on April 19, 2001
Free Agent Nation exceeded my expectations, which were high to begin with. This is not just a drawn-out version of Pink's classic cover story in Fast Company. It reflects extensive research and provides many surprising insights and interesting predictions.
This is not a book you can polish off in an hour or two. It is difficult to convey in a brief review the depth and richness of Free Agent Nation.
Pink demonstrates that free agents are a large and growing share of the work force. He describes some of the economic forces contributing to this phenomenon, but he finds that free agents themselves explain their reasons for leaving the corporate world in psychological terms: a desire for freedom, authenticity, accountability, and flexible concepts of success.
Pink shows that free agents have their own unique perspectives and solutions to such challenges as security, workplace relationships, career advancement, and work-family balance. For example, he describes the way that peer networks are providing the type of career support that formerly came from within large corporations.
Whether you like it or not, the gravitational forces between individuals and large corporations are weakening. In the future, how will business be re-organized? How will the economy function? Daniel Pink asks the big questions, and he comes up with a lot of fascinating answers. I expect Free Agent Nation to become the most talked-about nonfiction book of the year.
on October 26, 2001
Reading this book was irritating! I've developed a habit of turning down the corners of pages when something on that page is particularly interesting to me. I discovered that I was turning down practically every page of Free Agent Nation! Daniel Pink has accomplished what most readers of non-fiction books desire: he's put solid value on almost every page. Your thoughts will be constantly stimulated as you move through this book.
Our lives have changed substantially since William Whyte wrote The Organization Man in 1956. The work environment experienced by today's generation-and tomorrow's-is radically different. Instead of being captives of the organizational mode, income-earners are now free agents, including some 30 million freelancers, temps, and microbusiness owners. The lifestyles and philosophies of this growing group will impact the labor pool, retirement, education, real estate, and politics. Daniel Pink's name will go down in literary history for Free Agent Nation because he has so effectively covered the underlying philosophy of a generation.
Free Agent Nation, an engaging, smooth read, is organized into five parts. The first part introduces us to what Free Agent Nation is all about. Chapter 2 gets right into "Numbers and Nuances" to give the reader a deep understanding. Chapter 3 explains how free agency happened. "Four ingredients were essential: 1) the social contract of work-in which employees traded loyalty for security-crumbled; 2) individuals needed a large company less, because the means of production-that is, the tools necessary to create wealth-went from expensive, huge, and difficult for one person to operate to cheap, houseable, and easy for one person to operate; 3) widespread, long-term prosperity allowed people to think of work as a way not only to make money, but also to make meaning; 4) the half-life of organizations began shrinking, assuring that most individuals will outlive any organization for which they work."
Part Two explores The Free Agent Way, the new relationship between worker and employer. Part Three gets into How (and Why) Free Agency Works. Pink explains how people get connected-with work opportunities and with each other. While many free agents work alone, they are not alone. There is a growing community of mutually-supportive independent members in an evolving new design of society. But, all is not rosy in Free Agent Nation; this is not Camelot. Part Four examines the problems that arise from laws, taxes, and insurance. An interesting chapter (13) on Temp Slaves, Permatemps, and the Rise of Self-Organized Labor reveals the seedier side of this picture. Pay careful attention, and you can almost feel the changes that are coming.
Part Five engages The Free Agent Future. Chapter 14 addresses E-tirement, confirming that older members of our society will be playing much different roles than in previous generations. The chapter on Education gives some initial insight into some different approaches to lifelong learning. Educators take note: your lives will be changing . . . are you ready? Concluding chapters explore free agent finance, politics, and how free agency will influence commerce, careers, and community in the years ahead.
With all that said, let's take a look at who the author is and how this book was put together. Daniel Pink is a former White House speech writer and Contributing Editor to Fast Company magazine. To research this topic, he invested more than a year on the road conducting face-to-face interviews with several hundred citizens of the Free Agent Nation. He met with real people, who are quoted and cited by name in most cases. The text comes alive with the insightful stories of people who are living-and often loving-their free agent status. These case studies are beautifully interwoven, producing a delightful fabric for the reader to caress. Warning: you'll find your mind leaving the page and floating into day dreams and contemplations numerous times.
To bring readers back to the reality of the core of his treatise, Pink concludes each chapter with what he calls "The Box." Included in this one-page-per-chapter feature are the key information and arguments of the chapter. The four components of this summary box are "The Crux," a summary of 150 words or less; "The Factoid," a particularly revealing statistic from the chapter; "The Quote," which pulls one representative quotation from the chapter; and "The Word," a novel term or phrase from the new vocabulary of free agency. As the author explains, "Read only "The Box" and you'll miss the chapter's narrative and nuance-but not, I hope, it's point."
