreigners”. Our collective jaws dropped. Yep. He was right. And we laughed. Because it was good.

    Sorry to trouble you with my ramblings. Thanks for your wonderful, mind-opening blogs! They hit the nail right on the head.

  28. Stanley Courage Duoghah
    May 21, 2013 at 1:52 am

    Great post!

  29. Matt McConnell
    May 23, 2013 at 12:56 am

    It does feel as though there is a significant, paradigm-shifting wind moving the air these days. But are we really talking about a shift that’s all about “me”? [Come on, again?! For crissake, the Baby Boomers have nearly (they’re still trying to) run the apogee of civilization back into the ground in the name of “me”.
    I hope not. I hope that this wind carries more of substance, less that is narcissistic. Of course any wind must carry our own wings, but what bird flies to itself as a destination?
    You use a great word, imperative. Perhaps this wind is our imperative, and perhaps we’ll each realize our imperative more keenly through the digital factors of our day and be better enabled to contribute a personal wind.
    In the search for meaning and purpose I found nothing more instructive, inspiring, sensible, or relieving than the opening words of “A Purpose-Driven Life”:
    It’s not about you.
    Give it a whirl. You’ll be glad you did.

  30. May 27, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    I totally agree. I’ve been arguing for a while that the ideal of mass employment, i.e. companies employing thousands or tens of thousands of people, is dying. Not only has technology eliminated large numbers of jobs, globalization and competition is driving down the compensation for what remains. I think we’re making a mistake in trying to create more “jobs” when what we should be doing is working to make education cheaper while encouraging and investing in entrepreneurship. I tend to believe the future is going to require most of us to create our own income streams rather than depend on a single employer structure. Frankly, I think this could be a strongly positive development. This employment structure rose out of industrialization anyway. Now that we’re entering a post-industrial period, it shouldn’t be surprising that a new employment structure would emerge from the changing conditions.