Who wants a job, anyways?

I do not believe in jobs. I wish fewer existed, not more. The concept is outdated and needs to be replaced.

I believe in opportunities.

What is a ‘job’?

A job is a routine set of tasks, processes, or operations which one is employed to do. These responsibilities can be documented and taught to new employees. The results are predictable and reproducible.

That’s my definition. I think it does justice to both the meanings associated with the word in our popular culture as well as to its historical contexts.

Let me be clear. Not everyone who is employed has a job.

If you are not a human machine, you do not have a job. If your work can’t be put into a manual, you do not have a job. If they can’t teach the new guy to produce the same results, you do not have a job. If technology can’t replace you, now or ever, you do not have a job.

You have an opportunity.

An opportunity culture

Jobs have been on my mind a lot this week. We just launched our new ‘jobs’ page at Everest. Except, none of us wanted to call them jobs. So we called them opportunities. Check them out:

We have an opportunity culture at Everest.

I am employed by Everest, but the majority of my work, or at the very least, the most important and differentiating aspects of it, are not routine, and could not be documented or taught to someone else so as to reproduce the same results in a predictable way.

Were I, someday, to be forced to step aside, and this opportunity given to someone else, it would not be a ‘replacement’, in the sense that they would be able to do what I do, in the way that I do it. Even if that person were more capable, more experienced, and outperformed me in every way, delivering better results, making more of the opportunity, and creating more success for the company, it would not be like replacing (or upgrading) a part on a BMW.

That’s because I bring myself, all of myself - all of my energy, creativity, passion and drive, all of my personality, beliefs, tastes and perspectives, all of my experiences, talents, skills, relationships and networks, all that makes me unique and original as an individual – to the work that I do. It requires emotional labor.

I am compensated in both salary and equity in order to align my interests so that I am fully incentivized to devote myself – all of myself – to maximize the opportunity I have been given to make the company succeed.

The same is true for my colleagues. We have done our best at Everest to create opportunities, not jobs. It is my hope that they approach their work as such: as a bespoke suit, uniquely their own, or a blank canvas, to be made something of. As we grow, we want to create more (and better) opportunities, not more jobs.

When you create jobs, you have to create rules. You need to be in the office by a certain time. You get so many sick and vacation days. You can only interact with your co-workers in certain ways. You can’t… You can’t…

When you create opportunities, you have as few rules as possible. When everyone feels a strong sense of ownership, you can replace all the rules with freedom. Freedom means that you can make decisions for yourself that pertain to your own happiness and responsibilities, instead of having someone else tell you what to do. Ownership means having incentives aligned so that a group of rational individuals can agree to work together to pursue the same outcome and trust that each other will freely make optimal choices in everyone’s best interests.

This blog is an interesting example. This is my personal blog. I am not writing on behalf of the company here. These views are my own. They do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. But yet I have the freedom not just to spend time writing, but to publish a post like this, on a sensitive and controversial topic, and express my views.

Could I abuse my freedom by publishing something that would reflect badly on us or damage our brand or company? Yes, I could. But my team trusts that I won’t. They know I am rational and responsible. They know I will weigh the consequences of my actions.

We don’t see this sort of activity as a liability, but an asset. It’s the sort of value that gets brought to the table when you allow individuals to bring all of themselves to work on an opportunity.

In a job, it’s the opposite. You keep your personal and professional life separate in every way. You don’t mix your relationships or recreation. When you express yourself publicly, you have to explicitly disclaim it as a personal opinion. In fact, you’re probably discouraged from it entirely. You have two phones and two computers, one for ‘work’ and one that’s ‘personal’.

When you’re working on an opportunity, these distinctions are meaningless. Everything is personal. Everything is professional. Everything is work. Everything is play. You are a whole person. All is one.

So far, at Everest we’ve managed to preserve our freedom. So long as we cherish it, we won’t abuse it, and won’t lose it. I would be lying if I said we have not struggled with it. Somebody always has to shoulder the responsibilities. In a culture of jobs, everyone is told which responsibilities to take on, and as they work to fulfill them, they are closely managed and watched. In a culture of opportunities, everyone is free to take on responsibilities and manage themselves.