An appendix on the free agent census and a good index complete this book. If you're ready to learn about the evolution and revolution in the world of work, this book will be a treasure for you.
on July 2, 2002
And I never thought I would say that about any book other than the Bible. But Pink's book has become my professional Bible. I wasn't one of those wise ones who sat down, thought it all out, weighed all the plusses and minuses, and made a decision. Nope, not me. That makes way too much sense! After being left stranded high and dry after the Technology industry downturn last year, and scrambling to make it; little by little, one job here, one job there, I finally realized I was making it, and pretty well, but without the traditional J-O-B. Then I ran across Dan's book, and found myself!! It is overflowing with advice, insights, perspective, tips, you-name-it for those who love freedom and controlling their own life more than a corner office with a rubber tree plant!
If you want to understand the current revolution in the workplace, read this book.
If you think you might be interested in being a Free Agent, study this book!
If you're trying to make it as a Free Agent, DEVOUR this book.
Thanks for all your hard work, Dan! I can never thank you enough!!!
on May 6, 2001
Engage your imagination.
Think of the individuals who provide the standard information we depend on -- those working for the mega-corporations that control TV, magazines and newspapers; the professors at universities and the consultants at large firms; and the public information officers working for the government -- as people whose very view of the world is supported, both economically and contextually, by the many concentric rings of a tree (their employer). These rings show the tree is many decades old, and planted firmly in the ground.
One who is attached to such a solid, massive, rooted tree would hardly notice the slender, fresh young shoots popping out from the ground far below, even if those shoots are numerous in the tens of millions. Individually, they're just too tiny.
Dan Pink's book is about the growing power, influence and population of those fresh young shoots. Even to acknowledge the validity of his premise shakes the big trees in a frightening way, down to their core foundations.
I know whereof I speak. Until 1985, I was a tiny tendril of a branch of one of the great old trees. It was in 1985 I left my post as McGraw-Hill's World News San Francisco Bureau Chief. I know how to "wear the hat" of old-tree warrior-reporter.
For 16 years I have been a free agent (I didn't know to call myself that until I read Pink's cover story in Fast Company). It was always curious to me that wearing my corporate newsman's hat, I could never see me writing about someone such as myself in my current incarnation -- solely because, as a free agent, I didn't have the institutional affilation (that is, I wasn't part of an old tree) which was needed to be seen by the media as credible.
Of course, those things have changed somewhat in 16 years, as Pink so skillfully documents. But here's the most important point -- a few days ago, the government (one old tree) reported that in the previous month there was a huge wave of corporate layoffs (from another old tree), and expert economists (working for yet other old trees) announced that now we're in a recession, making their announcement through, of course, the mass media (yet another group of old trees).
They may be right. They may be wrong. But their measurements are focused on a decreasingly important part of the economy. And, what is more, nobody factored into those measurements of economic movement what the 30-million-plus free agents had been up to during the same previous month.
I dwell on these points because they illustrate how revolutionary -- in, I might emphasize, a pro-capitalist, economy-expanding way -- the book Free Agent Nation is. Many people aren't visionary enough to understand yet how well Pink has adduced a blueprint for the future in this book. But if you're interested in this book, you probably have enough of a sense of where we're heading to realize we will become a much less institutionally determined, and a much more individually negotiated, economy and society.
Whether you are of the old tree persuasion, between trees, a free agent, or "other," you'll get a radical reframing of your view of the world by reading this well researched and brilliantly thought-through book. The information in Free Agent Nation is valuable for your own career planning, and for all of your outside business dealings. That it's amusing is merely a plus.
But don't expect the reporters collecting paychecks from the most respected business publications and highest-circulation newspapers to give you glowing reviews of this book. Or even to step outside themselves to see what it says. Because what it says is too damned threatening for them personally to give it a fair shake.
on September 2, 2002
Daniel Pink was doing quite well as publicist and speechwriter. He'd landed a job on the staff of the Vice President of the United States, in fact. Then he had one of those "Moments of Truth we've heard about.
The Moment of Truth came when the pressure of politics and long days caught up with him. He had a fainting spell. He very nearly puked on the Vice President. And he decided that maybe there was a better way to live his life.
Daniel quit the organizational life to work as a freelance writer. He got work right away. Having the White House on your resume usually helps with things like that.
He worked out of his home and pretty soon he noticed that lots of friends and neighbors were starting to do the same thing. "Aha!" he thought, "this could be a trend and I could write a book about it."
