On avoiding working on the wrong thing

Have you heard about the Rubylith? Probably not; neither had I until I stumbled on this story.

In short, before desktop publishing, the best way to layout a complicated image for printing was to cut a rubylith, which is a translucent sheet of thin plastic. A craftsperson would carefully cut the ruby, knowing that the parts it covered would reflect the light when creating the plate. It was painstaking and challenging work.

But when Illustrator’s software came out, it destroyed the market for this skill. Today, two clicks can replace an hour of cutting a rubylith.

Seth Godin points out that “as soon as technology allowed people to skip this step, many of them did. The others fought hard, pointing out that their craft was hard-won and that the old way was the better way.”

Similar resistance has happened and will happen in every field when and where change is overdue. There will always exist some level of opposition to adaptation and modification.

Microsoft fought tooth and nail against Open Source, going so far as to call it cancer. Twenty years later, they embraced it

Kodak resisted moving into the digital camera world until it eventually had to yield to the Asian competition that had embraced it, effectively destroying their margins for photo rolls, indirectly dragging themselves into bankruptcy.

Utility companies continue to lobby to ease emission standards when they could instead focus on adapting to more progressive restriction levels.

Tech companies continue to fight against new formats and new forms of exchange instead of leading with them. Powerful cultural forces fight to preserve hierarchies instead of figuring out how to thrive with new ones. I argue that this is rooted in a lack of understanding of what their work is for.

People in the rubylith business were not in it to design graphics with rubylith. They were in the business of getting graphic design published.

Penguin Random House isn’t in the bookstore business. They’re in the business of publishing ideas that matter, helping their readers to embrace change and to practice it.

Renault isn’t in the car-selling business. They sell personal transportation.

Shell isn’t in the business of selling gasoline. They provide energy to fuel activity in a way that protects and replenishes the sources from which it’s extracted. Or at least they should be. Otherwise, there will be a point where they won’t be able to carry their business anymore. 

You’re also probably not in the business of simply having a job with an office. You are willing to trade your time and effort in exchange for money and a chance to do work you’re proud of.

So how do we ensure we create meaningful companies that are adaptable and sustainable for the long term? I believe it’s by doing things on purpose. Before we start anything, we must answer the question, “What’s it for?”

I believe that when we create something, it is always to make change happen. 

Michael Schrage’s book, “Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?”, asks this simple and imperative question. 

Sometimes we answer this simplistically; we want to turn non-customers into customers. That’s what Microsoft thought when it became a near monopoly, seeking to wipe out the other competitors as well as their open-source alternatives.

But the answer to this question can and should be more complex and profound. We want to help those we seek to serve to become who they want to be. This includes people, wildlife, and the environment on which we all depend.

Since their creation, communities such as WordPress knew that their purpose was to create a user-friendly blog that anyone could set up and extend. Initially, it was not the most powerful nor the best blog-publishing system, but its clarity of purpose helped the team and its contributors align towards the same goal, and today 33% of the internet’s websites are powered by it.

Let’s Do it is a movement that started in Estonia where once a year, people from across the globe are invited to engage in local waste cleanup, creating a worldwide civic movement in support of a greener planet. They’ve gone from a few thousand people at their first event to tens of millions of people helping in hundreds of countries across the world. They know what their event is for.

What do we want life around us to become? 

What happens if we don’t do things on purpose?

Besides potentially becoming obsolete because we miss the changes in our industry as with Kodak or Penguin Random House, we might also become an accomplice to the short-sighted market.

The marketplace is excellent at providing people with what they want and need. The algorithm-driven market is hyper-alert of all of our desires. We can get a cheap smartphone charger on Amazon, a game of cards sent from the US to Europe, or a ceramic made in a unique style. 

But the marketplace does not possess the wisdom to direct itself purposefully if we don’t help it to.

The marketplace is nothing but billions of “selfish” individuals trading services and commodities without regard for what’s next. It isn’t because we lack intelligence, empathy or forethought but because it has become too complex to keep track of.

Left to its own devices, the capitalist marketplace inevitably slips into corruption, bribery, and predatory pricing leading to monopoly. We end up polluting rivers, damaging our health, and creating ever more significant divides. We create drug and obesity epidemics, develop dark and destructive patterns in social media, and see polarization tear our communities apart. 

We end up getting short-term spammed by businesses because a fraction of people will buy. We get negative campaigning because that’s what people react to. We get social media filled with manipulation and vanity because that’s what people click on. And we eat food that makes us fat or we watch shows that numb us instead of inspire us because that’s what people accept.

And we get all of this as a by-product of serving people what they want so our businesses can make the most profit out of it.

Having stock markets that reward those who focus on the quarterly profits and penalize those who think long term, directs our attention away from investing in the future. By only following the whims of the market, we lose our sense of time or proportion.

The good news is that the market and the system is also sensitive. It’s on the lookout for those who do the difficult and heroic work of resisting short-term thinking and who stand up for what’s right for the long term. When more and more of us start clicking, buying, and talking about it, the market will focus on moving in that direction. 

When Colin Kaepernick protested against racism and was fired for it, Nike supported him. This moved Nike from being a brand that stood only for sports, to one that’s purpose is to help make things better for minorities through sports.

The movie Tomorrow by Cyril Dion, optimistically identifies initiatives that have proven themselves in ten countries around the world: concrete examples of solutions and market alternatives to environmental and social challenges of the twenty-first century, be it agriculture, energy, economy, education and governance. It has been viewed by hundreds of thousands and has inspired many companies to create better products and to improve their managerial practices.

So, the easiest way to move beyond these complicated problems is to become the ones to build the guardrails that allow us to make things work for the long term. If we don’t first set these boundaries and guidelines by asking, “what is my work for?”, then we’ll give into what the market wants, potentially either hurting ourselves or the system.

This can only happen if we acknowledge that we need to stop blaming the market and its myopic course and instead lead the way by committing to making things better for ourselves and for our collective future.        

What is your work for? What will you say “yes” to that might feel scary but necessary? What boundaries will you set to say “no” when the market doesn’t realize it might harm itself? 

Knowing the purpose behind your work will allow you to successfully run your business no matter what changes come and will allow for adaptation for the long-term in a way that makes things better for everyone.

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Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Jaime Arredondo
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