Your job is in jeopardy. The societal system we’ve been following for the last 150 years has expired. Like milk a week past its expiry, it doesn’t smell terrible yet, but it’s no longer a safe bet. We’ve been raised to believe that as long as we followed direction, did what was expected, and didn’t make a scene, we’d be taken care of. We’d be offered a good job, paid a decent wage, and have a retirement package waiting for us at the end. There are two basic truths that made that system work: 1) labour was fairly scarce and geographically based, providing us with a reasonable amount of job security, and 2) competition was fairly limited, due (again) to geography, as well as the significant cost to starting a rival factory. The rules have changed.
With virtually limitless options for consumers, people are making buying decisions in one of two ways: 1) what’s cheapest, or 2) what provides value beyond the tangible product. We’re never going to win playing the price war. As companies and as employees we now compete on a global level. New competitors spring up daily; competitors that will provide average quality work, but do it for less money. If we can’t win on price (and unless you’re Walmart you can’t, in long term anyway), our only option is to provide such a unique experience for our “customer” (and sometimes that customer is your boss) that we become indispensable to them. The option of showing up, doing what you’re told, and having the system take care of you is dead.
The people who are thriving today are those who Seth Godin describes as artists. Not artists in the sense that they paint, draw, or compose, but artists in that they provide value to other peoples’ lives above and beyond what’s expected of them. They live beyond the training manual. These people are not replaceable cogs in their company’s machine. These people are linchpins – indispensable components of the whole. They’re the baristas that make you feel so good you’re willing to walk across the street and pay $2 more for your coffee just to interact with them. They’re the personable flight attendants that are a major part of the reason you’re loyal to one airline over the other. They’re the accountants that are actively looking for new and unique ways to save you money on your tax return. Industry is irrelevant. These people invest emotional labour into their work. They solve interesting problems. They lead. They engage with people. They are artists in the truest sense of the word. And you can be one of them.
Ship, Despite the Lizard Brain
"We don’t have a talent shortage, we have a shipping shortage."
Thousands of years ago, the safest way to stay alive was to fit in. You didn’t get eaten by a sabre tooth tiger if you avoided attention and stayed within the confines of the tribe. Wandering into a new valley was legitimate cause for concern because there was the very real possibility that you’d end up as dinner. Exploring the unknown = dangerous. Following directions = safe. Tens of thousands of years of conditioning has wired your brain this way. But we no longer have to worry about sabre tooth tigers. In fact, if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you have very little to legitimately fear in life in general.
And yet, we’re still afraid. We feel fear before a big presentation or a sales meeting. We feel fear before we pick up the phone to call someone for a first date. We irrationally feel fear because that primordial section of our brain (Seth calls it the ‘lizard brain’) sees anything that is new – anything that requires independent thought – as a risk to our personal safety. Keeping your head down and doing as you’re told satisfies the lizard brain. It also makes you generic and replaceable.
“Shipping” is the act of giving your art – your beyond-the-training-manual-efforts – to the world. Shipping is a major cause of lizard brain. The uncertainty of the outcome creates fear. Virgin is comprised of over 70 independent businesses. Richard Branson ships. Seth Godin has written 12 books in 11 years. Seth ships. Great leaders and innovators of our time (of all time) are not immune to the lizard brain fear. They feel it, just like the rest of us, and proceed regardless of it. They rise above the lizard brain and do their art for the benefit of those around them. Regularly and repeatedly, they ship.
"Professional creators thrash early. The closer the project gets to completion, the fewer people see it and the fewer changes are permitted."
Have you ever had a group project or deliverable that took longer or cost more (or both) than was originally budgeted? In so many cases as we get closer to a delivery date, more people get involved and more revisions “need” to be made. This is the lizard brain at work. Launching something is nerve wracking, precisely because it’s saying, “We’re done. Here’s our best attempt.” And subjecting yourself to public scrutiny. The closer you get to the ship date, the more aggressively the lizard brain injects its fear. The lizard brain would rather fuss over details for a few more weeks. The lizard brain would rather ask the opinion of more people, so we can point fingers of blame when we get negative criticism. The lizard brain wants to shirk all responsibility, because it’s “safer that way.” It’s not safer that way. Maybe it used to be, but in the 21st century, you’re either going beyond the training manual, or the training manual is being given to someone cheaper. If your job is a commodity, you will lose.
The way to combat the lizard brain on new projects is to thrash early. Get all the necessary people involved at the beginning of the project, not the end. Work through all the options while the lizard brain is still sleeping. Then, as you get closer to the deadline, make fewer changes, not more. Ship – on time and on budget – by dealing with the lizard brain proactively.
Get Productive. Not Busy.
"Serious artists distinguish between the work and the stuff they have to do when they’re not doing the work."
We’re all busy. We’re all working more hours than we should be, doing our best to do more with less time. Being an artist isn’t about doing more. It’s about doing more of what’s important (and less of what’s not). It’s about bringing your unique gifts to your work and providing exceptional, unexpected value to your company and clients.
We have more ways to distract ourselves from crucial work than ever before. We can so easily justify three hours a day on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. We’re networking, right? We’re “keeping our eyes open for new opportunities.” No. Picking up the phone and calling that potential client would be far more effective. Then again, it might be a disaster. Uncertainty awakens the lizard brain. There’s nothing risky about surfing the web all day. We can literally disappear into a time-suck of busy work that does nothing to further our value to our company or our clients, simply by listening to the lizard brain and doing what feels easy. Don’t do what feels easy. Listen to your gut, and recognize that whatever the lizard brain is telling you to stay away from is probably exactly where you should be focusing your energy and attention. Feel the fear. Do it anyway.
As Seth illustrates brilliantly in Linchpin, the old system is dead. It’s not a debate, it simply is. You can either ignore that fact (as most dying companies of the automotive, newspaper, and music industries have done) or you can do something about it. You can choose to provide exceptional value. You can choose to provide more than what your job description and training manual tell you to do. You can make a tangible difference in the lives of your customers by exerting emotional effort and bringing your unique gifts to work. Choose to do that, and the new world order will reward you. But make no mistake – it is a choice, and it is up to you to make it. No one’s saying it’s easy. It takes effort, courage, and a certain degree of tenacity. And, as Seth says, “It’s possible that no one ever pushed you to be brave enough to go this far out on a limb.”
“Consider yourself pushed.”
Linchpin, page 223