And so Daniel set off on a year-long jaunt around the country. He interviewed lots of folks. He researched the statistics on independent workers in the US. And he wrote his book. The book is a mixed bag.
On the upside, Pink has done a good job of pulling together a lot of different sources. He's interviewed a lot of people and he's the kind of writer who can make the results of those interviews sing. Those individual portraits are the strength of this book.
Would that he handled the statistics as well. In the early part of the book, Pink sets his work up as a sequel to William H. Whyte's Organization Man, one written for our times. The rigor of Pink's research and his use of statistics suffer from the comparison.
There's a certain amount of Statistical Voodoo here. In the quest to figure out just how many free agents there are we're presented with lots of different estimates from several different sources. Numbers are adjusted up, down and sideways. In the end, Pink tells us that there are about 33 million free agents in the US.
He divides those free agents into three groups. There are soloists. He's one of those. There are microbusinesses. Those have three or four employees. And there are temps. About 3 million of the 33 million are temporary workers.
That's one weakness of this book. Including temps, who have different problems, prospects and possibilities takes attention away from the other free agents that Pink gushes about.
Did I say "Gushes?" Yep. Sure did. Pink thinks that being a free agent is just the neatest thing in all the world and he obviously wants you to think so, too. For Pink free agency is the wave of the future, a New Agey kind of approach to work where everyone (except temps) wins almost all the time.
Nonsense. I've been one of those free agents for a long time now. Many of my friends qualify, too. We make a wonderful living at it, but we've all seen enough folks start out on the free agent journey to know that lots of them end up as road kill.
To succeed as a free agent takes talent and discipline. It takes a willingness to be totally responsible for your results that not everyone is willing to shoulder. It's, very simply, not for everyone.
You won't hear much of this from Pink, though. He doesn't seem to talk to many folks who've tried and failed. And he hasn't been at it long enough himself to remember the legions of folks who call and write and email because they "want to do what you do" and then dwindle down to a precious few who are still at in years later.
Granted, Pink was writing while the dot-com, new economy bubble was still round and full, but that doesn't explain why he simply leaves out mention of data (decline in business startups, for example) that don't support his conclusions or people (Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, for example) who don't agree with his assessments.
I found that I loved the stories and interviews, but that I was increasingly put off by the analysis. Every time Pink moves to analyze what he found the language changes to something like a revival tent or a commercial break. That may be designed to make his concepts easy to remember, but it just made me tired and crabby.
Read this book for well-written stories about people who are charting their own course as free agents. But skip the analysis until the next time you're in the mood for a theological argument.
The term, free agent, is borrowed from sports. It describes the players who are most talented and for whom other teams bid. As a result, they often command enormous salaries, perks, and influence. Recently, the term has been applied to people like free lance software programmers who are sought after because of their special expertise. In Free Agent Nation, the term is applied more broadly to describe all those who rely on project assignments outside of being directly and permanently employed by someone else. This group includes lots of professional free lancers as well as people who work through temporary agencies with few skills at deadly dull tasks.
The ideal in the 1950s was to work for one employer, to be loyal to that employer and to receive loyalty in return. Steady progress would follow as seniority grew. Keeping the ship afloat came before the individual's needs. This world was described in the classic book, The Organization Man by William H. Whyte, Jr. Since then the world has changed quite a bit, and Daniel H. Pink's Free Agent Nation is the conscious updating of the working ideal to reflect today's growing free lance economy. This ideal emphasizes freedom, work satisfaction, flexibility, accountability, self-defined markers of success, and being authentic in your own eyes. It's the ultimate of wanting to do good and to do well.
Mr. Pink draws on his own experiences, hundreds of interviews with free agents, qualitative surveys, and his review of the literature on this subject to weave together the best integrated story on how independent work is becoming a norm as well as an ideal in the United States. Mr. Pink's strength is that he is a great communicator. He deftly weaves his various sources into a tautly connected story that will make sense to anyone who reads it or has lived it. He connected quite a few dots for me that I have never thought of as being connected before.
The book will be of most value to those who are thinking about leaving traditional employment to become a free agent. Free Agent Nation does a good job of describing what the benefits are once you have made the shift. On the other hand, the book almost totally ignores the difficult transitions that most people go through. If you are looking for advice on how to make the shift, some of what is in here will help, but you would do well to talk to some people who are doing what you would like to do first in order to get their ideas on how to transition.
