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- It's never been more possible to do great work
- You are always free to choose a different path
- Your employer wants you to shake it up.
It's never been more possible to do great work
If you're reading my newsletter, chances are, you're one of the privileged few. Worldwide, there are over 3 billion employed people. Only a tiny fraction of those people live in developed countries with social safety nets, high-quality education, and professional career pathways that offer meaning, fulfilment and contribution. You are one of those people.
Yet, here you are. Showing up for another day at the email mill with a coffee in hand, bouncing from meeting to meeting, trying not to stick a fork in your eye so you can feel something.
How did we get here?
According to Barry Schwartz, who gives one of my favourite Ted Talks of all time, we've designed for this. We've made assumptions about human nature - that people are lazy and stupid and won't work unless they're financially incentivised and carefully micromanaged - and we've built institutions that make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But it's bullshit. People like you don't just go to work to pick up a paycheck. The choices you've made in your career aren't motivated solely by money. If you're one of the privileged few, you work to make a difference in a field that interests you. You're competent and committed, and you work hard, even when your environment makes it challenging to get things done.
Are you wasting your privilege, passion and skills by toeing the line and pandering to your corporate overloads?
YOU ARE ALWAYS FREE TO CHOOSE A DIFFERENT PATH
I'm incredibly late to this party, but I finally read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg this week. It's an astonishing book, and if you've subsisted on a steady diet of shame, blame and guilt to date, you need to order it... now. Go on.
This quote pinged me:
“...never give them the power to submit or rebel. We want to teach this to children very early: Never lose track that you are always free to choose. Don’t allow institutions to determine what you do.” - MARSHALL ROSENBERG, PhD
You always have a choice about what you do and how you do it, even at work - no, especially at work. This is particularly true if you're a professional or knowledge worker who's literally paid to bring your unique insight and expertise. If you're being hamstrung from doing your best work or solving important problems, don't lie down and take it. Change things. It isn't evil that keeps people trapped in the hamster wheel; it's entropy.
DON'T BE A COMPLACENT MONKEY
In 1967, researchers ran an interesting experiment. They put five monkeys in a large cage, and at the top of the cage, well beyond the monkeys' reach, hung a bunch of bananas. Then, they positioned a ladder underneath the bananas. The monkeys immediately spotted the bananas, and one began to climb the ladder. A scientist sprayed him with a stream of cold water, making the monkey scramble off - then sprayed the other monkeys, too.
All five monkeys sat on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered for some time. Soon enough, the temptation of the bananas was too great, and another monkey climbed the ladder. Again, the scientist sprayed the ambitious monkey - and all the other monkeys - with cold water.
When a third monkey tried to climb the ladder, things got dark. The other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pulled him off the ladder and beat him viciously.
Here's where it gets interesting.
The researchers removed one monkey from the cage, and replaced him with a different one. Spotting the bananas, the new monkey naively begins to climb the ladder. True to form, the other monkeys pull the new guy off and beat him.
Then, they removed a second of the original monkeys from the cage and replaced him with a new monkey. Same thing - and when it's time to deliver the beating, the other new monkey joined in.
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left, and despite none of them experiencing the cold, wet spray, they'd all learned not to reach for the bananas.
We're the monkeys.
Your employer wants you to shake things up
Here's the irony, though: questioning, challenging, and doing things differently is the thing that employers want most from their employees. It's what we teach on Not An MBA, and it's literally the most in-demand employee skill in the world.
In the 2023 Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum listed analytical and creative thinking as the skills employers most want from their workers.
"Analytical thinking and creative thinking remain the most important skills for workers in 2023. Analytical thinking is considered a core skill by more companies than any other skill. It constitutes, on average, 9% of the core skills reported by companies. Creative thinking, another cognitive skill, ranks second, ahead of three self-efficacy skills – resilience, flexibility and agility; motivation and self-awareness; and curiosity and lifelong learning – in recognition of the importance of workers ability to adapt to disrupted workplaces." - WEF Future of Jobs Report 2023
Nobody wants the status quo - we all hate the incessant emails, the bulging inbox, and the pointless bureaucracy. But inertia is strong, especially when we build institutions that reward it. New monkeys enter our environment, and, wanting to fit in, they adapt their behaviour to suit.
Entropy, not evil.
If waves of redundancies and restructures make you nervous, I'm not surprised if you're trying to keep your head below the parapet. But this isn't true safety. It's an illusion.
In times of upheaval and uncertainty, it's more important than ever to challenge the way we work, the ideas we uphold, and the systems that support them. You become significantly more valuable to your employer, colleagues, customers, and community by refusing to be one of the caged monkeys.
Til next week,
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