Jobs suck. What's to be done?

Go to school. Prove your worth by getting your diploma. Find a job. Work hard. Don’t break the rules. Cash in your pay-check every month. Enjoy your life after work. The end. 

This is the life pattern most of us grew up with and one that still reverberates strongly today as most of the social institutions are set up for this modus operandi. But lots of us can fell the wind of change. We may not be fully capable to put it into words but “times they are a changing”. It is something I have been thinking for a while. I think your Spider senses are tingling too.

How most people feel at work these days

How most people feel at work these days

I was happy to find that one of the bloggers I follow has actually wrote a book on the topic, called “The End of Jobs”. Taylor is making the case that entrepreneurship is the safest, sanest (aka most responsible) career choice for the 21st century. He doesn’t make any definitive predictions, but he treats the topic as an opportunity that he makes a compelling case for. His arguments are not new, as he borrows ideas from thinkers like Nassim Taleb, Peter Thiel, Viktor Frankl, Tim Ferriss and others. It is a fascinating topic, one that I will briefly discuss below, while following the line of reasoning put fwd by Taylor. 

So... are jobs going away?

Let’s get some definitions before we dive in. My definition for a job (and one that I feel Taylor would agree with) is: the work that you get paid for that you wouldn’t otherwise do voluntarily. Jobs are transactional in nature as the employee sells his time and set of skills for a negotiated compensation. Most people have jobs, and they hate it. Why? Because jobs are usually devoid of meaning and, as Viktor Frankl, noticed in his hugely influential book “Man's Search for Meaning”, meaning is the most important part of happiness. Why are (most) jobs devoid of meaning? Because jobs are routed in obligation, which is the inhibitor, not the catalyst, of creative meaningful work. Creativity and meaning are routed in freedom. To illustrate this point Taylor asks his readers to think what sort of phone would have been made by Steve Jobs, if he would have been employed rather than the guy in charge? Probably something that resembled a Blackberry more than the iPhone we know today. 

Why is meaning becoming important all of sudden (relatively speaking)? Our parents and grandparents seemed pretty ok without inventing any multi-billion dollar gadget. I don’t have a good answer to this question and the book doesn’t try to do it either, but if I were to guess is that we live in a much more abundant time that gave us the luxury to consider second order benefits. Maybe the existentialism worldview, that assumes life quality to be directly correlated with consumption, has an invisible ceiling, beyond which more stuff (iPhones, movies, clothes, computer games, fancy food) has little effects on happiness.

What is the opportunity again?

The solution, implied by the previous section seems to be to pursue a much more meaningful job. But what does that mean? What is meaning and how do we find it? Taylor doesn’t address this fundamental question in his book although he dances around it in various chapters. I will dare to provide an answer.

Most people look at meaning as something that falls on you, a spiritual experience that would reveal itself to you at an unknown time. However meaning is not a passive process, but an active one. Meaning is discovered and I (believe) there are 2 main ingredients for the magic to happen: 

  1. Challenging projects. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the importance of challenges in his classic book “Flow”. Getting out of your comfort zone is the first in this process. Is why lots of life advice gurus tell students to have as many experiences as possible before setting in their rather boring adult life. Because as Csikszentmihalyi remarked, a fulfilling work life requires challenges.
  2. Personal responsibility. Stepping up to the plate and own the outcome of the projects you get involved in, whether is your own startup or one in a large company. 

The realisation that meaning is something we can work towards is a key element in the puzzle. Because the scope of work is changing so that the pursue of it is much easier than ever. 

But where are theses meaningful jobs?

If meaning is the answer how can we find work that has the right measure of challenges and opportunities for stepping up to the plate? To answer it let’s look at the Cynefin model, created by IBM to classify work into 4 main buckets:

  • Simple Jobs are those in which the cause and effect is well understood and where the process to get from A to B is usually turned into a procedure. Think about the factory work or the McDonalds burger flipping.
  • Complicated Jobs require a level of expertise because the problem needs to be categorised first (before doing the work to get to a solution). Think about the mechanic who has to repair your car. His expertise is why you called him in the first place.
  • Complex Jobs deal with “unknown unknowns”, mainly because the environment is in not only complicated but in a constant state of flux. The broken machine from the previous example pales when compared with an ecosystem like a jungle or an economy. 
  • Chaotic Jobs: In a chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless. Mainly because the problem is hard to define. The environment is also almost devoid of signal, being mostly noise. 

Until recently, most jobs were simple and repetitive. The way one advanced his or her career was by aiming towards more complicated jobs. Developing expertise was the sure-way to advance one’s career. As we develop more advanced products and automation is well “automating” more and more complicated tasks, a move towards more complex or chaotic activities seems to be a reasonable decision. The challenges posed by these new set of jobs are also the pre-requisite for anyone’s search for meaning. All that people have to do is step up to the plate. 

Taylor calls these people entrepreneurs. I am not sure on the definition (mainly because it is usually confused with the founding of companies) but he’s got the solution right. Entrepreneurs deal with the uncertain future, creating new products and services based on their predictions. The other side of the coin is …. risk, that comes packaged with this exercise in taming the unknown. Entrepreneurs can loose money, time, social relationships in the process, and that can play a big and important role. I consider myself an entrepreneur and I don’t think this appetite to heroically put order into chaos is everyone’s cup of tea. While it is naive to think that everyone would become a startup founder, the skills of managing uncertain situations are very useful for side gigs (Taylor calls them micro-multinationals) and most recently inside huge companies. You can get skin in the game without risking all you have. More on this in the next section. 

Risk is not what it used to be

Meaning, as we defined it above, has a huge component of personal responsibility. Which is risky by definition, and that’s why people shy away from it. What if things go wrong? What if my company fails? What if I get fired for trying new things at Acme Inc? 

The good news is that becoming a problem solver, creating your own professional adventure (whether you are doing it on your own or inside a big company) can expose one-self to much less liability than it used to be:

  • The costs to start anything are so low that it is unlikely a failure will be life threatening
  • Globalization means that you can access talent from across the globe, usually at prices lower than if you would be tied by your city borders
  • Investment is more accessible than anytime in the past

Becoming a problem solver, an entrepreneur, in this new economy can actually be less risky than most of the (available) sucky jobs. This is best explained by Taleb with his Thanksgiving turkey analogy

"Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race 'looking out for its best interests, as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”

Like the turkey, most of us have this tendency to make predictions about the future using patterns from the past. “My job was safe until now. This will likely continue indefinitely”. Taleb proves this to be very risky, because inductive reasoning is a very bad strategy for economic forecasting. 

Summing Up

Read more in Taylor's book

Read more in Taylor's book

Finding meaning in your work is getting more and more important. The old type of jobs may not be able to provide this for you because meaning starts in freedom and is about making great work. But the world is changing so that is getting much more profitable and less risky to go for jobs that dwell in uncertainty. 

If you want to explore the topic further I recommend you pick up Taylor Pearson’s book. And I look fwd to your thoughts and criticisms.