The book describes who the free agents are, estimates how many of them there are (a lot more than you probably suspect), how this work style emerged, and why people like it. Essentially, the model described here is a return to the agrarian model of a family growing its own food and always being in close touch. The main change is that people use technology to work from their own homes to meet their material needs rather than farming. Mr. Pink also connects this trend to the rise in home schooling, by showing the traditional school and university to be more similar to the factory model than today's society and economy.
The best part of the book for me was the description of how people are making free agency work and the problems they run into. Basically, loyalty is being reborn into loyalty to a rolodex of contacts and clients rather to an employer. An infrastructure is being built up to support free agents (from Kinko's to agents and coaches). Increasingly, two free agents head a family with children. In these cases, the children (such as Mr. Pink's daughter) don't understand that some people have offices outside the home.
The weakest part of the book is his scenarios of the possible future for free agents. He is closest in his estimation that free agency will probably eliminate retirement to the rocker on the porch. It is less clear to me that high schools and prestigious universities will be eliminated by home education and on-line learning. His speculations about being able to float debt publicly are probably pretty accurate. I'm skeptical that individual IPOs will become frequent for the average free agent. On the other hand, a benefit of extreme scenarios is to stimulate your thinking. Mr. Pink's work is very helpful in that sense, and towards the end of the book he suggests that this was his purpose in proposing the scenarios.
Mr. Pink's optimistic imagination makes this book much more lively than how the same subject would be treated by an academic. For example, the book opens with a scene in which he becomes ill as a result of exhaustion after meeting with vice president Gore. Many people would have treated this incident in a heavy way. Mr. Pink puts a humorous tone on it. He also approaches the Census Bureau for permission to be deputized to do his own census of the free agents, and is politely rebuffed. But this was no mere stunt, for he had actually found precedent for his proposal in the very first census.
Undoubtly, this book will encourage scholars and sociologists to follow up with quantative studies of the "free agent next door." Those will be helpful, but I'm sure they won't be as entertaining and stimulating as this work.
Whether or not you think you want to become a free agent, I suggest that you read this book. If Mr. Pink is correct, you will probably be downsized, rightsized, or consulted into being one anyway. You might as well understand what is coming.
Sculpt your life into a beautiful expression of your values and talents!
on October 12, 2005
What this book isn't: (1) a guide to how to succeed as a free agent, (2) an objective, scientific study of self-employed workers, or (3) a statistical analysis of social trends.
Dan Pink simply did what he set out to do: interview lots of people who work as "free agents," find out how and why they chose this way of working (or how it chose them) and how it's played out for them, and draw some general conclusions. He remarked, at a booksigning I attended, that he found his informal survey "inspiring" because he met so many enterprising and creative self-employed people, and his enthusiasm comes through strongly. But this isn't a simplistic, rah-rah book; he's frank about the pitfalls and drawbacks of self-employment, and his chapter on temp workers, while brief, is a good overview of their dubious situation.
I don't agree with all of his opinions, but I think that his main point is dead on: The "organization man" world of paternalistic corporations and loyal drones is dead. In fact, we all work for ourselves; while this insight may be unsettling to some, not only does "free agency" offer greater opportunities for meaningful work, but it's closer to the way "work" has historically been performed.
Having been a free agent myself for most of my working life, I strongly agree that the infrastructure needs to adapt. Although there have been great improvements in the tax code, the insurance business, and individual retirement plans in the past 20 years, they're still tailored to either (1) full-time employees who are paid a fixed salary with benefits, or (2) those who work on commission. So I applaud this book for bringing these issues more into public awareness, and thus helping to stimulate further change.
on August 29, 2002
In Baltimore, 700 low-income people have completed a 108- hour course in how to start a small business. The course is offered by a non-profit, Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore. WEB says that 80% of those who started the program have begun their own enterprise, and that after 10 years, 80% of those are still in business. These new business owners are part of a national trend affecting rich and poor alike. They are "free agents", the people who will eventually change all we think we know about work life.
According to the latest census figures, more than half of American companies have less than five employees, and 70% of all businesses in the United States have NO paid employees. Today the 33 million free agents in the US outnumber manufacturing employees and all federal, state, local and county government employees, including teachers and police officers.
These little companies typically re-circulate 60% of revenues into their local economies through wages, using local vendors, and consuming local products and services. In contrast, chain stores only re-circulate 20% locally and warehouse type stores only 6% locally.
Author Daniel Pink calls this growth of the productively unattached "Free Agent Nation", and it may signal a new capitalism that will go far beyond "getting a good job", and "the organization man".
