The problem is that our culture has engaged in a Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.
For hundreds of years, the population has been seduced, scammed, and brainwashed into fitting in, following instructions, and exchanging a day’s work for a day’s pay. That era has come to an end and just in time.
David Mamet: “Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.”
Those are the only two choices. Win by being more ordinary, more standard, and cheaper. Or win by being faster, more remarkable, and more human.
Most white-collar workers wear white collars, but they’re still working in the factory. They push a pencil or process an application or type on a keyboard instead of operating a drill press. The only grease they have to get off their clothes at the end of the day is the grease from the take-out food at lunch. But it’s factory work. It’s factory work because it’s planned, controlled, and measured.
Consumers say that all they want are cheap commodities. Given the choice, though, most of us, most of the time, seek out art. We seek out experiences and products that deliver more value, more connection, and more experience, and change us for the better.
This is a more powerful question, and a difficult one. It’s entirely possible that once you choose to become indispensable, you will no longer be loved. Not by the same people who love you now, perhaps, nor for the same reasons. But (and I know it’s a big but) either those people will come around, or they never loved you in the first place, did they?
Do you remember the old American Dream? It struck a chord with millions of people (in the United States and in the rest of the world, too). Here’s how it goes:
Keep your head down
Show up on time
Suck it up
. . . you will be rewarded. As we’ve seen, that dream is over. The new American Dream, though, the one that markets around the world are embracing as fast as they can, is this:
Make judgment calls
Connect people and ideas
. . . and we have no choice but to reward you.
We’ve been taught to be a replaceable cog in a giant machine.
We’ve been taught to consume as a shortcut to happiness.
We’ve been taught not to care about our job or our customers.
And we’ve been taught to fit in.
Here’s what Woodrow Wilson said about public education: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
What They Should Teach in School
Only two things: 1. Solve interesting problems 2. Lead
The craft of the painting, the craft of writing that e-mail, the craft of building that PowerPoint presentation—those are the easy parts. It’s the art and the insight and the bravery of value creation that are rewarded.
There are three situations where an organization will reward and embrace someone with extraordinary depth of knowledge: 1. When the knowledge is needed on a moment’s notice and bringing in an outside source is too risky or time consuming. 2. When the knowledge is needed on a constant basis and the cost of bringing in an outside source is too high. 3. When depth of knowledge is also involved in decision making, and internal credibility and organizational knowledge go hand in hand with knowing the right answer.
Linchpins are able to embrace the lack of structure and find a new path, one that works.
Bob Dylan knows a little about becoming indispensable, being an artist, and living on the edge: “Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly . . . exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist. . . . I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through.”
Projects are the new résumés. If your Google search isn’t what you want (need) it to be, then change it. Change it through your actions and connections and generosity. Change it by so over-delivering that people post about you. Change it by creating a blog that is so insightful about your area of expertise that others refer to it. And change it by helping other people online.
Author Richard Florida polled twenty thousand creative professionals and gave them a choice of thirty-eight factors that motivated them to do their best at work. The top ten, ranked in order: 1. Challenge and responsibility 2. Flexibility 3. A stable work environment 4. Money 5. Professional development 6. Peer recognition 7. Stimulating colleagues and bosses 8. Exciting job content 9. Organizational culture 10. Location and community Only one of these is a clearly extrinsic motivator (#4, money). The rest are either things we do for ourselves or things that we value because of who we are.
So, back to my definition: Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.
There are two reasons why it’s vital to know whom you are working for. The first is that understanding your audience allows you to target your work and to get feedback that will help you do it better next time. The other reason? Because it tells you whom to ignore. It’s impossible to make art for everyone. There are too many conflicting goals and there’s far too much noise. Art for everyone is mediocre, bland, and ineffective. If you don’t pinpoint your audience, you end up making your art for the loudest, crankiest critics. And that’s a waste. Instead, focus on the audience that you choose, and listen to them, to the exclusion of all others.
The easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth.
The job is not your work; what you do with your heart and soul is the work.
The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.
