In George Orwell’s classic novel “1984”, the supreme dictator, called Big Brother, systematically reduced the number of words that the citizen slaves could use. The fewer the words, the fewer the ideas, the narrower the thinking and the less power in people’s minds. The language of this totalitarian world was called “newspeak”.
The words that govern our thinking in relation to work are not just semantic entities, but influence what we perceive and what we think is possible or not. Usually we are not aware of how these concepts prime our thinking. We simply think and act along certain familiar lines.
Our vocabulary around work resembles “newspeak” in its lack of diversity and richness. We have been accustomed to talking about a very limited number of things: such as jobs, labor, job markets, managers, employers, freelancers, employees.
The definition of an employee is “somebody who works for another person or a company for pay”. It is therefore not about you, but about what other people want of you, and they don’t really want you, but a part of you, what you can do, your competences.
The post-industrial revolution is a revolution in power. More and more opportunities are being democratized. The new power is vested in knowledgeable people. Just as the Industrial Revolution catered to managers and firms, the post-industrial world rewards individuals and networks. But we don’t yet have the words, the new vocabulary of the new age.
Nilofer Merchant is a leading voice in creating the post-industrial narrative. There are very few management thinkers who have done as much as Nilofer to help us to make sense of the new world. Among the concepts that she has coined is “Onlyness”. Nilofer explains: “Onlyness is what only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human.”
I interpret “Onlyness” as a form of responsibility that grows from your own context. Response-ability, the ability to choose what you do, will be one of the key work skills in the future. It is the polar opposite of the learned helplessness created during the industrial era. Learned helplessness is a belief that we are at the mercy of external forces – the managers, the employers and the markets – and not in control of what is happening to us. Martin Seligman claims that this feeling is not only learned but is built in as a feature in many of our social systems, where somebody else, by default, tells us what we should think and do. In the post-industrial world we need to make a conscious effort to clear our minds of learned helplessness.
Although most things in life are beyond anyone’s control, you can control what you do with most of your time. You can control your commitments, the things you promise to yourself and others. You can control who you choose as role models, who you follow and who you seek out for advice and inspiration. You can control who you spend your time with. For many, a role model creates an image of someone for young people to look up to. Children need people to follow, but adults need them too. Finding people who represent what you want to do or what you want to be can give you a huge boost. The best mentors are people who are ahead of you, but have been where you are now.
What would work be like if your own life, your own context were the starting point? Should individuals think like firms do? Just as companies today dissolve their boundaries and erase their hierarchies, so must an individual be ready to invent and reinvent herself. Many people have already started thinking this way. Today, strategy tools such as the SWOT analysis are used more by individuals than firms. How vulnerable are you in the face of technological change? What can you do that others can’t? What trends should you watch? What knowledge do you lack?
Knowledge of your abilities, interests, strengths and weaknesses is essential to becoming response-able in choosing and changing your career. These are the most important criteria. However, the overwhelming majority of job seekers react to purely external things, the conditions created by employers or financial pressures. Huge life decisions are not made but happen on the basis of external factors instead of one’s own directions for the future. The legacy of the industrial age is a strange passivity, people simply falling into their jobs. Too few people actively make a connection between what they are good at, or want to be good at and what they do for a living.
It is ironic that we wonder why people are not engaged.
No human being is exactly like another. We are all unique combinations of talents and experiences that never existed before and will never exist again in quite the same way. No one has ever done precisely what you are now doing. No one has ever faced your future. But we never get it quite right. It is never perfect. Therefore life should always be under construction.
It is very hard to do this in industrial settings because traditional management thinking sets employee goals and business goals against each other. The manager is free to choose the goals, but the employee is only free to follow the given goals. This is why employee advocates mainly want socially responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants skilled employees, nothing else.
Must we then choose between the goals of the people or the goals of the business, or can the two sides be connected? As we know, passion and commitment are best mobilized in response to personal aspirations, not financial rewards.
We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses! The aim, however, is not to have a single set of common goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both! We need to study the intersection of business strategy and personal narratives and use the new agenda to challenge our industrial-age practices and flawed ways of thinking. Knowledge work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership
Learning thus means deepening your understanding of yourself as much as creating new knowledge – and creating new words.