How many times a day do you ask how someone is, and they respond with ‘God, I’m so busy!’. Everyone is busy. Emails to reply to, calls to make, reports to write. But I think it’s a fallacy. Instead of actually being busy, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of being busy.
I’m sure that some people are busy. In fact, I know lots of actually busy people, but they tend to be the ones who don’t tell you that they’re busy. So why do people like us – advertising and media people – feel that we need to tell people how busy we are? Are we that busy? And if not, why do we insist on telling everyone that we are – what’s to be gained?
I think we’re obsessed with the lure of ‘productivity’. Of ‘inbox zero’, of no new notifications, and of having ticked off all our to-dos for today. We equate visible actions with busyness, and busyness with productivity, and productivity with value. But that’s a trap. If you’re trying to show how valuable you are by how many tasks you can do, then you’re replaceable. You’re trapped in a world of shallow work. That sort of work, as Nicholas Carr points out in both The Glass Cage, and The Shallows, is a dangerous place to be in. Shallow work is replaceable work, much of which can be automated. This is especially true in our industry.
Maybe I’m being a little bit harsh. It’s easy to fall into the shallow work trap – especially when your work doesn’t have a tangible output. I think that the reason we throw ourselves with abandon at our emails is insecurity. Our shallow work produces a tangible output – a report, an email, a conference call. But is it what we really do? Or is it what we should really be doing?
The value that you bring to your organisation is problem solving and creativity. For the most part, regardless of your job title, we all do the same job, and it centres around those two things. We fix problems and address challenges for our clients. Having worked in PR, creative, and media agencies, my experience is that we all do roughly the same job.
If we fill our days with shallow work, we won’t have time and space to think about the real task at hand. Our job is not to send emails, it is to fix problems for our clients. How can anyone leave work satisfied if all they’ve done all day is send emails and make phone calls?
Last year a friend of mine quit his job. He was about eight years into his career, in a senior role, at a respected consumer PR agency. He quit to take on a role as an apprentice barber at a barbers in Soho. “What is he thinking”, I thought. Hardly transferable skills. A totally alien environment, I thought. Another casualty of the industry, I thought. I didn’t understand. I bumped into my friend a few months after he quit, and he was beaming. I thought it was all bravado, a bit of a put on, but as we spoke his enthusiasm was palpable. He loved his new job. It was his calling. “I’ve never felt so satisfied”, he said. “I don’t have any of the distractions that I had in my agency life anymore – I can just focus on one thing, and doing one thing really well”. Five minutes later he got off the tube, and I sat thinking ‘what satisfies me?’. I’d never thought about it before, and it’s quite a hard question to answer. Ironically, it’s questions like that (the ones that are hard to answer) that I find so satisfying. Or in a less abstract way, I find solving difficult problems satisfying.
A few weeks later, I read an interview between Trevor Beattie (of BMB fame) and Nils Leonard (of Grey fame). One of Nils’ answers stuck with me. This:
TB: You’re a designer by trade. How big a role does design still play in your thinking?
NL: Ive is a designer. Heatherwick is a designer. McQueen was a designer. Designers actually make things. They’re not dependent. And the best ones matter outside the industry they work in. The best ones have changed how we live or given us memorable, remarkable, powerful moments. They don’t see the answer as the same every time. They are empowered, and remain open to influence and change. Advertising agencies are bad at that, so I try to bring that.
The idea of Nils having a trade, and making things that aren’t dependent on a client brief made me feel a bit insecure. “What is my trade?”, I thought (again, sat on the tube*). This bought me back to the shallow work versus deep work thoughts I’d been having. In Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses the sense of satisfaction that people with a craft or trade feel each day having made something. Nils was using the same sort of language, but he was plying his trade in a similar environment to mine.
So what is my trade? Well, my employer sells me as a problem solver. I make things that are often complicated, simple. I provide clients with my point of view on the challenges that they face, and the best course of action. So my trade is problem solving, but I think my craft is writing. Writing is the thing that I toil away at late at night, it’s the thing that gets me up in morning. Writing is the tool that I use to solve problems and think more creatively. So if Trevor Beattie ever interviews me, he’ll open his question by saying “You’re a writer by trade. How big a role does writing still play in your thinking?”, and I’ll say “Trev, writing is my thinking”.
Realising what my trade and craft is was a big step. It means I can focus on honing those skills and actively trying to produce better, stronger work. I hope that should give me a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.
I’ve read two books recently that I think provide some of the tools to honing those skills. Deep Work (as above), which introduced me to the idea of allocating a chunk of time every week to deep thinking. I’ll never escape all shallow work, but I need to develop my skills as a problem solver. For that I have to give my brain the opportunity to think about one thing for a good amount of time. I need less HITT, and more marathon training, or at the least, I need a mixture of the two.
The second book is Curious, by Ian Leslie, which I’m only half way through so far, which extols the virtues of curiosity. In fact, scrap that, not the virtues, but the necessity of curiosity. He believes that curiosity is what helps us develop as people. It helps us to make connections between different things, to make new things. There’s a lot of research that shows that learning new things develops stronger neuroplasticity. That makes the brain a type of muscle, one that grows stronger with practice, and helps us to make new connections. Connections, in turn, drive creative thinking. So to develop my trade, I need to give my brain two things; time, and interesting stuff.
So from now on I’ll be carving out at least four consecutive hours every week to dedicate to fixing one problem. I’ll also be putting as much interesting stuff in my head as possible, things like art, music, and books. Although it isn’t about ‘all you can eat’, but instead taking a focused approach, and applying epistemic curiosity.
You might be reading this now thinking ‘first world problems’, and I acknowledge that. I would never suggest that what I do for a living is comparable to that of a firefighter, a teacher, or a nurse, but the media industry has its own challenges. One of those killer challenges is satisfaction, the other is demonstrating value.
In times of increasing financial scrutiny, automation, and competition, it’s easy to be insecure. To work in a shallow way. But we must remember that we are not employed for our ability to fire out emails, arrange pointless meetings, and write empty reports.
We’re employed to solve problems and provide creative thinking, and that means swimming in the deep, at least once a week.
It’s at this point that I realise just how lucky I am. I have a job where the core parts of my role are thinking and curiosity. I can exercise my craft on a daily basis, if I choose to. I can do this with ideas for some of the worlds most interesting businesses. But luck is another subject altogether…
*There are two places where I do my best thinking; 1) the tube, and 2) the church yard near the office. Both places are ridiculously busy, but both in both places I can lose myself in thought and avoid distracting myself.