Many knowledge-economy employees say that the main cause of dissatisfaction at work is lack of agency. Lack of control over our time and our decisions and our output is demeaning. It turns people into cogs.
As the nature of work changes, innovation and small groups are adding far more value than the race to the bottom of industrial control can.
So people are getting what they asked for. Autonomy. Responsibility instead of authority. The chance to speak up and be heard. Most of all, the opportunity to be on the hook.
Not surprisingly, some people, particularly if they’ve been indoctrinated into the industrial mindset, don’t like this.
They can’t ask, “just tell me what to do.” The search for an A, the hope to be picked by someone in charge, the desire for perfect–it’s gone. So is the deniability that comes with following instructions.
If 2% of a population takes coordinated action, it makes a difference. If 5% do, it can change everything.
This simple math also means that most people rarely do anything. Perhaps they don’t care. Perhaps they’re afraid to speak up and commit. And perhaps it’s simply easier to go along for a free ride.
Of course it hurts when friends and colleagues we thought we could count on shirk and hide. But everyone has their own narrative, their own issues, their own fears. We can say, “if I were you,” but we’re not them, they are.
When we focus on the ones who didn’t help, we’re undermining our work. It’s a distraction and a disservice.
Shun the non-believers. Ignore the well-meaning but unmoved. Instead, we have the chance to find and connect and celebrate the people who care enough to make a difference.
If you care about a creative practice, my guess is that you’ve already seen Peter Jackson’s new Beatles movie. If not, go check it out.
It’s a miracle that the movie exists at all. I mean, four of the most famous creative humans who ever lived, tenuously holding on to a fracturing association, agree to write and record an album in three weeks and record every single interaction on film.
The intimacy of this setting lets us see each of the Beatles as they had decided to become.
Ringo is in the background, happy to be there, supporting the process and causing no trouble.
George is wrestling with his place in the world and his ego. You’ll notice that he rarely plays a song unless he’s sure it’s almost done, and even then, apologizes before sharing it.
John is the fifth hammer. In the first sessions, his creative method is not really on display in the group setting–his song arrives already recorded, on vinyl.
This is a post about Paul.
Paul’s not a genius, neither is John. This isn’t about talent, it’s about skill. And the genius that was the Beatles happens between Paul and John, not inside of either of them.
Paul wants the group to be excited. He wants George to be happier. Most of all, he wants John to like his songs. That’s his fuel.
And Paul’s practice is simple: Bring the work forward.
Play a song before it’s ready.
Because in the moment before it’s ready, that’s when it’s ready.
By bringing music that’s half-baked to the table, he takes a risk. It means that George might become critical or mopey. It means that John might not be engaged. It means that the room might not feel it.
But the risk is worth it. Because the half-baked work, shared in a trusting environment, is the fuel for the system that created the works of genius.
Paul needed the movie and the live event in the future to create tension, tension that he knew would be pushing against the group’s need for approval and not-blowing-it. By putting themselves in a corner, he created (at no small cost) the conditions where he could do the work.
And it begins, as it usually does, by having the guts to share something that’s half baked.
The essence of baroque art and craft is its complexity. Difficult to create, overloaded with ornamentation, filled with grandeur and color and surprise, the focus is on the effort expended.
And that dramatic display of effort has a place. It communicates a sort of emotional labor, and creates an imbalance of status. You don’t expect a scoop of rice and some dal at a very fancy restaurant, no matter how delicious it is. You paid for the effort, not just the sustenance.
Baroque is often at odds with utility. I don’t want a hammer with a baroque design, I want one that does precisely what I need it to when it comes to driving a nail. On the other hand, much of what we buy and use isn’t about utility at all… it’s an expression of the story we tell ourselves about value, status and our place in the world.
If you’re going to offer something baroque, the key is to go all out. Halfway is worth very little.
Nothing held in reserve. All in, leaving nothing behind.
It’s easy to get hooked on this.
And it’s easy to never experience it.
The internet has made each path more attractive.
It can put us into always-on mode, in a worldwide competition against infinite competitors and inputs in which the goal always seems within reach and also never arrives.
But it can also lull us into a stupor of clicks, likes, home deliveries and spectatorship.
Neither is ultimately productive or healthy.
The opportunity is in finding places that are finite enough for your full-court press to matter, and then, after you’ve shipped the work, to walk away. Not in defeat, but with the satisfaction that you produced something of value.
We didn’t evolve for a life of all-in or one of hibernation. It’s the transitions and the variations that contribute to our health, well-being and ability to contribute.