We are a team of individuals. That’s our solution to an age-old paradox. Most organizations, like the military, demand self-effacement – you must sacrifice your identity as an individual in deference to the identity of the group. Instead, if you find your identity and realize your potential as an individual, express your creativity through your work, and put your stamp on the Opportunity, then you will become a pillar of strength for your team.

To build all that we want to build, to achieve all that we want to achieve, no matter how excellently we perform as individuals, we can not do it alone. We depend on one another to take initiative, to follow through, to deliver our utmost best. Every time we deliver, it is an affirmation of commitment, an investment in trust in each other. Trust that as professionals, we have the self-respect to have high standards and seek to raise them.

If we did not share the same vision, or drive to make the company succeed, or want this to impact as many lives as possible, or care about it representing the very best of our art as craftsmen, then it would not work.

A brief history of ‘jobs’

Jobs, at least in the modern sense of the word, began to appear in the Industrial Revolution. A ‘capitalist’ would design a process, from start to finish, that began with inputs, and resulted in outputs. Inputs cost money, with some expenses fixed and some variable, but because the process added value to the output, the market was willing to pay an even higher price for it – high enough to cover the costs and turn a profit. If you owned a factory, or even a hamburger joint, you made capital investments in the facility and the equipment, and then you needed labor to actually operate the assembly line. That was the model.

And it worked! Before the industrial revolution, economies were predominantly agrarian, and almost all available labor had to work on farms in order to produce enough food to feed everyone. Then factories started producing equipment that made all of that work unnecessary, so that farms could produce more food with fewer people. That, in turn, freed up labor to do something else productive, like working in a factory. As people left the countryside for the cities, something very significant happened: they replaced their feudal obligations with formal employment. They took a ‘job’.

Now, so far, this is progress. Reflect that all that has been accomplished in the last 150 years since this Revolution began. From horse-drawn carts to supersonic jets. It’s incredible!

But, there’s a problem. Not everyone likes being ‘freed up’ to do something more productive when capitalists and their technology make their jobs suddenly redundant. When Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin, for example, it threatened to put thousands of people out of work, so they took to the streets in riots and smashed every machine they could get their hands on.

Those people called themselves the Luddites. They lost, the machines took their jobs, and they moved on. Today, we use that word as an adjective to describe an ignorant person who doesn’t understand technology. But maybe they were on to something…

Capitalism replaces jobs with technology. In the Short Run, it may invent new jobs to make those people productive again. But in the Long Run, there will be no jobs left – it will replace them all.

In the next section, I’d like to convince you that this is not a bad thing, but a good thing. Such a good thing, actually, that it is hard to distinguish with ‘progress’ in general.

An opportunity economy

It bothers me that this election has become about jobs. Both candidates can’t stop using the word, or talking about how they want to create millions more! Instead, I wish they’d focus on economic growth and competitiveness, so that we can lose jobs to technology, and replace them with the sorts of employment opportunities that require individuals to live up to their full potential to create unique and irreplaceable value, that can’t be either outsourced or automated.

We compete in a global economy. Everything that can be outsourced, will be outsourced. Everything that can be automated, will be automated.

Let me explain.

Last Thursday evening, I went to a party at a hardware incubator called Lemnos Labs in San Francisco’s South of Market district. Guess who was catering? An automatic hamburger making machine.

A brilliant young engineer has spent the last nine months building a prototype of something so disruptive that it will put millions of people around the world out of a job.

It takes ground meat, dough, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and condiments as inputs, and through a series of conveyors, it cooks the meat, toasts the buns, and assembles the burger – perfectly. It even makes the fries.

They’ve already got McDonalds beat on quality, and now they’re trying to match Shake Shack, Super Duper, In-N-Out, and the other mid-scale burger chains.

Once they raise a substantial round of funding and build the right team, they’ll improve the design and performance and manufacture these machines en masse. They’ll make it smaller, faster, and better looking. They’ll make it better and better and better. Like Apple’s done with the iPhone.

