07 September 2020

The Future of Work Lies at the Intersection of Flow, Income, Meaning and the Popularization of Entrepreneurship

Some thoughts on labor on this its day.

One of my heroes, Deming, used to argue that the worker deserved to take pride in her work. To feel proud of what you do you have to feel like it matters, it is valued, and that it represents your best.

One chief difference between work and a hobby is pay. One reason I like markets is that it is a way for the community to signal what it values. You may want to write another folk song but what the folks in your neighborhood will actually pay for is someone who can solve the problem of getting them food at lunchtime or to devise a better solution for running rainwater off of - or collecting solar energy onto - their roof. Pay is the community conspiring to vote on what would be valuable to them and not just to you. That makes us all a little more relevant, forcing us outside of ourselves.

One of my other heroes, Csikszentmihalyi, studied the psychology of engagement, what he called flow. It turns out that we're happiest when we're doing something that requires our full attention. When we're in flow we face clear goals, there is a balance between our skills and the challenge we face, we are free from distractions, we are animated by clear - rather than conflicted - priorities, there is a perfect overlap between what we're thinking about, wishing for, and doing, we are not worried about failure (one's mind has no room to simulate that outcome, so fully engaged is it in the task at hand), we lose track of time, the activity becomes worth doing for its own sake, and the self becomes more developed as the result of this state of flow, this absorption in the task.

Flow is a fabulous thing but for many it is easier to find in a video game than in work. A video game provides little meaning, though.

A task is meaningful if it serves a purpose bigger than that task. One guy might be cutting stone and the guy beside him - engaged in the exact same task - may be building a cathedral, be glorifying God. Sometimes meaning is simply a matter of framing your work as something bigger than the task at hand. More often it is being animated by what a difference your work makes in the lives of others, even in the lives of future generations.

As we become more affluent, we may rather paradoxically define ourselves even more by our work. Identity is often bound up in our job and in answer to the question, "What do you do?" we rarely say, "Stay current on politics," or "Read all of Michael Connelly's new novels." We tell folks what we do for a living. But as work becomes less essential to covering the necessary costs of life, we may expect that we not just get paid in money but in flow and meaning as well.

Faulkner wrote, “You can’t drink eight hours a day. Or make love. Work’s about the only thing a fellow has to do to keep from being bored” We have a number of examples of folks in the modern world who have made more money than they can spend and yet a great number of them continue to work. I suspect that we peons will follow their example and increasingly demand of our work these elements of pay, flow and meaning even as incomes rise.

Video game designers, TV producers, and designers of social media know how to capture and hold attention. What I suspect will define much of the modern corporation is that it will distinguish itself not by the products it designs - its employees will do that - but by its design of work so that employee efforts create income, flow and meaning. The founder of companies in the early 1900s became wildly successful by designing products like safety razors and automobiles. I suspect that we'll look back at the founder of successful companies in the early 2000s as successfully designing work to attract the best and brightest.

Keep in mind that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram aren't producers of any content in the same way that Newsweek, CBS or the New York Times are. They are platforms. I think that corporations in general will take on a similar relationship with employees in the future, focusing on creating great work rather than great products or services, positioning themselves as a platform rather than maker of products. This is part of what I mean by the term, "the popularization of entrepreneurship." Employees will create the new products, services and businesses that generate new jobs and wealth. The corporation will create the systems and roles that facilitate those outcomes.

Work matters. Profoundly. It has the potential to define us as much as anything else in life. Think of the people who stand out in history, people as different as Picasso, da Vinci, Marie Curie, Maria Montessori, Beethoven, Bjork, and Kurt Vonnegut. We know them through their work. Work is key to how we become who we are. And just like us, our labor continues to evolve. I suspect it will matter even more in the future than it does now.

Happy Labor Day!

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