The Real Work

Wendall Berry

Confusion is a signal of value. Complexity, not simplicity, is where we need to focus our work. The predictable is mundane and probably should be automated. Surprise yourself with discomfort. The real work is beyond the routine.

In the modern workplace, anything capable of predictable routine is a target for automation. As automation becomes more sophisticated at pattern recognition it can even take on basic tasks of content creation, look at ChatGPT. Harold Jarche has been for some time calling out this changing work landscape with his continuum.

Harold Jarche’s framework for changing work

Edges are more beautiful than anything-
Edges Where the quiet deep shallows into loveliness, Where the clouds feather to wavering silver,
And color kisses its brighter self.

Henry Bellarman, Edges

As we grapple with this world of work, human adaptability to change is where our best work will be found. We need to lean into that discomfort as Fiona Tribe indicates. We need to seek it out. It is a signal of the value we can bring to make new change, to solve hard problems or to unravel uncertainty.

The focus on work being a domain of increasing complexity and challenge also means we need to take care. Relentless pressure to solve, to change and to create can become overwhelming. Whether caring for ourselves or our colleagues, we need supportive workplaces and leaders who support people to perform in challenging environments. As work becomes less about fungible widget employees, we need leaders to be more than command and control robots.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, Not Waving but Drowning

Our real work starts in the grey and at the edges. When the road, the guidance and the rules run out we are ready to start. As Wendell Berry highlights ‘the impeded stream is the one that sings’. The greatest rewards in work are not doing the easy repeatable things but overcoming blockages and making one’s own mark on an important challenge.

We may long for the comfort and routine that one defined predictable work. However, those times have changed for good. Our best most challenging work is beyond the routine. Embrace the wonder, the confusion and the creation that comes from transformative change.

Thanks to Dr Maya Popa for sharing the Wendell Berry poem that prompted this meditation and supplied the image of the poem above.

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