LAST year, I gave up my full-time job and went freelance. For the first time since the age of 21, I have no boss. Within reason, I get to choose what I do, who I do it with, and when. After more than two decades working long, punishing hours in a demanding industry, at times under intense pressure that left its share of physical and mental scars, it has been a genuinely liberating experience.

This new life is not without its challenges, though. For the purposes of this column, I compiled a little list of the pros and cons of working for oneself, from home. Pros: being able to take our youngest daughter to school most mornings and pick her up most afternoons; taking the dog for walks in the countryside while the worker bees are guzzling canteen slop at their desk; almost never having to wear a suit and tie; working from my study, where I’m surrounded by my own books (which, when you write for a living, is a godsend); watching episodes of Parks and Rec at wholly inappropriate times of the day, while eating a Pot Noodle, two bags of Lidl salt and vinegar crisps, a cheese string, the odd Peperami and, sometimes, a second Pot Noodle; oh, and it’s a World Cup year.

The cons: it’s now expected I’ll do the school run, whether I’m busy or not; the weather’s been appalling for months, but the dog still needs walked; despite possessing a singularly chaotic mind, I must remember to submit invoices, chase unpaid invoices, set aside money for the taxman, and to earn that money in the first place; the workplace banter factor is predictably low to non-existent; I spend too much time in elasticated trousers, which may or may not be linked to my growing Pot Noodle habit.

There’s been a bigger readjustment required, too. There is, in this new job of mine, no possibility of promotion: I am already CEO and grunt, salesman and accountant, teasmaid and cleaner. There is no annual pay rise or bonus or staff pension. There is no one to boss around or be bossed around by. After spending all my adult life operating within and conditioned by the traditional corporate structure, playing its games, climbing its greasy poles and sometimes slipping back down them, running teams and looking to run bigger teams, lusting after ever grander titles with ever larger salaries attached, I have had to rethink what ambition means. What power is and what it’s worth.

Setting aside the issue of money, power in the traditional workplace seems to amount to two things: control over other people, and fulfilment of that ticklish urge to be seen as someone of status. There is, of course, nothing wrong with ambition – our species wouldn’t have made the leaps it has without that individual drive to improve and innovate and succeed. But ambition has its downsides, too. If you’re at or near the top you’ve probably stood on a lot of heads to get there; unless you’re a psychopath, you’ve most likely had to sacrifice some of your natural empathy and park some personal ethics along the way; you’ve used people and discarded them; there is, somewhere, a charge sheet of crimes against decency with your name at the top.

From my now semi-detached vantage point I’ve watched with interest the recent flurry of workplace bullying and abuse allegations. The #metoo movement continues to reveal mistreatment of women across all industries. And in recent weeks, the behavior of politicians – that most unapologetically ambitious of castes – has come under scrutiny. A number have been called out for hideous behavior towards underlings. Mark Pritchard, the Tory MP for the Wrekin, is accused of shouting and swearing at Parliamentary clerks. Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, is said to have been “a complete and utter bully” over a period of years towards a female clerk, who has now emigrated. John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is reported to have treated his staff badly. Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, has just been suspended over bullying allegations. She in turn has accused Jeremy Corbyn’s office of “aggressive, intimidating and wholly unprofessional” behaviour.

Some blame workplace brutality on a capitalist system that prizes individuality above community, and that is based on the deliberate creation of winners and losers. They probably have a point: our obsession with economic growth, profit margins, shareholder returns and ever more stratospheric executive pay can, in the wrong hands, establish a culture in which the human being counts for little. Reported levels of anxiety and depression have never been higher – although companies are increasingly responding with better staff care, including mindfulness training, in-office yoga and massages, and flexible working.

But it’s not as simple as that. The most bestial effects of individual ambition are seen in anti-market totalitarian states – including the left-wing regimes so beloved of the current Labour leadership, such as Cuba and Venezuela, where a personal lust for power is disguised by flamboyant ideological clothing.

We’ll never tame the human spirit, and nor should we want to, but perhaps we can hope to mitigate its worst excesses. After all, many high achievers are deeply unhappy and some way out of their depth. Stefan Stern, a thinker on leadership and management, posed an important question in an article at the weekend: what constitutes “sensible and meaningful ambition”? He quoted Sébastien Bras, a French chef who gave up his three Michelin stars in pursuit of a happier and calmer life: “I want to give a new meaning to my life… and redefine what is essential.” The sociologist Richard Sennett was called to aid: “Driven individuals can waste their lives jockeying for position… But most adults learn how to tame the beast of ambition; we live for more than that reason.” “Aspire not to have more but to be more,” said the late Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Finding that balance is probably the task of a lifetime. For some, it will mean working flat out but also paying attention to their inner wellbeing; for others, helping to create a supportive office environment; and for others still, it will involve letting go of the slippery pole and embracing Pot Noodles, dog walks and the school run. Ambition and power have many definitions.