How to Find Purpose Outside Your Organization

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 8, 2014

As millennials enter the workforce, they are increasingly leaving the role of employee altogether and choosing instead to live in a constant state of startup. As of 2009, more than 17 percent of the 14 million self-employed workers in the United States considered themselves independent contractors or freelancers, concentrated heavily in sales, IT, creative services, marketing and operations.

As I write in my book, The Purpose Economy, our desire for greater freedom and purpose in choosing their work is driving this shift. Millennials want to get paid what they are worth, but they value things like choosing their clients, flexible hours and great benefits more than the size of their paycheck.

Fabio Rosati, the CEO of Elance, which connects freelancers with work, has seen the rise of this movement firsthand. There are many benefits to freelance work, but at its core, Fabio sees the drive for meaning. Fabio was raised in Italy, and likes to compare the freelance movement to the Renaissance. Most freelancers are a kind of artist, specialists of their crafts. Having developed that talent on their own, they don’t require the girding of a company, or a cubicle and a desk; they flourish without them. As did artists in Renaissance Florence, he points out, they must sell their art and maintain a portfolio of clients who subsidize their craft.

There are, of course, plenty of people who have become freelancers out of necessity, especially in the wake of the financial crisis. But for those who have come to freelance out of choice, they’ve done so largely out of the desire to gain more control over their destiny, and in turn, their source of purpose. When asked if they would prefer a more traditional work environment, fewer than one in 10 independent contractors indicated they would prefer to return to a traditional work arrangement. Elance refers to the shift to freelancing as the “work differently,” and finds that so many have chosen the freelance path because they are put off by the structures of corporate life.

Fabio also sees that freelancers are often driven by the satisfaction of helping others deal directly with their clients. They take great satisfaction from helping others, whether that’s an entrepreneur trying to realize her vision or someone at a corporation who couldn’t possibly keep up with the volume of work that so many are now expected to handle. They also enjoy helping one another, and increasingly they are coming together and working in loose configurations to pool their talents.

Synthesis Corporation, run by my friend Ari Wallach, has created a new model for the orchestration of consulting. He works with large organizations including CNN, the State Department and the National Resources Defense Council on their strategies, all with a staff of one—himself. Ari has made it his business to know the best freelancers out there and work with them to manage projects that would traditionally require large firms. Ari’s model is the new model for professional services. People aren’t creating a new version of Bain or McKinsey; they are working on their own and learning to build a network of freelancers to support them.

More people are creating “portfolio careers” where they craft their own jobs. As millennials have entered professional life, a new kind of work force has emerged in which the majority won’t have a traditional career or work for one company for long stretches of time. These purpose-driven professionals are largely untethered from corporations and focus more on doing work they have a passion for. In this way they are more like their own organizations, getting hired for projects but at their core remaining independent.

Freelancers seek the freedom to do their own work and control the trajectory of their careers. They craft lives that integrate their work, not the other way around. Their entrepreneurial spirit and startup mentality creates the potential for them to thrive. As Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, writes in The Start-up of You, we are increasingly thinking of our careers more entrepreneurially and see ourselves as startups, selling our time, talent, and networks.

This shifting work identity is changing some of the most basic assumptions of workplace management. For an organization in the Purpose Economy, the definition of talent is incredibly broad. It includes traditional employees, but it also includes freelancers, volunteers and users. Building a thriving organization means being able to know when to engage each of these groups to get the job done, while building a passionate and resilient culture that is not confined to a company’s four walls. 


Adapted from, The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World by Aaron Hurst, published in April 2014 by Elevate. Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and the CEO of Imperative, a technology platform that enables people to discover, connect and act on what gives them purpose in their work. He is also the founder and an active advisor to the Taproot Foundation, where he was the lead architect in developing the $15 billion pro bono service market.