Your mind, the thing that drives you crazy and makes you special, has two distinct sections, the daemon and the resistance. The daemon is the source of great ideas, groundbreaking insights, generosity, love, connection, and kindness. The resistance spends all its time insulating the world from our daemon. The resistance lives inside the lizard brain… The Greeks believed that the daemon was a separate being inside each of us. The genius living inside of us would struggle to express itself in art or writing or some other endeavor. When the genius felt like showing up, great stuff happened.
Here are four of the major systems in your brain… As you go down the list, each system becomes more civilized but less powerful: 1. Brain Stem—breathing and other unconscious survival functions 2. Limbic System—the lizard brain. Anger and revenge and sex and fear. 3. Cerebellum—coordination and motor control. 4. Cerebrum—the newest and most sophisticated part of our brain, and also the one that is always overruled by the other three parts.
The Rotterdam Zoo now distributes special eyeglasses for visitors to the gorilla area. The glasses are sort of like the 3D glasses from the movies, except that they don’t change what you see. They change what the gorilla sees. They have a picture painted on them of your eyes looking to the side. This way, when you are near the gorillas, it doesn’t look like you’re making eye contact with them. Which is threatening. Which freaks the gorillas out and has led to attacks. Eye contact, all by itself, is enough to throw your lizard brain into a tizzy.
The road to comfort is crowded and it rarely gets you there. Ironically, it’s those who seek out discomfort that are able to make a difference and find their footing.
Well-meaning friends and advisers never hesitate to reach out to artists. They suggest we have a backup plan, something to fall back on if the art thing doesn’t work out so well. You’ve probably guessed what happens when you have a great backup plan: You end up settling for the backup.
Fear of living without a map is the main reason people are so insistent that we tell them what to do. The reasons are pretty obvious: If it’s someone else’s map, it’s not your fault if it doesn’t work out. If you’ve memorized the sales script I gave you and you don’t make the sale, who’s in trouble now? Not only does the map insulate us from responsibility, but it’s also a social talisman. We can tell our friends and family that we’ve found a good map, a safe map, a map worthy of respect.
The resistance is everywhere, all the time. Its goal is to make you safe, which means invisible and unchanged. Visibility is dangerous. It leads to the possibility of people laughing at you, or even death. Change is dangerous because it involves moving from the known to the unknown, and that might be dangerous. So, the resistance is wily. It works to do one of two things: get you to fit in (and become invisible) or get you to fail (which makes it unlikely that positive change will arrive, thus permitting you to stay still).
Leo Babauta’s brilliant little book Zen Habits helps you think your way through this problem. His program is simple: Attempt to create only one significant work a year. Break that into smaller projects, and every day, find three tasks to accomplish that will help you complete a project. And do only that during your working hours.
A critical underpinning at AA is that no money changes hands. There’s no central organization collecting dues, no fee to attend a meeting, no payments from one member to another. The act of helping a fellow alcoholic for free has two effects: First, it brings the giver and the recipient closer together, creating a tribe. And second, it creates an obligation for the recipient. Not an obligation to reciprocate, because she really can’t and it’s not expected, but an obligation to help the next person. And so the movement grows.
You must become indispensable to thrive in the new economy. The best ways to do that are to be remarkable, insightful, an artist, someone bearing gifts. To lead. The worst way is to conform and become a cog in a giant system. What does it take to lead? The key distinction is the ability to forge your own path, to discover a route from one place to another that hasn’t been paved, measured, and quantified.
Perhaps the biggest shift the new economy brings is self-determination. Access to capital and appropriate connections aren’t nearly as essential as they were. Linchpins are made, not born.
Linchpins do two things for the organization. They exert emotional labor and they make a map. Those contributions take many forms. Here is one way to think about the list of what makes you indispensable: 1. Providing a unique interface between members of the organization 2. Delivering unique creativity 3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity 4. Leading customers 5. Inspiring staff 6. Providing deep domain knowledge 7. Possessing a unique talent
The act of deciding is the act of succeeding.