Importance of making yourself indispensable
You recently said that “There are no longer any great jobs where someone tells you precisely what to do.” What are the implications for today’s workers?
The fact is that today, any type of work that can be done ‘by the book’ can easily be moved to someone who will do it for cheaper. And companies have to do this, because the competition is doing the same thing -- there is this ‘race to the bottom’ going on. What this means to the modern worker is one of two things: either you need to accept the fact that you are part of the race to the bottom -- which isn’t good, because you just might win; or you need to do work that cannot be written down in a manual. If the work you do is work that only you can do, that creates scarcity, which is the goal in the modern workplace. What needs to be done at the business school level – and at the elementary and high school levels -- is to spend way more time helping people develop unique skills and not worry so much about making them be compliant and able to do a bunch of things on a checklist.
Basically, you believe that we must become indispensible in order to thrive going forward. How does a person become what you call a ‘linchpin’?
The short definition of a linchpin is, ‘someone who would be missed if they were gone’. The nature of the industrial system was to have an organizational chart, and if someone didn’t show up for work, you didn’t shut down the factory -- you just put someone else in their spot. A linchpin is someone who doesn’t have a spot like that; these are people that we depend on, and if they go missing, it’s a big problem. Job seekers have to decide, are they looking for an opportunity where they get to make an imprint and be counted on? Or, are they looking for a job that could be filled by many different people, where they could be replaced in a day? Basically, you can either fit in or stand out – not both; today’s workers are either defending the status quo or challenging it.
What is ‘emotional labour’, and why is it now so much more valuable than physical labour?
The term comes from Arlie Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studied Delta Airlines stewardesses. She described emotional labour as the kind of work where you have to present specific emotions as part of the job – for instance, you have to smile even when you don’t feel like it. Today, that’s pretty much all we’ve got left. Certainly, anyone reading this interview is not swinging a sledgehammer all day for money; what we do now is, we get paid to bring emotional labour to the table: we are paid to bring enthusiasm or commitment or persuasion or confidence to a situation where, maybe in that moment, we don’t feel like it. The good news is that emotional labour is both scarce and well compensated. If, on the other hand, you think the solution is ‘more rules and less humanity’, you will be disappointed by the results: the organizations that can bring humanity and flexibility to their interactions with other human beings are the ones that will thrive.
In what ways are modern workers ‘artists’ and their jobs ‘platforms’?
‘Art’ is about a lot more than painting. Art is the act of a human being doing something that has never been done before. It’s what happens when a human being connects with somebody else and makes an impact. Sure, sometimes that involves a painting or a sculpture or a theatrical play, but it can also be the way a doctor deals with a three-year- old who’s not feeling well. In Louis Hyde’s brilliant book The Gift, he says that a key aspect of art is that it always has a ‘gift’ component to it. Looking at a Pablo Picasso painting or listening to a Paul McCartney song doesn’t cost anything; it’s free -- a gift from the artist to the person who receives it. Likewise, the notion that we can use digital networks to connect people, to contribute an idea or do something that benefits a tribe or society -- those are all gifts. Once you get in the habit of giving these gifts and bringing emotional labour to the table, you are much more likely to create art; and once you start making art, you may discover that you’ve become a linchpin --that you’re scarce and highly valued.
You have said that in today’s environment, ‘depth of knowledge’ on its own can get people into big trouble, and that schools should teach only two things: how to solve interesting problems and how to lead. Please explain.
I just wrote a book about that called, Stop Stealing Dreams [available free online at stopstealingdreams.com ] where I argue that innovative organizations such as Wikipedia and the Kahn Academy have eliminated the need for us to memorize stuff, because we now all have access to any information in just three keystrokes. As a result, you will never again hire someone merely because they have access to data, because we all have access to data. You are going to hire people because they can solve a problem that hasn’t been solved before, because the problems that have been solved before are easy to look up. That’s why the skills of connecting people, standing up for what you believe in and making a difference are now significantly more important than your ability to solve a quadratic equation. It’s not that depth of knowledge is of no value: when it is combined with good judgment, diagnostic skills or nuanced insight, it is still worth a lot.