Think Immigrant, Artisan, and Waitress

I recently heard an intriguing lecture by columnist and author Thomas Friedman. He began by highlighting the rapid speed at which communication technology has revolutionized the economic landscape in just the past six years:

When I wrote The World is Flat [2004], Facebook didn’t exist, twitter was a sound, the cloud was in the sky, 4G was a parking space, applications were what you sent to college, linked-in was a prison, and Skype – for most people – was a typo. All of that has happened in six years.

In effect, the whole global curve is rising. What this is doing to the labor market is something that labor economists in their jargon speak of and describe as skills bias polarization. So skills bias polarization means that if you have critical thinking and reasoning skills, and can operate technology, if you are at the high end of the labour market, you’re going to be fine. If you are at the local end of the labor market — you’re a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker — you’ll be fine. If you’re in the middle, you’re under more pressure now than ever before. You’re under more pressure now because bosses can automate your job more easily, they can outsource your job more easily, they can replace it with robots more easily, in this hyper-connected world. (Thomas Friedman, What went wrong with America? Recorded at the Melbourne Town HAll, July 29, 2011)

In economic terms, this global capacity to communicate instantly is a double-edged sword: it creates an exponential increase in creative opportunity–but that opportunity is also available to, literally, everyone on the planet now. Friedman highlights this point by citing a blog post by CEO John Jazwiec:

I am in the business of killing jobs. I kill jobs in three ways. I kill jobs when I sell, I kill jobs by killing competitors and I kill jobs by focusing on internal productivity.

All of the companies, I have been a CEO of, through best-in-practice services and software, eliminate jobs. They eliminate jobs by automation, outsourcing and efficiencies of process. The marketing is clear – less workers, more consistent output.

What is a sustainable job? The best way I can articulate, what is a sustainable job, is to tell you, as a job killer, jobs I can’t kill. I can’t kill creative people. There is no productivity solution or outsourcing that I can sell, to eliminate a creative person. I can’t kill unique value creators. A unique value creator is, well, unique. They might be someone with a relationship with a client. They might be someone who is a great salesmen. They might be someone who has spent so much time mastering a market, that they are subject matter experts, and I know technology or outsourcing can’t be built profitably to eliminate a single unique job. (John Jazwiec, Speaking Of Unemployment – I Am A Serial Job Killer, 06/12/2011)

Thomas Friedman then continues to offer three “mindsets” we ought to adopt moving forward:

Think like an immigrant. Think like an artisan. Think like a waitress. Those are my three pieces of advice for my kids.

Every American worker today should think of himself as an immigrant. What does it mean to think like an immigrant? Its means approaching the world with the view that nothing is owed you, nothing is given, that you have to make it on your own. There is no legacy slot waiting for you at Harvard, or the family firm, or anywhere else. You’ve got to go out and earn or create your place in the world. And you have to pay very close attention to the world in which you are living. That’s what immigrants do.

Everyone should also think of themselves as an artisan. That’s the argument of Professor Lawrence Katz at Harvard. He’s a labor economist. Larry argues “artisan” was the term used before the advent of mass manufacturing to describe people who made things or provided services with a distinctive touch and flare in which they took personal pride (which was almost everyone prior to the industrial revolution). The shoemaker, the doctor, the dress-maker, the saddle-maker — artisans gave such a personal touch to whatever they did they often carved their own initials in somewhere. They lived in a world where they were all defined by their ‘extra’. Again, it’s a good mindset to have for whatever job you are doing: would you want to put your initials on it when it’s done?

Finally: think like a waitress. So in August 2010 I was back in Minneapolis, my home town, having breakfast at the Perkins Pancake House with my best friend Ken Grere. It was seven in the morning and he ordered two scrambled eggs and fruit, and I ordered two scrambled eggs and three buttermilk pancakes. The waitress came, put down our plates, and all she said to Ken was, “I gave you extra fruit.” She got a fifty percent tip from us, because she didn’t control much, but she controlled the fruit ladle, that was her ‘extra’.

So whether you are the waitress or the artisan or the new immigrant, all of us have got to think, “What is the ‘extra’ we can bring to what we do?”

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