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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)
  • Betso

    Great perspective! To play devil’s advocate, I’d like more examination of the detracting view, (expressed by Cranky and Work for a living), because they are the people that we have to work with/for day-to-day. My habit is to eschew “meaningless face time” in favor of “meaningful creation,” but that can be interpreted as aloofness and creates enemies. And creating enemies in the workplace undermines productivity. Fine approach for a freelancer because you’re billing hourly, but working in-house requires a frustrating (to me) amount of making nicey-nice or ELSE.

  • Neha Misra

    wow..thanks for this! I thought somebody was writing the biography for both me and my team at the start up social enterprise Solar Sister (http://www.solarsister.org). It is wonderful to be both free and radical to really change the world ( for better, I add! )

  • Stinlarson

    Brilliant.

  • Mfk

    For further development of Free Radical idea refer to “Eat People” a book by Andy Kessler.

  • D9516N

    Oh I didn’t know that 😛 Let’s be proud because we are free radicals and let be eaten by industry because we love to share our genius ideas… It’s not the price we are about to be payed – it’s about price that we deserve… Satisfaction and not being a fool is the key point.

  • Gabssnake

    In my humble view, this is just praising an emerging economical class of hyper productive experts that satisfy the irrelevant needs of our decadent market society. True innovations have never been for hire and have forcibly been made outcasts, not the dandies of the time.

    These are our old values attributing themselves the advancements of a totally different social phenomenom that is more and more evident, and again just shows how hard it is for our culture to step ahead to meet an emergent paradigm of post-sacacity values.

  • OH

    I’ve been banging my head on several corporate walls, faced old-boy-networks, conventions, stagnation and non-transparent processes. This is something I can completely agree with. I am a free radical. Love it.

  • Geneviève Emond

    Thank you, Michelle !  … I’m in with free radicals !

  • Rob Johnson

    Great article, thank you.

    I like to think that I work extremely hard at being very lazy 🙂
    I have found that I tend to innovate myself out of a job as I help create more efficient processes.

  • Heather

    Now I can redefine myself from “freelance web designer” to Free Radical Web Designer! I like it!

  • Plasticbeatsmotion

    Go “FREE RADICALS!!!!!!!”

  • Mic Drop

    Great article!

  • Fanonche

    THIS IS FOR THE HUSTLAS!!!!

  • Andresen Mark

     We’ve been on the outside of the dinosaur-design-for-business world for so long , those of us stubborn enough to pursue it, that this used to sound unrealistic. Until now. Great. Freelance is over, go Free Radicals.

  • rob

    The meat & potatoes of this idea is sound but you don’t need a silly label like ‘Free Radicals’ to operate in business this way. It’s the kind of thing hipsters do.

  • tim_{d}

    Well, heavens, we wouldn’t want to be like _those_ people.

  • Scott Henderson

    This resonates with my experiences bringing the corporate and cause sectors together – there’s no better way to go big by making yourself very small. Just shared this here:
    http://rallythecause.com/2011/

  • NJEdDude

    I am a public school teacher and I see some extraordinary connections between this article and my profession. Great stuff!

  • Kashif Pasta

    WOAH, every single point feels like it was written about me. I hope that doesn’t sound insanely pretentious, I’m just surprised and really happy to find out that I’m not weird and unique. Validating. Thanks, Scott!

  • Ian Lewis

    I’ve been busy with this for sometime now. I’d like to make a distinction between the Free Radical Person and the Free Radical Professional. I’m reminded of the book “Strategy of the Dolphin”, which is also close to my heart. It seems to me the biggest challange today is to align my personal situation and qualities (free radical = multi-focus, multi-level, co-operation, co-creation, quick-to-connect-the-dots)) to my professional situation.
    The biggest frustration is working with other types, who insist on doing things the “good-old-way” even though their ship is sinking.
    The biggest joy is finding other free-radicals/dolphins who want to work together to create something marvelous. Of course the joy of finding like-minded individuals is easily underestimated.

    The modern company need free radicals to effectively perform in complex/constantly changing environments.

  • Jeff 'SKI' Kinsey

    Most excellent Scott. My good friend and colleague Ed McCullough has used this term for almost ten years to describe himself and his path through life. I believe you know his son, Zach.

  • Andrew R Long

    I like this and hope it goes viral. 
    What would an entire company of free radicals look like? I think this: http://www.andrewrlong.com/21s

  • Scott Belsky

    As you can see from these comments, you are among great company! Thanks Kashif, and keep at it!

  • Scott Belsky

    Glad to hear it. We need more free radicals in the world of education!

  • Garry Haywood

    IN his recent book of the same title, ‘Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science’, Michael Brookes documents how scientists were re-branded post WW2 as methodical, dour rationalists when the truth was rather something else – many of the key scientific breakthroughs through history were aided by irrational inspiration. Tesla got ‘alternating current’ because of a vision triggered by a sunset and a Goethe poem, Einstein’s dream of running alongside a beam of light gave him relativity and Kary Mullis took LSD to think about amplifying DNA sequence techniques. The book is littered with many, many more examples. That book’s purpose is a manifesto for scientists to re-invent themselves as anarchic creatives.

    So this manifesto sits in that zeitgeist [no accusation of plagiarism here ;-)]. So here we have professionals who start to de-brand themselves as the pen-pushing bureaucrats requiring organisation and structure and re-invent them selves as anarchic creatives as independent nodes in a distributed network of activity.

    The only issue I have, and I genuinely look forward to someone assuaging my concerns, is that this manifesto is actually applied to an elite group, ‘professionals,’ who hold a certain pedagogical position. It might be my mis-interpretation of ‘professional’, but the general definition of this group it is a title deployed to preserve and constrain market access to certain activities. ‘Professional’ is often antonymically compared with ‘amateur’ and ‘uneducated’ and so on. Indeed, this manifesto sets out as proponent of ‘meritocracy’ – and as the manifesto doesn’t offer a definition one must assume that it sees ‘merit’ in the standard terms of ‘educated’ ‘accredited’ ‘qualified’ and so on. What ‘merit’ often means is that there are certain keys that allow you to access these types of activities and professions – if that is so in this case, its a manifesto for the irrelevant.

    I do have an agenda here, I’d like to see a much bigger disruption than what you are proposing as there is a danger of this re-invention having new corporativism, but I also come with an open mind. I don’t have any answers either, only questions.

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