The Work of the 21st Century
Three Levels of Work the World Needs Now
“So. What should we be working on, anyways?”
It’s one of the first questions I get asked. My answer goes something like this.
There are two kinds of work we can be doing today. We can be agents of regression, working to pull the world backwards, downwards, inwards. We can fuel a slide into neofeudalism, peasantry, extremism, bitter division, and authoritarianism. You don’t have to think very hard to come up with organizations that fit that bill, do you?
Or we can be agents of motion. Upwards, outwards, forwards. We can create a better future for ourselves, our grandkids, all those who will inherit the world we leave behind. You are quite right to say that this kind of work brings with it greater responsibility, and more risk. But it also offers lasting self-realization, self-knowledge, self-discover — that is its gift and reward, where the first kind of work only holds the promise of staying on top of old heirarchies of domination and power, and we will come back to that. So the work of today is really at root the work of meaning, happiness, purpose, and freedom. Creating it. Igniting it. Sparking it.
Where does all that come from? I think about work in three levels. None of it’s about the old stuff — technical mastery, analytical skills, “networking”, etcetera. Bzzzt. Obsolete. The work we’re going to have do this century is new — and very old. It’s timeless — and timely. And it’s profoundly humanizing and meaningful — not dehumanizing, exploitative, and pointless.
The first level is the simplest. This is a troubled age. The old world is breaking apart. Here’s a tiny list of global problems. Inequality, stagnation, despair, loneliness, disconnection, mistrust, inopportunity, imbalances in power and agency. Are you solving any of those problems, the big and nasty ones, with the work that you do? Directly, passionately, immediately — genuinely? Or are you just vaguely hoping mostly as a PR exercise that as some third-order indirect consequence of what you do, those problems will one day in some distant future maybe, possibly, shrink a little bit? Like, say, all those I-want-my-mommy apps, the ones that do your laundry and deliver your desinger donuts, and cry “but we’re saving gas!”. Sure, but only at the price of an imploding society, of inequality, loneliness, mistrust, and despair. Do you see how on balance, those probably fuel regress and collapse, where genuine problem-solving does the opposite?
Work today really means something, as it always has, if we are solving problems. If we are not, then the inconvenient truth is that the work we are doing is meaningless — it’s not work at all. It’s predation, maybe, or exploitation , or at best, time-wasting— I’m going to be blunt. It doesn’t matter one bit — not to society, not to the future, not to history, and so, ultimately, not even to yourself. So level I work is about genuine problem-solving, which is another way to say: elevating and expanding well-being.
(That doesn’t mean you have to fix the whole world. You can do something of great intensity, at a small scale. At the scale of a city, town, even a family, or a life. It might count even more that way.)
Ah, if only the world were so simple that we could go out and just do all that. Alas, what stands in the way of doing level I work is yesterday. Organizations themselves. Industrial-age organizations weren’t built to solve titanic, epic species-level threats to humanity — many of today’s problems are caused by that very issue, roadblock, gap. And so level II work is about reimagining, rebuilding, redefining organizations so they can solve real problems again.
What do our organizations really do? The truth is that they don’t do a whole lot. Mostly, they reward people at the very top for juggling numbers — while legions below labour away on pointless endeavors, like new flavours of deodorant. Sorry. That isn’t the same as genuine action towards problem-solving. So level II work is rebuilding organizations that can do real work again, genuine work, work that echoes through history, endures, pulses with purpose. Let me make that a little more concrete.
To build an organization that can really grapple with a problem like stagnation, climate change, or mistrust, means building that is capable of expanding people’s vision, empathy, courage, gratitude, forgiveness (instead, of, for example, churning out armies of Zucks). One that radically elevates the height from and clarity which they can see tomorrow, today, and this world. One that empowers them to think, reason, and then act with greater moral imagination, truer knowledge, broader horizons. And one that really liberates them to realize themselves as people capable of doing extraordinary and vast things with tiny, fragile lives. We can’t solve today’s problems by wasting our lives on spreadsheets and bosses and bottom lines and meetings anymore, can we? If we could have…then how did we end up here?
So level II work is about evoking self-realization in people — qualities like empathy, truth, beauty, insight, morality, wisdom, defiance, grace. It means instantiating those qualities into an organization — rewarding people for them, training people for them, guiding people towards them — not some obsolete notion of “performance”. There aren’t Chief Meaning Officers, or Heads of Well-Being, or Human Agency Designers — but there damned well should be. There aren’t Bottom Lines of Human Possibility or Statements of Net Institutional Impact, but there damned well should be. Because otherwise, without a) radically rethinking what organizations are, what they do, how they are structured, and thus b) what they allow, enable, and free people to c) work on, for, with, and through, we aren’t going to lick the problems confronting us even one tiny bit.
But again — how funny — we come upon the same problem. How are we to do all that? Just as industrial age organizations stand in the way of level I work, of solving real problems, so bureaucratic age leadership stands in the way of level II work, building organizations that matter, that expand and elevate well-being, life, possibility.
If I say to you, “Hey! Go out and build an organization that can change the world! Here’s a leadership textbook to help you!”, I’ll be doing you a great disservice. Because you’ll learn about negotiation, horse-trading, power-poses, public speaking, and body language — but what you won’t figure out is how to do a damned thing that counts, matters, endures, or transforms a single human life, much less build a whole organization that can. You won’t figure out how to evoke a higher purpose in anyone, or to heal their wounds, or to show them what a fierce sense of meaning is.
So level III work is about you. Yourself. How do you become a person that can really bring forth the truest, best, and noblest in people? How do you become someone that when people look at, they say — “Wow! All this courage, truth, wisdom, and grace residing in me! I want to give it to to that person. What they’re doing. That’s my calling, my mission, my cause.”
Ah, see that? The answer’s right in front of you. You become such a person by helping people discover that they have all that stuff inside them to be given, only it’s hidden, usually by pain, trauma, fear, and regret. Now how do you do that? Well, you must discover that you have all that stuff first, and then you can teach others where it lies hidden in them, too. That’s level III work. You, growing, like a little seed, upwards into the same sun.
Maybe it takes a spiritual journey. Maybe you’ll have to go live among the wretched of the earth for a year or two. Maybe you’ll have to write that novel, fail miserably at being that sculptor, get that PhD, break your heart a hundred times over, until it finally splits open. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that that is precisely the kind of work that the old world tells us doesn’t matter. A waste of time, useless, impoverishing. But it has never mattered more — because only through those endeavours of the soul do we come to discover the truth, passion, empathy, courage, and grace within us. Such soul-work teaches us what life is really made of — and until we learn that, we are often scarcely up to the great task of building organizations, institutions, values, ways, that can explosively reimagine a better world.
So level III work is soul-work. Level II work is heart-work. And level I work is mind-work. But of these, the higher up you go, the more powerful, compelling, and resonant your work will be — and quite probably, the more meaningful, joyous, and memorable your days. It’s one thing to solve problems. It’s another to organize the deliver of those solutions. And it’s another still to be able to guide, nurture, and lead the people in those organizations.
And yet. That’s the second, third, fourth, fifth choice — and the truth is that a career will be made by ascending that ladder well. The first choice? Two kinds of work, remember? Backwards, into a neofeudal dark age. Or forwards, into an uncertain, perilous, future. But perhaps, for that very reason, a beautiful and gentle one. The choice is yours.