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Big Ideas

A Manifesto For Free Radicals: Less Paperwork, Less Waiting, More Action

We demand freedom, we do work that is rewarding, we make stuff often, and we fail often. We are the Free Radicals, a new kind of 21st-century professional.

In chemistry, the term “free radical” is used to describe molecules with unpaired electrons, those that may have a positive, negative, or zero charge. They are hard to pin down, and as a result their possibilities are endless. They can prove wildly destructive or instrumental, depending on context.

I‘ve been thinking about the emergence of a new type of 21st-century professional. I call them “free radicals” because they take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. The commoditization of once-pricey resources like business management services (now in the cloud) and everything open-source is the wind at their backs.Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant, and extremely potent. You’ll find them working solo, in small teams, or within large companies. They’re everywhere, and they’re crafting the future.

Who Are the Free Radicals? A Manifesto.

We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding. But, when we make an impact, we expect extrinsic validation: We don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.

We demand freedom, whether we work within companies or on our own, to run experiments, participate in multiple projects at once, and move our ideas forward. We thrive on flexibility and are most productive when we feel fully engaged.

We make stuff often, and therefore, we fail often. Ultimately, we strive for little failures that help us course-correct along the way, and we view every failure as a learning opportunity, part of our experiential education.

We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old-boy-networks, and antiquated business practices. As often as possible, we question “standard operating procedure” and assert ourselves. But even when we can’t, we don’t surrender to the friction of the status quo. Instead, we find clever ways (and hacks) around it.

We don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.

We expect to be fully utilized and constantly optimized, regardless of whether we’re working in a startup or a large organization. When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave. But when we’re leveraging a large company’s resources to make an impact in something we care about, we are thrilled! We want to always be doing our best work and making the greatest impact we can.

We consider “open source” technology, API’s, and the vast collective knowledge of the Internet to be our personal arsenal. Wikipedia, Quora, and open communities for designers, developers, and thinkers were built by us and for us. Whenever possible, we leverage collective knowledge to help us make better decisions for ourselves and our clients. We also contribute to these open resources with a “pay it forward” mentality.

We believe that “networking” is sharing. People listen to (and follow) us because of our discernment and curatorial instinct. As we share our creations as well as what fascinates us, we authentically build a community of supporters that give us feedback, encouragement, and lead us to new opportunities. For this reason and more, we often (though, not always) opt for transparency over privacy.

We believe in meritocracy and the power of online networks and peer communities to advance our ability to do what we love, and do well by doing it. We view competition as a positive motivator rather than a threat, because we want the best idea – and the best execution – to triumph.

We make a great living doing what we love. We consider ourselves as both artisans and businesses. In many cases, we are our own accounting department, Madison Avenue marketing agency, business development manager, negotiator, and salesperson. We spend the necessary energy to invest in ourselves as businesses – leveraging the best tools and knowledge (most of which are free and online) to run ourselves as a modern-day enterprise.

In the past, those with Free Radical tendencies were described as either “freelancers,” if they worked alone, or “mavericks,” if they worked in an organization. The stereotype was that of a lone ranger that shuns responsibility. Today, Free Radicals are emerging as extremely capable leaders across industries. Sure, they’re authoring their own professional lives with great authority, but they are doing so with a deep appreciation for collaboration and shared resources.

In large corporations, I find Free Radicals questioning the norms and building a reputation as honest and action-oriented individuals; they’re trading antiquated (and opaque) information-sharing processes for the ease and transparency of Google Apps, they’re leveraging social media to gain market insights faster (and more cheaply) than the research department, and they’re always pushing for more freedom and progressive work practices that value meaningful creation over meaningless face time.

With less friction and fewer obstacles than ever before, Free Radicals are becoming masterful stewards of their ideas in the 21st century, and as such they are one of our greatest assets. Are you ready to take the reins?

Do the principles of “Free Radical-ism” ring true for you?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (92)
  • Cfelske

    I’m in.

  • Susanb

    Now I have a name for what I am!  But the sad part of your essay was when you said, “When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave.”  I wish!  I work in an ultra-conservative, inflexible, antiquated, highly regulated industry:  public education. No where to go…

  • P Tranfaglia

    This has to be the most inane thing I have ever read.

  • Robnonstop

    When we plateau we leave? Haven’t we istablished in…

    The Future of Self-Improvement…that the only truly great people stick to it and stay out their comfort zone when they have a plateau? Guess I don’t want to be one of those radical things.

  • Robert Donald

    Superb article, read the full concept of natures deficits, I didn’t aware about it before but this is something different from others.

  • Eli Propheta do Nascimento


  • Info

    Yes, the article is very motivating and indeed has some very interesting points however for me “DesignForAll” hits the proverbial “nail on the head”.

    Sometimes when it comes to *making a living* we all have to bow to client pressure (and that includes fees) regardless of what we believe is the good fight….a set of motivating principles doesn’t put food on the table.

     As DFA says, things will get better but its going to be a long hard fight ahead.  

    There was a line in Batman which I think applies to us all in current times:

    “….and why do we fall down …… so that we can pick ourselves up again….” 

  • Jeri Vespoli
  • Tammy Redmon

    Thank you for the powerful article. And for confirming the power in ‘full utilization’. It’s why I create my new normal continually within the expansive freedom of my own mind. No matter where  I am. Ahh, validation. 🙂

  • Joe

    “We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding.” – And this is why we 99%’s complain about not having a job, but at the same time won’t take jobs that are available. Because they are somehow beneath us or not fulfilling enough.  Get over it.

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    Please one more post about that.I
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    Thanks for link!

  • Marcella Chamorro

    This is a great and succinct look at the future of business. Creating for good. I definitely see myself and my beliefs mirrored in this piece. Glad to see I’m not the only one! Keep on truckin’.

  • Darek

    you got a point. it’s all about the energy and how to streamlien it. i like you article very much. the best challenge for free radicals is to extend their network. could you imagine what could you do with such a amount of energy?

  • Nathanael Boehm

    I really identify with this manifesto and it’s wonderful to be validated rather than feel like I’m doing something wrong (as I have been pondering a bit lately) so thanks Scott!

  • vruz

    Bullshit. This is a rehash of Nike’s “just do it” of the 90s.

    All expression, no thinking and no substance, no core values.

    Soulless, inauthentic corporate crap acting weird.

  • Farida Amar

    yes! please read about Born Creators at….

  • DavidW

    Scott, this is great, thanks for sharing.

  • Buy Protandim

    Free radical is an atom or molecule which contains an unpaired electron. Since electrons have a very strong tendency to exist in a paired state, free radicals try to steal electrons from other atoms and molecules. The danger they pose comes when they react with important cellular components in our body.

  • Cars Simplified

    Being radical brings unwanted attention, too. It’s a tough job to maintain.

  • roguepolymath

    count me in

  • DoctorMartin

    I can and do see evidence of this but appreciate Its a slow and painful process, but nothing great is easy! How do you break free from the constraints so often deeply embedded in corporate thinking?

  • DD

    A few names/personalities will be even more helpful.

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