Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose: Why I Became a Freelancer

May 15, 2020
Jhana Ellard

This blog focuses on my personal experiences working full-time in tech using Daniel Pink's framework outlined in his book Drive

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

These are the three items from Daniel Pink's book, Drive. (Which I've never actually read, it's a little outside of the theme of my daily reading)

It was a podcast that introduced me to Pink's work. I remember it connecting with me quite strongly as I listened during my daily commute about two weeks before I decided to resign from my full-time job.

I'm going to run through each of these three items and why they resonated to my particular situation working tech for the past three years. I'm sure there are parallels between how I felt while listening and how many of you readers may feel when considering your day-to-day at the office. 

*Keep in mind, I will be mentioning the companies I used to work for. I want to make it abundantly clear that I had incredible experiences working for all of them and I am only mentioning their names when relevant as a way to describe my personal experience. 

Autonomy: Freedom & Work Need Not Be Opposed

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

― Daniel H. Pink

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

― Daniel H. Pink

This is perhaps the most important for me when it comes to my work life. This has been a priority for me since graduating from university. 

It's kind of hard to believe that our work in North America take up between 50-75% of our waking lives. Our daily existence in western, industrialized society is defined by the 8 to 10 hours a day we spend at the office, whether we like it or not. 

This is not a particularly novel point, but the important thing that I really want to hit home here is not the fact that, yes, we work a lot, but that the environments which we choose to spend those 8-10 hours a day have a profound effect on our psyche and spirit. 

What this means is that there is a chasm between the personal well-being of a person who works 8-10 hours in a work environment that suits his personal needs and desires, and the one who spends 8-10 hours in an environment they dread. 

It is not necessarily the fact that we dedicate so much of our waking life to continuous, productive work that's the issue. Instead, it is the fact that many, many people are spending that time working in environments where their psychological needs are left seriously unfulfilled. 

I have been ranting about the ways in which the workplace can affect the ways we live our lives (both in the positive and negative) since I was an undergrad, and this is an area, now having worked for years, that remains just as important. 

Upon graduating, I was lucky enough to find a job at Bench Accounting that absolutely nailed the environment of the workplace. They nailed it so well that I was able to be the walking, talking example of how work environments can have incredibly strong effects on an individual's productivity and overall well being. 

I had the flexibility to manage my portfolio of clients in the way I wanted, communicate with them on my own schedule, set my own hours (which meant a lot, even though the hours I personally choose to work are incredibly close to the “set” 9-5 hours already imposed upon many of us), and had limitless remote work opportunities. 

All of the above made me want to invest my best, most productive work into a company that was offering me so much. I developed this wonderful and productive reciprocal relationship with Bench Accounting where they were giving me so much individual autonomy, and I was giving them my best work in return. 

I can't stress how lucky and privileged I was to work at Bench. The truth is, most companies don't allow such a long leash for their employees. Nor do they have millions of dollars to invest in employee well being. 

The majority of working adults a) have far less freedom that I did, and b) have far more restrictions placed on their levels of individual autonomy as well. I am speaking about my privileged experience merely to highlight that if you do implement progressive changes into your workplace, they can have a positive effect on your organization and your employees.

It's incredibly counterintuitive to think that actually loosening the restrictions and impositions on your employees can lead to an increase in productivity, and an increase in outputs. 

This should be clear as day: when the employer-employee relationship shifts from one of servitude to one of reciprocity, both parties benefit. 

I had the absolute privilege to live out all that I preached in my first year and a half of work. It's safe to say that the bar was set a little high when it came to what to expect from later companies I worked for. 

My next job had far fewer freedoms, much stricter expectations, and limited options for anyone who decided to work from home. 

I actually felt guilty the first time I decided to work from home. I went from working from home at Bench once every two weeks, to once every few months (only when I was sick) at my next job.

I felt like my personal autonomy had been restricted so much that it didn't matter that I was getting paid more, working in a role that I wanted to work in, and was furthering my career, I was far less fulfilled. 

I look back at my previous job and the ways in which they stripped away my personal autonomy as the primary reason for leaving my job. I will mention that the “autonomy” for employees at my last job did seriously, seriously improve over the last few months, though there's still a ways to go. 

But, I already knew there was a better way. 

I knew that I could be a freelancer, work on my own terms, work fewer hours, and produce more high-quality work, provide a better customer experience, and make more money. 

Noone knew a more productive and effective work regiment for “me,” than me. I already had the tools, I just needed to regain my autonomy to maximize my outputs. 

I've been a freelancer full-time now for only a few months, but I can already say that this is the single greatest thing I've reclaimed since leaving. The return to a work-life relationship that benefits me has not only made me happier, but has made me an even more productive worker. 