How many people prepare food on any given shift at an In-N-Out? Five? Ten? More? How many shifts are there in a day? Five? Ten? More? By my calculations, a burger joint that installed these machines would be able to let go of anywhere from 25 to 100 employees – each.

If someone out there’s working on this, then someone out there’s probably working on how to put all the baristas at Starbucks out of work too. How many jobs is that?

The United States Postal Service still employs 600,000 people. If it wasn’t subsidized by the government, it would have gone out of business a long time ago because of email and the internet.

How many maids and butlers have household technologies like the refrigerator, microwave, and washing machines replaced? How many secretaries have Google Calendar and Apple’s Siri replaced?

‘White collar’ jobs aren’t safe either. Software engineering is a great example. New software is constantly being written and made available, either through paid or open-source licenses, that does parts of an engineer’s work for him or her. They used to have to do it themselves, if it was possible to do at all, but now they can just drop in somebody else’s code or use somebody else’s platform. If you’re a great engineer, this isn’t threatening. There will always be work for you to do. But if you’re mediocre, maybe it is.

Another great example is cloud computing. Ten years ago, even small companies had to maintain their own servers. Now everything is hosted on cloud platforms. How many IT jobs were lost in that transition?

This, all of this, is progress.

The reason why we don’t like it is because we’re not prepared for it.

Even if we had the right economic policies, even if entrepreneurs were creating opportunities left and right, they would quickly run out of people to fill them. That’s why they say that inequality is increasing in this country. Because there aren’t enough people capable of making something of an opportunity, and when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. The capable people cost a lot more than the people who want ‘jobs’.

We’re not prepared for it, because our education system looks like an assembly line. Our schools haven’t changed much since World War II. You walk in straight lines. You sit in rows and columns. You fill in bubbles. You pick one of four possible choices on a test. The whole thing is designed to prepare people for jobs, not opportunities.

Our politics haven’t changed much either. After World War II, the United States had such a competitive lead on manufacturing that the average blue collar factory worker could afford a home in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a television, modern appliances, and so on, and retire at sixty with a pension. For a post-war golden era that lasted for decades, we enjoyed prosperity and growth.

In a future where robots do all of our jobs – that is, all of our routine operations, processes, and tasks, from transportation, to manufacturing, to computing – traditional blue and white collar labor will be completely unnecessary.

Now all the voters are clamoring that they want their jobs back. Now all the politicians are blaming their favorite scapegoats, either billionaires and big businesses or China, and promising them that they’ll do something about it. But nobody wants to tell them the truth: Gone are the days! Those jobs are gone. They’re not coming back. Never again will a job be so over-compensated.

The answer is not to tax the producers' earnings to give back to the consumers so that they can buy the producers' goods. That economic model is silly nonsense and wishful thinking. Sadly, it’s been tried before, and it didn’t work.

Rather, the answer is to recognize that to return to prosperity, we have to become human again.

Becoming human again

I began by saying that I do not believe in jobs. What a curious thing to say, isn’t it? Don’t believe? What is there to believe in? Isn’t that like saying that you don’t believe in trees or clouds? It’s one thing to say that you want less of something and more of something else, but it’s another thing entirely to say that you don’t believe in it at all.

Let me take this argument one step further.

I find the whole concept of a ‘job’, at least in a modern developed country, to not only be outdated, but to be perverse, offensive, and revolting.

Golly, that’s a strong statement. But I stand by it. Here’s what I mean…

The Golden Age of manufacturing, which I alluded to above, gave to society a false sense of security – “job” security (my, what an awful phrase) – and a dangerous dependence, as on a drug. It left us with an enduring image of a ‘normal’ lifestyle in America that everyone is entitled to if they basically stick to the rules. It set the standards and expectations for a ‘normal’ workday, a ‘normal’ wage, a ‘normal’ level of comfort, leisure, and free-time, and for a ‘normal’ amount of luxury and prosperity (two cars in every garage, etc.).

