How is the working world changing?
My first annual review was imminent, and I was excited. This was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. There were whispers that my salary was going to be negotiated, and I had prepared my case inside out. I felt I’d done well, excellent even, in my first year of employment. The organisation was small but growing, and I was working hard to put my stamp on the role. A good old meaty chat with my boss would be the perfect opportunity to discuss my contribution, my progress and my future.
I arrived to work on the day, a little nervous but confident in my preparation. The day dragged on but 3pm arrived, and there was a knock on the door.
‘The boss will see you now.’
As I walked into the office, the colour must’ve drained from my face. On the table was a piece of paper, written, printed, letter-headed and signed. I sat down opposite my boss, and I will never forget how he slid my entire year’s work across the table with his middle and index finger. On the paper was a brief note of thanks and my revised salary. Five minutes later I was back at my desk.
It was at my desk, that day, that I had my first original thought. I saw my life stretched out in front of me, and I saw my life’s work for what it really was: a choice. I realised that if I continued to be on the wrong side of the table, no amount of preparation would determine what that piece of paper read. Had I already relinquished control over my life, aged 23, to the powers that be? After being shepherded from school to university, and from university into employment, was I going to sit back and watch my future being slid across the table for the best part of my working life?
My review prompted me to read widely on subjects from entrepreneurship to lifestyle design in an effort to understand more about the ideas, philosophies and histories pertaining to ‘work’, that thing that occupies so much of our time. I discovered a tremendous discourse around the subject of what we do with our lives that I had never been exposed to before. In this new world, business and pleasure were not mutually exclusive, but conjoined, and pursued as one. I was inspired to start my first micro-business with my girlfriend alongside my day job, and earned enough money to quit and move to London in pursuit of something more.
Here’s what I know for sure.
The world of work is in tectonic transition. Imagine a bouncing ball. It falls from the height of its existing trajectory, hits the earth, and is propelled onwards and upwards onto a completely new path. We live, right now, in the exact moment where the ball makes contact with the ground. At this moment, both paths, the past and the future, exist as one. Behind us is 200 years of a professional paradigm born from industry, the Old Work Order, and ahead of us is a world of work that looks very different, the New Work Order. Alas, here we are, smack bang in the middle of both.
It is vital, if we are to fully exploit the opportunities of the New Work Order, to understand how, and why, we got here. If I am to successfully argue that working practices are changing, you should have some idea as to where they came from in the first place in order to fully appreciate your own contextual significance.
The Old Work Order.
The OWO comes from industry, and a core principle of industrial labour organisation is to reduce the role of human input in the production process to a set of prescribed instructions, which can be easily learned and followed. In other words, industrial labour processes are designed to make human beings replaceable. Is it any surprise that two thirds of UK employees admit to being disengaged at work? As such, the OWO has come to be characterised by corporate apathy and professional stagnation.
Our factories are less recognisable these days. New ones aren’t built with stone and brick but with glass and steel, and they aren’t cramped and stuffy, but lofty and spacious. The City of London is dominated by gigantic glass mega-structures, designed to reduce as much as possible the distance between the natural outdoors, and the unnatural human environment on the inside. We long to feel connected to something more natural, something more innate, and the leaders of the Old Work Order know it.
But make no mistake, the principles of industrial labour are alive and well. Our schools and universities are designed with the specific intention of making us fit for purpose in the OWO, and when we enter the world of work we fill our CVs with evidence of our replaceable skills, so that we can be employed to perform replaceable tasks for a company that exists, so it would seem, to make its owners richer.
For many of us, the OWO exists as a set of expectations and assumptions, along with an action plan designed to help you survive and thrive within it. We know the ideology, the chances are that we were raised with its expectations and assumptions, and we probably followed the action plan. The problem is that this system is not designed with authentic personal fulfillment in mind. Human satisfaction is not the end goal of the OWO, and it never has been.
Over time, the principles of the OWO have been absorbed by our society, and have shaped our cultural understanding of ‘work’ as something we wear a suit for, something we take a holiday from, even somewhere that we go to that is separate from our life at home. We expect to be separated from our friends and families, we expect to be given 20 days off a year, we expect to wait in line for a promotion and, most alarmingly, we expect not to enjoy ourselves. These assumptions and expectations have become our cultural normalities, and we build our lives and careers in reaction to them.
The End of the Institutional Age.
The 20th century was certainly the age of the institution (see this TED talk on institutions vs. collaborations). Institutions were the primary means of organising resources in order to ‘get stuff done’, or produce a coherent, sustainable and valuable output. Institutions run using an organising principle of centralisation, that is a single set of rules, systems and processes that must be followed as a means to the end of some explicit goal.
Institutions could justify this centralised structure because they owned the factors of production, the means of value creation and by extension profit creation. Regular people did not own the factors of production, nor the means for value creation, regular people need money, so regular people work for the people who own the means of making money.
Over time trust is developed between the people and the institutions, and we plod along happily. We work for you, you give us salaries, pensions, job security, holidays and healthcare, we get drunk at the Christmas party and all is well. This will stay the same until one day when perhaps something happens when institutional trust is eroded en masse, new means of labour organisations are invented, or new access to previously inaccessible value creating resources come along.
Or, all of the above. At the same time.
Value Creation: Now Comes Pocket Sized.
