First it was your hands then it was your head. Now it's your heart.
Not all that long ago most of the work available to humans was manual labor. A person's value was often based on their physical output or ability to execute a specialized task with their hands. As more things became mechanized and then transformed as the information age took hold, we hired people more and more for their brains. Specialized training and information created the knowledge worker and became the new form of value. It was no longer just what you could do but what you knew. Experts and thought leaders proliferated.
I recently wrote about a comment that has stuck with me, “no great thought leader can outthink the internet”. Are we approaching the thought leader plateau? With information as abundant as it is today and an increasing number of tasks being automated the question is, “what might make you less interchangeable with someone willing to do your work for cheaper or replaceable by a machine?” While we still need your thoughts, what we need added to that are your values. Not just what and how to do something but the beliefs driving it. It's no longer just what we do but why we do it. What do you stand for and against? This requires us to step down from the position of the expert extolling wisdom from on high and demonstrating to the people you seek to change what you have been through, how it has shaped you and why you believe in that change.
Say you’re with someone you look up to who is seemingly at the top of their game. You feel in awe of them and as a result inadequate. This icon turns to you and says, “what is keeping you up at night these days?” "Great!”, you lament, “now I get to tell them about all the ways I don’t measure up." But if they were to first share with you, “regardless of where I might be now, let me tell you about the path I had to navigate to get here and how much adversity I faced.” You are now much more likely to see yourself as sitting with a peer rather than someone you could never hope to be.
One of my father’s favorite TV moments is from West Wing (Youtube link) when the chief of staff Leo McGarry, who is revered as a giant, confronts his deputy about a mental health issues he has been battling.
Like me, you may find the above scene touching and inspiring. But when it comes to your work, the tempting thing is to keep making what Seth Godin calls “the regular kind”. It's the same products and services that everyone else does perhaps with different window dressing. It's making industry white papers that look and sound mostly like everyone else’s because people rarely get called out for blending in.
Putting yourself and your values into your work takes courage because it's different than what everyone else is doing. Most people are just trying to come up with the flavor of the month. They want to report on the trend first or add the next bell & whistle to the product. Don’t get me wrong, the insights you bring to the people you serve are valuable but I am pretty certain that what you know and do is not outside of the competition’s ability to copy. Who you do it for and why you do it for them though can be. When you make it specifically for a group rather than generically for everyone it allows you to say, "We know what we’re proposing is unsettling. Whenever we attempt change inside our own organization, we’re worried about it not working or others calling us out too.” Show them you know what it's like to be down in the hole Leo talked about.
Courage takes vulnerability and the question is, are you willing to go there? Researcher Brené Brown said, “One of the things I talk about when I’m working with leaders, from CEOs to special forces troops, I always ask the same question — most recently, NFL teams — 'Give me an example of courage that you’ve seen in your life or that you, yourself, have engaged in, any act of bravery, that was not completely defined by vulnerability.' No one has, to this day — even special forces; when Navy Seals can’t tell you, then no one can tell you — because the problem is, there is no courage without vulnerability. But we’re all taught to be brave, and then we’re all warned, growing up, to not be vulnerable. And so that’s the rub. And so when you have bravery without vulnerability, that’s when you get what we’re looking at today: all bluster, all posturing, no real courage.”
When you inject your values into work you will no longer be invincible. You also won’t sound like the competition. Not everyone may like the new you but that’s ok because when it's for people who feel seen and understood by what you stand for it will reduce the typical problem businesses face where a customer is loyal until someone else offers a better price. You’re no longer a product or service; you are a movement.
The good news: you don’t have to do this all at once. In fact you shouldn’t. It's about getting comfortable with the process of discovering and expressing your values and how you embody them. It's trying it in small ways knowing you’ll run into bumps as you progress. It's about seeking out small wins and identifying what you learned when you bump up against resistance rather than making an example of the person or project who messed up, which will curtail your efforts.
One thing I believe is if you want to be easily replaceable, do things exactly like everyone else. Mimic your co-workers or competition to the letter and you will get caught in a battle over who is willing to do the work the cheapest or fastest. The bad news is in the long run it's probably an algorithm or machine. You cannot be different than the completion if you don’t act and feel different, which means sticking out in a way that makes you a bit vulnerable at first. Push beyond the task and the process and into your values.
Go Forth Boldly