Thinking that the lifestyle could go on forever was wishful thinking. That’s not what bothers me. What really gets me, what I can’t quite grasp, is how we ever convinced ourselves is that the job itself was desirable and worth having.

We were human machines! We stood in lines or sat in desks doing the same things every day. Machines did some of the work and we did the things that we hadn’t invented machines to do yet.

It is not that I cannot appreciate the genius that went into designing these processes. It is not that I find manual or repetitive labor beneath us. If that’s all you have open to you, if that’s the only way you can provide for your needs, there is nothing dishonorable in taking a job.

What is perverse, however, is stopping there, planting the flag, and calling our journey complete. Take a job, if you must, but move on as quickly as you can!

I feel like shaking everybody, looking into their eyes, and crying:

Have you forgotten what you are? You are a human being. You have eyes! You have ears! You have a magnificent body that’s capable of so much. You have a brain that’s more powerful than any supercomputer known to man. You are capable of imagining things that don’t exist yet, and bringing them into existence. You can read and write and learn and communicate with your fellow humans. You can appreciate and create art. All the wonders of the universe are yours to discover. There are no limits to what you do, none.

Yet you waste away your days and weeks and years, your precious time here on this earth, your one life, here? Your eyes deceive you. You are not in an office behind a computer, nor even a factory standing in a line, but in a prison, fashioned by your own mind. Who imposed these limits on your mind? Who said “go here, and no further?” You have, of your own choosing, accepted the lot of a slave. Not only accepted it, but demanded it of society as a right. A right to a job, you say. You mean, a right to turn off your brain, and doze through life in comfort.

Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! This is a wide world, full of many wild things and landscapes of astonishing beauty for you to behold. You have settled for a mediocre routine, passing up all the glories and magnificence of the existence that is your birthright. You are gorging yourself on porridge and slop, when a feast lies before you. Take and eat!

From 1850 - 2000, the world needed jobs done by humans. Today, we need far less. Very soon, we may not need any. And that is a good thing. Because it will force us to wean ourselves off of this dehumanizing dependency.

Think about Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci never held a job. He was always pursuing some opportunity. In the 15th century, in a life that lasted just sixty years, this man designed tanks, submarines, kites, and helicopters before the technology existed to actually manufacture them. He cut open cadavers and began modern study of anatomy. He turned everything around him into an object of study and scientific inquiry through his sketches and notes. He made himself a student of human behavior, botany, cartography, architecture, and more. He was a great artist. He was a consultant to kings, all of the monarchs of Western Europe sought him out. It is said that in the kitchens of their palaces he designed assembly lines that produces delicacies that amazed guests at feasts. And more and more.

When you comprehend the full scope of the accomplishment of a life like this, you have a choice to make. Will you call him a freak? An aberration? A statistical outlier? An extreme exception? A superhuman? Or, will you recognize him for what he was: a fellow human being, just like you or I?

That’s what the Renaissance was about – a rediscovering what it meant to be human. Reclaiming the ‘normal’ from the depths of serfdom, and dubbing someone like Leonardo as its new standard bearer.

The great and timeless symbol for what I am attempting to express is Da Vinci’s sketch of the Vitruvian Man. That’s what inspired the icon I chose for my blog, which you see on the left.

There’s no reason why every healthy person living in a free and developed country in 2012, with access to all our technology and resources, cannot be a little Leonardo, achieving new heights of greatness and accomplishment.

I have hope. What makes this country great is that it is founded on a recognition that the birthright of all men is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of opportunity are one and the same concept.

I envision a society of artists, in the true and full sense of that word. A society of individuals who create and produce. A society of people do the sorts of things, and create the sorts of things, and solve the sorts of problems that could never be outsourced or automated. The minds that create the technologies that our civilization is built on and that have lifted us all up from the driving the ox and the plough.

I believe that if we abandon jobs in favor of opportunities, meeting someone as magnificently human Leonardo Da Vinci can become a common occurrence, the sort of thing you’ll come to expect as you walk down the street.

If you agree with me…

Be the change you wish to see in the world.