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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)
  • Nando

    Thanks for naming what I’ve known all along…

  • Edward Agyeman

    This post rings so true to me.

  • Scott Belsky

    Great point Gary (and thanks for pointing out Michael Brookes’ book on the secret anarchy of science – will check it out!).

    On the use of the word “professional,” I was using it as a means of “work” – as in the activity and pursuits we take for a living. When we’re serious about our goals and our interests, we’re “professional” in the sense that we seek progress.

  • Zafarsatyavan

    One more recruit here.. 😉

  • pushingvision

    Rob: I consider myself a “lazy perfectionist.” I don’t want to expend any more energy on a task than is absolutely necessary, but I also believe in doing everything well. So like you, I continually invent ways to reduce work while raising quality. Why do more work than you have to, right? After all, less work equals more play!

  • pushingvision

    I think I’ll be changing the title on my business card from Design Illusionist to Free Radical.

  • Julie Harris

    yes, Yes, YES! Thank you for this – just wondering if I will change my title from undercover change agent (or linchpin) to free radical … perhaps all the same words for the same concept.

  • jayanti

    “You are a free radical just like me”, my new love told me after knowing me for one week. I slightly embarrassed confessed to him that next to my work as a rehabilitation consultant, the center for energy management that I just had set up, the many workshops I had developed and still was developing, I was  writing a book about a completely different subject. I looked at him a little puzzled. Free radical? But at the same time I felt a cry of joy coming up from deep within me  as if someone saw me for the first time.Free Radicals are actually living in a free zone, he explained. They are associative, creative, and recognize that the universe has unlimited possibilities. That can sometimes make them lonely, because they often are not understood by others, they make choices that are totally contrary to what others would think logical and  they seem to follow decisions that go against the expectations and ideas that are common to the outside world. They are often ahead of their time and sometimes they are unable to create a structure out of the  multitude of stimuli and raids. This can bring them in confusion, or they become depressed and then they make themselves dependent on the structures that others offer them.Wow, that touches me. I suddenly feel how I have tried to adapt myself all my life. Sometimes I feel like a chameleon. I shape myself to my surroundings, adjust myself looking for anchors all the time so I can’t get lost. I am so happy now that I have found someone who is like me: a creative unlimited spirit with colourful  ideas that inspire others and make stuck patterns move. (translated from Dutch)

  • Steve McAllister

    Brilliantly stated! It certainly is an interesting time to be alive. Welcome to the Free Radical Revolution.

  • Ian Lewis

    Anthem for freeradicals?  

  • Shawnalarratt

    The only way to truly make this work is to be a covert free radical.  Don’t let them know you exist.  Once the free radical has been identified, corporate culture is set up to seek and destroy. 

  • Ian Lewis

    18 month free radical project

  • Edo

    Good and interesting perspective. Free radicals or independent agents or…. what name true history is given to these visionary people, are very important for the steering and direction of civilization. They were always there and will always be there.
    But I like to add the perspective that in the moment your consider yourself as one. You’re not one anymore!

  • Logo Design

    Superb article, at last i have come across to a unique perspective. Good sort of topic to discussed on different levels to learn more about on historical point of view.

  • Garry Haywood

    Hi Scott, thanks for your reply. I suppose my issue with the semantics  of ‘professional’ and ‘meritocracy’ is that often the ambiguity of meaning finds its way becoming the new orthodoxy and more often than not its the unintended descriptions that become fixed and exploited. G

  • designlabCPH

    Thank you!!! 🙂

  • designlabCPH

    Hear you on that one! 😉

  • Eric Scott

    Agreed. Unlike the poker player who bursts into the room declaring themselves to be the best – never show your hand, and if you have a “tell” keep it to yourself. Better that they not even know you’re playing their game, if you’re really that tremendous a player. Just create amazing work, do it for You and find the intrinsic reward in all of it. Create work, not just for your ‘clients’ but turn yourself into your own number 1 client when the phone isn’t ringing and always be making new work, innovate – for you. And, unlike the folks who don’t understand the concept behind ‘viral’ marketing and think that *any marketing* is viral, instead, you have to understand how others (people and organizations) work better than they do, and like Cobb in “Inception” work backwards intelligently from the desired result… at all times. 

  • DesignForAll

    Smells like bullshit to me. Loaded with rah-rah, denial and feelgood slogans. Less friction and obstacles? Fully utilized and constantly optimized? Seriously?
    Wake up and smell the recession, the ludicrously low price demands from so many clients who have yet to understand that you actually are a business and that work is supposed to be between you and the client as equals instead of the all-too-common mindset that somehow they are doing you a favor. We make a great living doing what we love? We may love what we’re doing, but it’s that other part that doesn’t apply these days.
    What we can do is fight the good fight and do our best to last until better times return – and they will. What we can do is absolutely refuse to have anything to do with crowdsourcing. What we can do is campaign resolutely gainst this ultimate insult to our profession. What we can do is is a better job of promoting design thinking as an essential business strategy. That is the key to being given our due as business professionals and breaking free of the notion that we are just business tools. Now that’s radical.

  • Bloin

    The ring of truth.

  • Ian Lewis

    Sounds like “take-over” to me. Your game doesn’t work for me, please play my game. I’d like to see your “design thinking 4 all Manifesto”

  • Joelle Snaith

    Wonderful. I relate to many of the points in this article! 

  • Diesel Laws

    Wow, this speaks to me. Thank you.

  • Andreas Kopp

    I cannot see your definition of free radical. I just find that free radicals attack and snatch energy from the other cells to satisfy themselvs. 

  • Andreas Kopp

    Also I read that a free radical is postively charged.

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