This post is part-8 of a series of ten essays on the essence of work. For an introduction and overview of previous posts, check here.
This time, I invite you to look into the mirror, and watch the scars in your face, the arrows in your back, and the experiences that can’t be unlearned.
I invite you to make contact with the emotional and physical footprint of your work.
To make contact with those projects where you went really deep, where you chose your own path, where you challenged all existing conventions.
The ones that completely exhausted you, but where you are left with the deep and satisfactory warm feeling of having done the right thing.
In many cases, these are the projects that you chose to be part of, which you initiated.
In the same way it is better to be in a position to choose the clients you want to work for, in the same way you’re better off when you create a interdependence in life that allows you to chose the projects you want to be part of.
When projects become your projects. Where you know that you shaped the project and the project would never have become what it is without you having been part of it.
Those projects, you know, where you do the skunk work whatever it takes.
Those projects where you feel home, where you are meant to be, and that feel like your own – sometimes messy – creative studio.
Sculptor Alexander Calder's studio, 1964, photographed by Pedro E. Guerrero
For many years now, I follow and get inspired by the work of Jan Chipchase: he used to be the executive creative director of global insights for Frog Design, took a sabbatical, came back, and created in April 2014 his own Studio-D, a research, design and strategy consultancy.
You really have to read everything on the Studio-D site: the annual report, the project reports, the way to think of a company as a pop-up crew that comes together to serve a customer and then disbands when the job is done, the ethical ways of choosing projects and clients.
His own webpage opens with:
“Everybody needs space to do truly interesting work.”
That resonates with me.
It reads like a dream to me, and it’s how I would like to be, a beacon: I just don’t have the courage (yet) to make the choices Jan made.
Building more dreams – By Hugh McLeod @gapingvoid
Studio-D has a page about “those projects”. This page did something with me at a level beyond the cognitive. It resonates very strongly with me. I have been part of and initiated some of those projects…
There are projects.
The ones that shape, mould and refine what we do, allow us to iterate on what we know – the operational things that help us get stuff done better, faster, smoother.
And then there are those projects.
Those projects shape us and our team, they expand our world view, open minds to new ways of thinking, bring our short existence into sharp focus – they remind us that our time on this planet is too fleeting to devote to things that are no sooner done, than forgotten.
Those projects make us question our beliefs, our career goals, who we work for, who we work with, who we want to work with, and where we want to devote our energies for the next few years.
It’s those projects that rapidly evaporate any tolerance for bullshit.
They remind us of what we’ve let drift, and provide a rough hand to steer us back on track.
They are the essence of a life worked well.
Everyone has their own criteria for what makes one of “those projects”. They can include heart-in-mouth, will-we-or-won’t-we-make-it moments where the cost of failure is absolute, where fear stalks and somewhere along the line hearts leap, and tears are shed. They generate experiences that can’t be unlearnt, are in no danger of being forgotten.
“Experiences that can’t be unlearnt, are in no danger of being forgotten”!
Isn’t that great?
Is that not what life is about? Or was I discussing work? It is the same if you look at the essence of work this way?
Picture from Burning Man 2015 – I was not there ;-)
The danger to be forgotten is in the eye of the beholder.
At one level of consciousness, the fear is about being forgotten as a person in the organization, and what you think you meant and mean for the organization. Why you think you and your work matter. Why you think you made a dent in the organization you work for. When that gets forgotten, that hurts. It is the stage where you wonder if you still matter.
At another level of consciousness, you have internalized that fear. You acknowledge what has been, and you don’t care anymore about being forgotten.
Because you now think in terms of experiences that can’t be unlearned and made you that unique human being that you are, with your own history and timeline of experiences.
The previous post was about the next 10 years. And the fear of not having enough time left to do what you were meant to do. In that post I also invited you to look back and interrogate the progress you made in the last 10 years. You probably can see the milestones and progress of your previous last 10 years.
But the trap is when you start worrying whether others have seen it too. When you let others decide whether you matter or not. When you wait to get picked, because you live in the illusion that the organization has internalized your last 10 years in the same deep way as you did yourself, and that the organization cares.
The organization does not care.
And your history trace evaporates a little more every year with the apparent mandatory half-yearly or yearly re-organizations, killing existing connections (and creating new ones), cutting-off the historic trails, and the milestones you were part of.
What re-organization do you work for?
The older you get, the more you witness how the wheels are re-invented over and over again. Testosterone, rivalry, positioning and ambition drive projects and organizations, not purpose. It has become standard practice to ignore history, to forget “those projects”, their lessons learned and the warm bodies that were behind them.
One of my heroes: Pablo Picasso – by Yoo-Hyun – Hand cut paper
Our conversations become tweets, at best. There is no time for a quality in the essence of our work. We are getting fragmented, and become shrapnel of our own identity.
We become irrelevant.
The essence of work is about relevancy.
But relevancy for whom and in what context?
Being forgotten is only in the eyes of the beholder.
The essence of work is that you were part off, where you were instrumental to one of those projects. They are engrained in your physical and emotional DNA, and make who you are. Nobody can take that away.
So look back, and interrogate those projects that made you who you are. That gave you the scars on your soul, and the arrows in your back. Those projects are those projects because you cared. You cared for yourself and the organization that you were part of. This relationship is different from doing your job, different from the employer-employee relationship.
The madness is many of these relations are un-even, unequal. In many cases the performer cares for the organization, but the organization does not care for the performer.
As in so many of the essays in this series, the only one way to survive this madness and is to choose and adhere to your own norms and standards for an essence of work that is after superior qualities and experiences.
That is what our next essay in the series will be about: ethereal qualities.