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When people become cogs

The cornerstone of the industrial revolution was the simple idea that management could dramatically increase productivity by buying machines that did what they were told, were cheap and could scale.

As we’ve moved to a service economy, though, machines can’t handle much of the work. People do.

I thought of this the other day as I got yet another outbound telemarketing call, this one from the local Yellow Pages. The caller, when pressed, admitted he was calling me from India.

I spoke to him for a while and then his supervisor. They were both risking their jobs, though, because everything they did was ruled by the script. Follow the script or lose your job. Follow the script or see your pay docked. Follow the script or you don’t get a good commission.

What so many people in the USA and Europe don’t realize is that their jobs are being scripted. Relentlessly. And once they’re scripted, why exactly should the boss keep paying you? There’s someone cheaper– in another state, in a prison, in a beautiful country with a low cost of living–who can follow your script instead of you.

This is the giant unwritten headline of our post-industrial economy. If your job isn’t creative/interactive or local, it’s probably going to go away. Offshore software programmers charge by the line, and the boss doesn’t have to meet them or give them benefits. Just because you can code/call/file/process or type doesn’t mean you’re secure. The winners are going to be the bosses (quick, become a boss!) and the fast-changing creative types. That and the folks with a jackhammer on your local street corner.

This is great news for people willing to work cheap, especially those with talent and a local economy with a low cost of living. Of course, they’re not safe either, because there’s always someone willing to take their place once they become too expensive.

I think our export of “good” jobs is a fine thing. It makes the world a smaller, better and more prosperous place. When you woke up this morning, though, that probably wasn’t the first thing on your mind. You were worried about your favorite person–you.

So, what should you do? Now, before it’s too late, realize one basic truth: Safe is Risky.

Cogs don’t take risks. But cogs are the ones that are next to go.

I probably have better things to do

but I can’t stop watching The Kikkoman (weird even if you know Japanese) movie.

Thanks to Jim Leff (creator of the remarkable chowhound site).

…November 27…. This just in from loyal reader Mark Bowie. The lyrics to the Kikkoman song, as translated by some anonymous web surfer with too much time on his hands:

The great hero Kikkoman!
Soy sauce makes the difference
Pour it, taste it, be amazed!
Restaurants are no mach to him
Take his blow the “Kikko-punch”!
(Eat sunny-side up with soysauce!)
Show me Show you Kikkoman Kikkoman
Show me Show you Kikkoman!
The Star of Soy has send him here
The cool guy called Kikkoman!
Try soy sauce and be healthy
Did you know that it kills germs!
Sauce? Ketchup? Nonsense!
Vanish them with “Kikko Beam”!
I said eat eggs with soysauce, idiot!
Show me Show you Kikkoman Kikkoman
Show me Show you Kikkoman!

The power (and the fear) of self determination

or… are we stuck in High School?

I had two brushes with higher education this week.

The first was at a speech I gave in New York. There were several Harvard Business School students there, invited because of their interest in marketing and exceptional promise (that’s what I was told… I think they came because they had heard that Maury Rubin would make a great lunch!).

Anyway, they asked for my advice in finding marketing jobs. When I shared my views (go to a small company, work for the CEO, get a job where you actually get to make mistakes and do something) one woman professed to agree with me, but then explained, “But those companies don’t interview on campus.”

Those companies don’t interview on campus. Hmmm. She has just spent $100,000 in cash and another $150,000 in opportunity cost to get an MBA, but…

The second occurred today at Yale. As I drove through the amazingly beautiful campus, I passed the center for Asian Studies. It reminded me of my days as an undergrad (at a lesser school, natch), browsing through the catalog, realizing I could learn whatever I wanted. That not only could I take classes but I could start a business, organize a protest movement, live in a garret off campus, whatever. It was a tremendous gift, this ability to choose.

Yet most of my classmates refused to choose. Instead, they treated college like an extension of high school. They took the most mainstream courses, did the minimum amount they needed to get an A, tried not to get into “trouble” with the professor or face the uncertainty of the unknowable. They were the ones who spent six hours a day in the library, reading their textbooks.

The best part of college is that you could become whatever you wanted to become, but most people just do what they think they must.

Is this a metaphor? Sure. But it’s a worthwhile one. You have more freedom at work than you think (hey, you’re reading this on company time!) but most people do nothing with that freedom but try to get an A.

Do you work with people who are still in high school? Job seekers only willing to interview with the folks who come on campus? Executives who are trying to make their boss happy above all else? It’s pretty clear that the thing that’s wrong with this system is high school, not the rest of the world.

Cut class. Take a seminar on french literature. Interview off campus. Safe is risky.

My friend Lionel died Friday

Lionel Poilane was the world’s greatest baker. He was also an extraordinary personality, a visionary entrepreneur and a kind and thoughtful man. chez Poilâne

I was supposed to have lunch with him in a few weeks–and lunch with Lionel was always a treat. Lionel embodied just about everything I’ve been writing about for the last few years. He was remarkable. His bread was standard fare at just about every two and three star restaurant in Paris–because it was different. He was roundly criticized at first (he refused to bake baguettes, for example) but the extraordinary qualities of his bread (and his sparkling personality) won over the critics. We don’t have enough gutsy entrepreneurs in the world, and now we’ve got one less.

On my first visit with him (I was the weird American tourist who refused to leave the shop without some raw dough I could turn into a sourdough starter back home) he invited me to breakfast, gave me a tour of the world’s largest collection of bread cookbooks and pumped me for internet advice. I think of him every time I put a piece of bread in my mouth or see a really stylish, cool new business idea…

I’ll miss Lionel.

Fast Company on Lionel Poilane