The Free Agent Diverarchy


Free-agency as a distinct, Internet-powered conceptual alternative to traditional employment is 20 years old at this point. Dan Pink wrote Free Agent Nation in 2001 when the phenomenon was already past its early-Internet infancy. Tim Ferriss wrote 4-Hour-Work Week in 2007, a decade ago. I personally have been a free agent for nearly 7 years now.

In the last decade, careless observers have been increasingly conflating the free agency phenomenon with precarious, unsustainable, low-agency "under the API" contract work that is less free than paycheck employment. But the original concept is still quietly growing and thriving. The future of work is continuing to take shape, faster and faster. Just a lot more quietly than during its noisy first act.

Work in the free-agent mode is a divergent economic activity, an evolutionary phenomenon that explores outward from a constantly expanding frontier, and acquires more depth, richness, and variety with every passing year. I call this a diverarchy -- the historical trace of a naturally divergent, expansionary, evolutionary pattern based on variation and natural selection of relatively stable forms.

0: The traditional employee class, increasingly becoming a bastion of very high-value specialists who can't really create value as free agents.

Level 1: This is the level at which you are really just making different tradeoffs than paycheck employees rather than gaining freedom: more autonomy for less certain income. It is still an important qualitative difference though, since you're starting to "weather proof" your life from the vagaries of paycheck-world weather.

Level 2: At this level, you are starting to generate enough of a surplus in some form -- financial capital, network capital, or brand equity -- that you start accumulating some overall freedom and deserving the "free" label in free agent. You can begin to do things that are beyond the tradeoff space in the tethered world. You are leaving the littoral zone and starting to enter the blue ocean part of the free agent economy. Or going from suborbital to orbital if you prefer a space metaphor.

Level 3: At this level, you are no longer a cookie-cutter type free agent. You start to acquire genuine differentiation as a human being, not just the superficial differentiation of a shallow personal brand. You start to acquire an identity in the free agent world. This is similar to the level in the paycheck world where you are considered a leader in your field and head-hunted for positions that are created specifically with your abilities in mind.

Level 4: Isolation versus interdependence. This is the level at which you have to decide whether you want to stay connected to the broader currents of humanity or vanish from the human stage by disappearing across your own personal event horizon.

One frontier area that interests me is what I call

deep free agency

. Free agency in deeply specialized parts of the world that are the bastions of high-value expertise. Free agents can build websites and design apps, but it's hard to get a piece of the action in (say) Mars missions, or large-scale cloud computing, or big-budget movies and games, without being a paycheck employee. There are still too many things out of reach of free agents.This is changing, but slowly.You don't get to design the next jetliner as a free agent, but you can design your own drone. You don't get to do complex heart and brain surgeries, but you can play with CRISPR.

The free agent diverarchy is just getting started. In the paycheck world, there used to be a saying: dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The analogous idea in the free agent world is: learn to exercise the freedoms you might acquire, not just the freedoms you have.