Today I met someone I really admire, Seth Godin. About 3 years ago, my cousin introduced me to Seth’s blog and some of his writing. I read his book Linchpin, which really transformed the way I thought about job satisfaction, personal and societal value creation, and, more broadly, how the economy (and economic theory) would change in the years to come.
In college class after class, I was schooled in the classical understanding of how the economy worked. Basically, what you learn in classical economic theory of production is that a country’s growth is determined by the growth rate in capital, labor, and productivity (generalized as improvements in technology). Labor, used in some optimal combination with capital, would create growth. Labor was thought of in the same light as machinery. It was an interchangeable commodity.
This theory was a great way of explaining what happened in our country after the industrial revolution. You didn’t need to be particularly skilled to work at Henry Ford’s factories. In fact, a large portion of the populace was some form of blue-collar worker completing very repetitive, manual work, at company’s with very hierarchical management structures.
Does this model make any sense now?
But, I started to wonder if that model for economic growth made any sense in the age that we currently live in. It’s so obvious now that productivity improvements and capital have been replacing, and will continue to replace the requirements of labor. Not even white collar jobs are safe anymore. You think you are special because you have a college degree? Guess what, everyone does! A master’s isn’t even what it used to be. And guess what, there are hundreds of millions of people in India that could probably do your job for a forth of the price with limited quality drop off.
Is labor relevant anymore?
It kind of dawned on me that people actually really have to do something to stay relevant in the marketplace, or they’ll continue to be replaced by machinery and productivity improvements. So, what does labor have to do to stay relevant? That’s where Seth’s ideas in Linchpin really hit home.
Be an artist!
In Linchpin, Seth implores everyone to become an artist and do work that really matters because the market demands more from labor. That means making you make a commitment to do work that’s meaningful. You give gifts to people. You surprise them. You give them more than they ask for. You make someone’s day. You anticipate their needs. That is what Seth means when he talks about creating art through your work.
You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances…Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
How do programmers produce art?
As a programmer, making art is about composing beautiful code that’s readable for humans. For example, it’s about writing code that anticipates edge cases. It’s about testing to ensure that it works. It’s about figuring out a way to do something more efficiently.
Even more importantly, it’s about creating products that customers actually want to use; products with robust functionality and great user experiences. If we keep the user in mind, we’ll be better at solving their problems, and solving customer problems with elegance is art.
Make yourself useful.