You’ve probably heard a familiar piece of career advice: “Everyone works in sales, even if they don’t realize it.”
This is good advice.
I want to propose an updated version for today:
“Everyone’s job is world-building, even if they don’t realize it.”
It is more or less the same idea, but tailored even more for a world of abundant narrative and complex choices.
The more complex or valuable is whatever you’re trying to sell, the more important it is for you to build a world around that idea, where other people can walk in, explore, and hang out – without you having to be there with them the whole time.
You need to build a world so rich and captivating that others will want to spend time in it, even if you’re not there. It takes time to learn this lesson.
Early in your career, you’ll be typically tasked with accomplishing simpler things that require a single-threaded effort, or aim at one specific obstacle. But as you grow and take on more complex responsibilities, or stake out on your own and try to bring your own ideas into the world, you’re going to quickly learn that the actually hard problems in the world worth working on are system problems.
Trying to ship something inside a big company? That’s a system. Trying to build a startup that rearranges the world in an interesting way? That’s a system too. Same for media, or politics, or any pursuit that involves leverage.
System problems cannot be fixed in one step, nor can they be fixed in a sequence of linear steps. Why not?
Because when systems find a steady state – which is probably where you’re encountering them, if you’re setting out to change something – they’re “steady” not because they’re static, but because they’re dynamically held in place by feedback loops.
If you try to change one variable, you can apply as much effort as you like, but the minute you let go, the system will just snap right back to its original configuration.
If you want to change how a system works, and move the system into a new steady state that’s closer to your goal, sequential effort won’t do much.
What you need is parallel effort: you need several different things to happen, all at the same time, for the system to actually move in the direction that you want and stay there.
So that means you need to find all of the different people who you’ll need on your team, and somehow get them all listening to you at once, all probing and pushing on the system to change, for an extended period of time.
This is harder than it sounds, for two reasons: complexity and time.
First, complexity: for any interesting system problem, you’re not necessarily going to know exactly how to push on the system in the right way, let alone how to coordinate a large group of people all pushing on their own parts of the system, on the first try. You need to probe it and reason about it and figure out what to do.
But that takes a while to figure out, and people get bored or distracted or busy with other things. It’s hard to hold several different people’s attention at once, for any appreciable length of time.
Second, that time issue: there is only one of you. You cannot simultaneously be everywhere at once, and spending time on every part of the system at once, holding everyone’s interest at the same time.
That’s tricky, because unless you’re in some very senior role that compels your teammates to explicitly prioritize whatever you have going on, you’re going to be competing with a lot of other stuff. And when you can’t attend to someone personally, you’ll probably lose their attention to whoever can.
So how do you do this?
You make a world.
Photo credit: Juliana Kozoski on Unsplash