I hope that employers can eventually get over this counterintuitive “hump” and realize that the second they decide to grant their employees a higher level of autonomy, the more productivity and goodwill they will receive in return. 

This isn't groundbreaking, and more and more companies figure this out every day. This is an exciting direction we're headed in, we workers. 

Mastery: Get Good

“When the reward is the activity itself--deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one's best--there are no shortcuts.”

― Daniel H. Pink

We all want to be great at what we do. If it's something we like doing. Mastering something you don't particularly like to do may not be the biggest contributor to your well being.

Mastery comes in two parts. The mastery itself, and what, specifically, you are mastering. 

For me, I was in a strange place. I loved working in digital ads. I was incredibly lucky to be put in a position at Tradable Bits where I had absolutely no choice but to master how to use all of the major ad platforms effectively. The stakes are high when you spend more dollars in a day on advertising than you make in an entire year. 

Tradable Bits took a “throw Jhana into the flames” approach and I am so happy for it. I had to learn a ton, quickly. I had no choice but to learn as much about digital ads as I possibly could. 

That being said, I was (and am still) nowhere even close to mastery. This is a big industry and it's one I'm continuing to learn about every single day. 

So, when it came to the topic and the industry, everything fit at my full-time job. I loved digital ads and wanted to get better and better every day. 

But, I've also been freelancing on the side while working full-time, and just when I thought I figured out Digital Ads for large-scale sports and entertainment, I realized quickly that I was only scratching the surface. I was taking on e-comm jobs, lead-gen, landing page design, copywriting, additional ad platforms, etc. etc.

I reached the point where I was learning more doing my freelance work than in my full-time job. Ads for Tradable Bits I thought for the longest time were “ahead of the curve,” but the longer I worked as a freelancer, the more I thought they might be behind it. 

It was this that left the “mastery” portion of my full-time job seriously lacking. I wasn't learning, I wasn't applying new strategies, we weren't at the cutting edge. If I wanted to try something novel, I did it in my freelance work. 

The second part of this was the question of what I was mastering. 

I wasn't even interested in sports and entertainment and never really was. I joined and loved my job because of the work itself, not because of the industry. 

Even if I reached a point of mastery, it would be in a realm I had no interest in. I don't want to be the master of digital ads for massive enterprise conglomerates in the entertainment industry. 

I wanted to help small businesses and early stage startups scale their e-commerce offering, or help drive downloads for apps that want to improve our mental clarity. 

There was a huge gap between my love of digital ads, and my lack of interest in the industry I was applying it in. 

It is this moment where “what you are attempting to master” lines up perfectly with “where you are applying what you're attempting to master” that the stars align. 

I don't think they've aligned for me perfectly just yet, but I'm a lot closer now than I was before. 

I realized that I was continuing on a path that wasn't even taking me where I wanted to go. It was time to carve a new path. 

Purpose: What Does My 8-Hour Grind Even Mean!?

“As Carol Dweck says, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”

― Daniel H. Pink

The lack of purpose was clear as day to me at my previous job. As mentioned in the above section, I had no interest in the sports or entertainment industries specifically, I just loved digital ads. 

I wanted to apply my skills to help industries and companies that I loved, that we're doing something great, making the world a better place, or driving an idea or concept forward. 

This is the real draw of freelance. I have the freedom to choose where I want to implement my skills. 

That's where the purpose comes in. 

The pursuit of mastering digital ads as a practice is purpose enough. Then applying my skills where I want to truly brings purpose to my 8-10 hour work existence. Which ripples out into all other aspects of my life. 

When young entrepreneurs who hand make their sustainable products and want to scale their e-commerce offering online, I get to say YES! When a skincare company comes to me looking to expand into the realm of online, dermatology, I get to say YES! When my friend comes to me with their idea for an app and they need some help understanding their data, I'm there to help them. 

That, is the meaning and purpose I've been chasing, and that's why I became a freelancer. 

Conclusion & Thoughts About The Future

I feel like I have my independence and autonomy on autopilot, I am working to master my craft, and I get to spend my time helping brands I believe in. That is what Daniel Pink is talking about and that's why I left my job. 

The future of work is more free, more autonomous, more remote, more flexible, more intentional, and more meaningful. That is a future we can choose for ourselves. This is a future we can work towards both as employees and employers. You don't need to be a freelancer to move the needle in this direction.

This is a world full of work that we can choose how we build. And every single one of us young professionals are at the forefront of building a version that fits for us all.

I left because I want to practice what I preach. I left because the world is heading in this direction anyways and I want to hop on the bandwagon early. I left because I want to set an example for those who believe in what I've written and are on the verge of acting. And I left because I could. 

Let us fill those 8-10 hours of our daily existence with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

Until next time,