In his essential book Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live (Warner Business Books, 2001), Pink notes that the growth of free agents are enabled by four economic trends. The old social contract in which a company traded lifetime job security for employee loyalty no longer exists. Second, new inexpensive and portable technology means that anyone can buy a computer and own the means of production, no longer being dependent on a corporation to provide what's needed to make a business work. Third, long term prosperity has enabled people to search for meaning in their work, not just a paycheck. Fourth, corporations continue to form and dissolve at faster rates, so most workers will outlive their companies.
The new social contract is more challenging than the old. Pink describes it: "The free agent provides talent (products, services, advice) in exchange for opportunity (money, learning, connections)." Many large corporations now outsource as much as possible to free agents, a good deal on both sides.
Free agents are growing in spite of outdated employment, tax, and zoning laws that restrict small businesses. Free agents pay more taxes than employees because they are both employers and employees, they pay more for health insurance because of laws encouraging corporations to provide coverage, and they find themselves breaking outmoded zoning laws to run home businesses. But while the political landscape doesn't yet support their freedom, they have already changed the cultural and economic landscape. Free agents put up with the downside for freedom and because they actually earn more than their employed counterparts for doing the same work. A recent study of one thousand new millionaires found that two thirds were self-employed.
In many ways, being a free agent is the ultimate step in personal responsibility, ethics and self-actualization. The free agent definition of success is entirely personal and may have little to do with income or prestige. Free agents survive through positive relations with others. If a free agent acts in an unethical manner nothing will soften the landing. Whether they make it or not, there is no one to pity them, and no one else to blame.
From my perspective, defining a "free agent" has less to do with vocational status than a state of mind but, as professional athletes and their advisors will correctly point out, free agency has some significant legal and economic implications which must be accommodated. Years ago, Pink wrote an article for Fast Company magazine which generated so much interest that he decided to explore the subject in much greater depth. This book is the result of that exploration. The subtitle indicates that he explains "how America's independent workers are transforming the way we live" and presumably the "we" includes all workers as well as those who employ them and those who depend on what they earn. We must also include officials of various regulatory entities (e.g. Social Security, IRS, EEO) who, directly or indirectly, become involved with independent workers.
The implications of the subtitle suggest why this book is so important: "How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live." Pink examines a heretofore neglected segment of the workforce, explaining who "free agents" are and what they do; more importantly, the impact they have on the workplace and indeed on our entire culture as their number rapidly increases. The state of mind I referred to earlier is that which any full-time employee can also achieve and sustain, even within a traditional organizational structure. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the most highly admired companies are also the most profitable companies, often dominant within their competitive marketplaces. One of the key reasons for their appeal and profitability is the nature and extent of free agency which those companies not only encourage but frequently require. Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom's, and Ritz-Carlton are but three of countless examples of organizations within which all employees have significant authority as well as responsibility. Such organizations are literally customer-driven without in any way compromising personal integrity or inhibiting prudent initiative of their employees or (if you prefer, as many others do) their "associates."
I rate this book so highly because Pink (a) makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how and why the contemporary workplace (broadly defined) is undergoing so many major changes, (2) also makes a significant contribution to our understanding how and why independent workers are "transforming the way [all of us] live, and (3) asks questions, addresses issues, and offers suggestions all of which will, I hope, generate rigorous and extensive consideration by others, including those employed full-time.
Pink organizes his material within five Parts: Welcome to the Free Agent Nation, The Free Agent Way, How (and Why) Free Agency Works, Free Agent Woes, and finally, The Free Agent Future. He then provides an Appendix: "Results of the Free Agent Nation Online Census" which I found information but also thought-provoking. In a well-written Epiloque, Pink observes: "Today -- in good times and bad, at the peak of the boom or the trough of the bust -- the dice are loaded in favor of the individual....The demands of life will escalate. But more people from more backgrounds -- whether they're pushed into free agency or whether they leap -- will be able to throw off conformity, escape subservience, and live out their true potential. That may not be perfection but it's certainly progress." Pink then recalls Alvin Toffler's phrase "the first approximation of the new realities." What we have in this book is Pink's "first approximation" of what he perceives to be "the new realities." In this context, I recall Lily Tomlin's suggestion that reality is "a collective hunch." Also, Voltaire's suggestion that we "cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it." Pink has offered neither the first nor that last "approximation" but what he has offered is important, indeed significant.
on December 6, 2004
I thought I was an outcast, a weirdo, the odd person who didn't fit in. I never did well with the "career path" of building a resume of employement with large corporations.
Pink gave us the term "Free Agent Nation" and over the last few years, I've used it often to describe the more alive, happy, and productive people I work with who would think that turning your life over to a company is an insane way to live.
Thank you Dan Pink. I may still be an oddball, but I've learned there are millions of people like me.