Editor’s note: I recorded this as a podcast for Productive Flourishing long after I originally published this post. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to hear more episodes of the podcast, you’ll find them in the show’s archives.
From the rise of the Industrial Revolution to about the end of the twentieth century, we could describe the world of work as Career World. But careers, in the way we understood them in the twentieth century, are dead. Welcome to Project World.
Before I go on to explain the differences between Project World and Career World, I’ll briefly address why the world has changed. The Industrial Revolution brought a shift in society, away from individuals making items for customers they knew in a relatively small-scale, village-based context and toward working in large factories (by which I mean to include more modern-day factories like banks, data centers, and call centers) that create products and solutions for a mass of unknown customers. As our business practices and society shift back to more direct relationships with customers, the changes in creative work and entrepreneurship have also changed the nature of jobs, entrepreneurship, and what it takes to thrive in this new (old) world.
Let’s handle each in turn.
Jobs in Project World
The world of work has shifted from careers to projects. In Career World, you went to school to get a job in a company that you’d work at for the rest of your professional life. That employer would issue a pension for retirement and you’d spend your idle years in some post-work, pre-death twilight. Probably in Florida.
Even when that scenario wasn’t close to reality, that was the myth that was told about the world of work. School led to a job which led to a long-term employer which led to retirement. Somewhere between the job and retirement was a house and kids.
Project World is different. Rather than thinking of our best work as continued by a decades-long stretch working at one company, we can think about it as it truly is: a series of major projects that each last three to five and contain a lot of other smaller projects. Your current position at your company is a three-to-five-year project that will propel you into another. If you’re in school right now, each level of education is a leg of a three-to-five-year journey. And if you’re running a business, in three to five years, your role in the business — and what your business is — will change, and that’s the point.
In Project World, no matter how well you do your “job,” you’ll be on another one in three to five years because:
- If you don’t do your job well, you’ll find yourself without it. The better the job, the better you have to do to keep it.
- If you do your job really well, you’ll find yourself fast-tracked to do more jobs you’re not trained for, without the budgets, resources, and manpower you need to do those jobs.
- If you hang onto your job long enough, you’ll find yourself under the direction of a new leader or of another company entirely. The people from #2 are shuffled through leadership positions so quickly and the people from #1 get shuffled out so quickly that, though your desk and chair might never leave a 10-foot circle on the floor, your work environment dramatically changes faster than you change computers.
The only thing that you have to take with you in any of the cases above is what you’ve accomplished. You don’t get credit for all the things you half-started or half-finished. An entire generation of kids has been set up to believe that being a part of a bunch of groups counts for something. Perhaps it does for a college admission. But in the world of work as it relates to professional creatives, what counts is what you build, sell, or manage — and likely all three in different ways. (Yes, this applies to academics and government workers as well.)
The very worst thing you can do in Project World is to have only time-in at a company or an organization to show for yourself. Great, you’ve worked at Acme Organization for thirteen years and you can’t show me one significant project where your contributions were absolutely vital?
Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners in Project World
This pressure is even more significant for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Innovation cycles went from hundreds of years to just years in less than a hundred years. We experience this pressure in subtle ways that add up.
Just about the time you get your website upgraded, the Next Big Thing hits. That marketing strategy or social media platform you just got dialed in? Replaced by this year’s trend. That project you’ve been working on to lower costs and overhead? Some startup company in the Philippines is using manpower to solve those same problems — and once they figure that out, another company in the Philippines will start working on solving the problem using cheaper manpower and tech to compete with them. (And before you write that off, keep in mind that it’s the guy you talked to at the last conference who’s starting one or the other of those companies.)
Being remarkable, if I may follow my long habit of riffing off of Seth, is the only way to thrive in business. And while shipping isn’t sufficient to be remarkable, it’s absolutely necessary. People will buy your words for only so long if they can’t buy and experience your product. (Tweet this.)
Success in Project World Requires That You Start Finishing Every Day
Shipping requires you to stop shuffling, lying, hedging, talking, and scheming and to start finishing. Which means, whether you’re an employed professional creative or think you’re your own boss, your success depends on whether you’re able to consistently start finishing the stuff that matters.
But here’s the deal: we are the most fulfilled when we are making progress on meaningful goals. As Dan Pink has pointed out in Drive, we actually don’t need carrots and sticks — autonomy, mastery, and purpose go a long way. The Progress Principle shows that it’s actually setbacks that make us have lousy work days, rather than the nature of our work itself. The upshot of our ever-evolving professional lives is that we have unprecedented autonomy, adventure, and chance for impact via network effects.
Our stress is that actually finishing the work we’re meant to do is even more important than it’s ever been; our salvation is that we’re happiest when we’re actually finishing the work we’re meant to do.
Welcome to Project World.
Since you’re here, you might as well learn the ways to be successful in this world. The rest of this unfolding conversation is about exactly that. In my new book, I’ll guide you to finish rather than start because I’m near certain that you’ve already started quite a few things. Somewhere along the way, in physical, mental, and digital drawers, those brilliant ideas are waiting on the someday that you’ll get back to them and figure out what actually needs to happen to get the ideas out into the world. It’s time to make “someday” today.