The career aspirations of most people don’t fit neatly in a search bar. The average person needs opportunity for experimentation, and time to find the career that fits them best. For much of the 20th century, people worked at the same company their whole lives. It was stable, it was easy, it became second nature. But we see now that it was counterintuitive to many of our natural habits and preferred patterns. Now that technology has made it simpler for people to join the freelance economy without any disturbance to productivity, those who identify as a freelancer are growing exponentially.

Everyone desires to find what it is they were put on this earth to do, but most of us aren’t lucky enough to find that at our first job. As more people realized they could make a living without working at one business, they started leaping from one job to the next. They started freelancing. The freelance lifestyle facilitates people’s curiosity, and it’s only through that curiosity one is able to reach the top of the pyramid.  


In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” and introduced the world to his hierarchy of needs. If you don’t yet know of Maslow or his writings here is a great overview. His hierarchy is shaped like a pyramid with five layers. Each layer represents a different human need. One can only reach the top of the pyramid if they’ve satisfied the need of each previous layer. Maslow’s theory massively shifted the psychological sphere, and the way that both professionals and regular citizens think about psychology. It was his work that established the basis for “positive psychology” (heard of it?). For years the psychological field focused largely on what was wrong or defective about human beings and how to correct those wrongs through psychological means. Maslow was the first to use psychology to find human’s positive traits and attributes, and teach us how to use them to our advantage.

Maslow’s impact was substantial across many facets of culture and academia, but his ideas have had the most material and lasting impact in the world of business. It was his hierarchy of needs that prompted business leaders to provide their workers with more than just money and security. Leaders realized they needed to provide employees with a sense of belonging, of being part of a community; as well as the ability to stand out and feel respected within that community. Workers who experienced these things became more productive, loyal, and agreeable. They had ascended Maslow’s hierarchy.  These workers were then able to focus on the peak of the hierarchy, the top of the pyramid, the final need: Self-actualization.


To become self-actualized is to discover and accomplish the one thing that you were always destined to do. To put that in less hippy terminology: to follow and carry out the career that suits you best, the career that most aligns with your values, interests, and skills.

Maslow himself has said in his book “Toward a Psychology of Being” that the vast majority of people won’t ever reach self-actualization, and those that do were probably born with a degree of privilege. They had the money, the opportunity, and the resources to experiment. They were financially secure enough to hop around from job to job until figuring out which career suit them best. Few used to have this privilege.

That may no longer be the case. As freelancing has shown, you no longer need to be wealthy in order to explore multiple career paths. Freelancing, as opposed to more centralized work, allows people to spend more time finding work that satisfies them and makes them happy. Studies report freelancers are more productive than traditional workers, as well as more satisfied, prouder, and more fulfilled by their jobs than their full-time counterparts. When people are given more room to figure out what job, what career, and what lifestyle suits them, they have a much higher chance of self-actualizing.  


What actually happens when you self-actualize? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Do you notice it when it happens? There’s a reason Maslow didn’t expect most people to ever reach self-actualization. It is not an easy thing to do. It’s not uncommon that someone spends years following a career path that fulfills all their needs, but when it comes to the peak, they can’t seem to self-actualize. Whatever career they chose, while they might find it enjoyable, doesn’t satisfy them in the way they really want. But after someone spends so long in a particular career, even if it doesn’t allow them to self-actualize, they don’t want to start over. They don’t want to give up the stability, the achievement, the title, and upend their whole life. It’s understandable.

Freelancing doesn’t require the same kind of career commitment that full-time work does. When freelancers reach a similar point of unfulfillment in their careers, they pivot. They don’t grit their teeth and plow forward like a full-timer would because freelancers haven’t invested nearly as much time and effort. It’s easier for freelancers to veer in another career direction, to adapt.  Will you know when you’ve self-actualized? This could give you an idea, but more likely, you’ll know when you haven’t. Hopefully your life and career are pliable enough to accommodate that realization, and change course.

Our working lives will become more exploratory, more curious, more naturally suited to change and evolution. The innate desire to find our best work-life scenario plays out most efficiently, and most democratically, in freelancing.