The world is cyclical, and the western world is experiencing a technological transformation as revolutionary as the one that sparked the Industrial Revolution some 200 years ago. With the advent of the Internet, the harnessing of the Internet cheaply, quickly and widely, and the growth of smart phone usage, we are now inextricably connected.
Connection creates value: ideas are spread, opinions voiced, and new opportunities for value creation are born.
The most powerful tool of value creation that has ever existed now fits into our pockets.
At the same time as increased individual empowerment, economic and social forces of vast magnitude are eroding trust in institutions. It’s institutions that caused the financial meltdown where millions of people lost their savings and their livelihoods, institutions that wage wars they struggle to justify. The idea that companies and governments will take care of us is losing resonance, and becoming rapidly outdated.
We need to look after ourselves.
We are living in a world of work mid-bounce. Survival will be determined by those who understand and embrace where the New Work Order is heading. The question, then, is this:
How do we survive and thrive in the New Work Order?
The New Work Order brings with it a new set of prerequisites that are fundamental for its successful navigation. The Connected Economy demands that we bring something new to the table, beyond simply compliance and the ability to routinely follow instructions.
Let’s take a look at this visually:
The Old Work Order is 1.0. Our CVs, for so long our passport to employment, are an enshrinement of 1.0 and, by extension, the OWO. But 1.0 is no longer enough. It is necessary, but insufficient. Most significantly, 1.0 is replaceable.
The NWO is 2.0. Seth Godin, for so many a prophetic figure, affirms that success in the NWO is determined by our art: that which makes each of us unique and distinct. The goal of our efforts in the NWO is not to refine our replaceable skills, but to create value through self-expressive action.
“The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed. Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can. The job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job.
Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”
Re-imagining Value and Work.
The NWO requires us to fundamentally re-imagine some prominent concepts, for which our current understanding no longer serves us. I’m going to concentrate briefly on two of the most important: value, and work.
Your Value is everything in the NWO. You survive and thrive in the NWO by becoming valuable. We become valuable by creating valuable things, learning valuable skills, having valuable experience, and building valuable relationships with other valuable people. By far the most valuable thing in the NWO is you. You are your own most precious asset.
1.0 is necessary but common, so it is not valuable. 2.0 is rare, thus valuable. Success in the NWO depends on how effectively you can cultivate your 2.0 characteristics. Initiative, the top of the triangle, is the rarest and most valuable characteristic you can have in the NWO, and is Seth Godin’s (there he is again) ‘7th Imperative’ for success.
“The world is changing too fast. Without the sparks of initiative, you have no choice but to simply react to the world. Without the ability to instigate and experiment, you are stuck, adrift, waiting to be shoved.”
Initiative is the energy currency of the NWO, as ATP is the energy currency of a cell. Initiative isn’t waiting for instructions, and it’s not asking for permission. Initiative is the act of doing without as you are within, in other words, doing stuff that you believe deserves to be done and sharing it with the world.
Taking risks, taking initiative, cultivating your creativity, experimenting, being curious, innovative and collaborative, these are the keystones of becoming valuable in the New Work Order.
As I mentioned before, work in the NWO is not something that you wear a suit to, and request permission to take time off from. In the NWO, work is any activity that builds your value. It is the word we can use to describe the process of appreciating our value, and any action that does this is our work. Writing this blog post is work. Reading every Seth Godin book is work. Going to an Escape School Meetup is work. Initiating independent and collaborative projects is work. Work is whatever you decide it is. As long as you do it, and as long as it makes you valuable, it is work.
The Self-Directed Career.
Think of making yourself valuable like building a house. Nobody is going to pay you to build your own house. You have to do it for free, and you have to do it to the best of your abilities, but you can build it however you want. You should inform and educate yourself on how to build your house, equip yourself with the necessary tools, and get to work. As you build your house, you are creating value where before there was none. You have created an asset, and all it cost you was your time and energy. Unlike a real house, you don’t need to be the finished article to start leveraging your value in the NWO. As your value appreciates, you will have the ability to initiate multiple opportunities for monetisation, and you can use your entrepreneurial skills to establish numerous streams of income.
The Self-Directed Career is the New Work Order. It is by far the most powerful opportunity for anybody looking to leave the Old Work Order behind and embrace our new trajectory. It is even more powerful than starting a business. A business is a ‘thing’, an entity that exists outside of you, even if it is your creation. A Self-Directed Career focuses not on the extrinsic, but the intrinsic. It is the process of transforming your career from the pursuit of a pay cheque into the pursuit of self-actualisation.
I am a Self-Directed Careerist in the New Work Order. It is my personal mission to decode the process from ground zero to self-sustainability and beyond, and to help people connect who they are with what they do along the way.
Jump in, the water’s warm.
Will Reynolds is a corporate casualty turned Self-Directed Careerist and explorer of the New Work Order. He is mapping the process of the self-directed career on his blog, The Collabara Project, and producing his first podcast, ‘Work: What Is It Good For?’ to fan the flames and tell the stories of the emerging world of work.
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“No one can tell you what to do with your life and there is no “one-size-fits-all” escape that will lead you to happiness. What does work, however, is exposure to new ideas, likeminded people and a safe environment for you to figure out what it is you really want.”
– Rob Symington, Escape the City co-founder.