I was watching Aaron Sorkin’s wonderful series Sports Night on DVD on my new PC on the flight to Miami this afternoon — it’s great to be liberated from the mediocre crap they show on the airplane screens. Every episode of the series has a couple of truly memorable lines. The line that really hit home this afternoon, especially since I was flying on a work assignment on the Sunday before a holiday Monday (a holiday in Canada, anyway), was the one the studio crew member spoke when asked a question about his job, and how it fit with the jobs of the exemplary and perfectly matched team of workers on the show. He said simply, with delight, “It’s What I Do.”

To be able to answer with that statement is, in a way, to know the meaning of one’s life, and one’s personal role in the world. We are hard wired, like every other creature on Earth, to strive to know what we’re doing here, our purpose, the meaning of our existence, to instinctively figure out what we need to do to survive and how to do it well. What we do, how we make a living, is more than just a job, it’s an essential part of the definition of who we are. This idea has been echoed by artists in different ways as long as we have existed. The TV program Millennium had as one of its tag lines “This is why we’re here”. The extraordinary Sheryl Crow song “We Do What We Can” reaffirms it. We all want to know our role, what we were uniquely born for. It is an essence of our psyche. We all want to say, knowingly, “This is what I do.— I with a capital letter, bold.

In business the name for this dangerous concept is Distinctive Competency, which means the one specific thing you do better than anyone else. Most of us spend most of our lives looking for it, and many never find it, content to do an average, replaceable job, brainwashed by the political manipulators and economic elites into believing we’re just commodities, like the products we’re induced to buy. But we are not. We are all, every creature on Earth, special, unique, destined by the stars or by Darwin or by God or whatever guiding hand you choose to believe in, to do something utterly individual, inimitable, matchless, without compare. The butterfly fluttering its wings in South America not only precipitates the tidal wave in Japan by doing so, it was meant to do so. That’s what it does.

We have forgotten all this, to our catastophic impoverishment and debasement. If we all realized that we have a distinctive competency, the consequences for our self-esteem, for our perceived value in the workplace, for the entire social and political and economic system, would be enormous, earth-shaking. It took me forty years to find mine.* We need to teach young people how to find theirs, more quickly and efficiently, to help them learn what is their true calling. We live in a world so connected that, having found our calling, what we do best, we could almost certainly find the market, and the people whose distinctive competencies are a perfect fit with ours, the people we are ideally suited, destined to make a living with. This is my vision for New Collaborative Enterprises.

And how liberating, how empowering, how uplifting it would be for every one of us to find and know what we do better than anyone else! Perhaps it’s possible that it could bring such extraordinary meaning to each of us, to our lives, that it could be the catalyst for global peace and harmony, for an end to violence and hatred and envy and greed and inequity. Because what possible reason would there then be for us to fight among ourselves, or with nature’s other creatures, if we knew that no one else could fill our role, our place, our destiny? That we have no competition for what we do best, and that others are no threat to us, or us to them. That we have a purpose, and nothing to prevent us from realizing it, fulfilling it. Is that so crazy?

* My distinctive competency is idea transfer, the ability to take an idea or invention or creation from one discipline (say, astrophysics or architecture or literature) and conceive of how it might be practically applied in a completely different discipline (say, software design, or printing, or education). It’s something that I innately knew how to do, and then honed by practice, and study of the creative process, and nurtured through extensive, broad reading. My ancestors took the name Pollard, as was the custom of their time, from their distinctive competency — to pollard means to cut off and harvest the top part of a tree, in such a way that the remainder continues to grow. We were the first human renewable foresters, and the fact that this was what they did, uniquely, was so important, so essential to these ancestors that they took their very name from their job — what they did literally defined who they were.

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10 Responses to IT’S WHAT I DO

  1. mrG says:

    This is what I do” is an incomplete sentence, and it’s in that incompleteness where I believe a lot of otherwise well-meaning people fall by the wayside, myself included.The correct statement is, “This is what I do for you.” … without the social context, without those whom you serve, there is no economic integrity, no ecology of actions, and there is, as I well know, no monitary gain or social security. Bucky Fuller asked us to look at the world and seek out those problems we can solve, pointing out that the Lillies of the Field are remunerated because they solve some problem, because the Universe needs them, because they fullfill a necessary ecological niche.It’s that niche-finding that dogs me to my wits’ end. I know what I can do, and a large part of that is to inspire liberal humanist values in a spiritual frame, to keep teams going on in whole-system friendly thinking even when the skies are bleak, even through the dark valleys that lear on all sides; I ooze an optimism that I sum up with Sarfatti’s observation, “the future causes the past” but while I observe this to be a useful skill in those projects I have kept glued to their purpose, it’s a near-impossible thing to transcribe into a resume that pings the radar of most buyers. They only see “he can do unix administration” or “he can design large complex social software systems” or “you can ask him just about anything and get a direct answer” … and these days, under the looming clouds of those forced that seem to have all but usurped the free thinking internet and commandeered the machinery of popular culture, those like me who would egg people on to acheivements for the common good, we’re almost the enemy.I’m beginning to think my best plan of action is to return to my folk-music roots, to move people through relaying the tales of the days before GWB, before the RIAA and before copyright went insane.So I’m curious, Dave, how did you phrase “idea transfer” into the resume that landed you such a gig that you’ve afforded both the new DVD-enabled laptop and prompted someone to set you on an expense-paid flight to Miami? How would your neighbour go about landing such a gig?Sure, I ask out of jealousy ;) but in the spirit of changing the world, I also ask as a technician, as someone who’d want to transfer that technical idea to all those who’d want to follow you.btw, if any of your clan are still in the business, we desperately need some pollarding done around here so we can re-establish our wireless broadband across the now-overgrown treeline :)

  2. mrG says:

    A further note on niche-finding — the thread interests me because for us it’s a question of survival — I’ve been deeply musing lately about Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s work in Vienna took the same turn as the painters of the late 19th century in deciding that art was more than just the pursuit of beauty, it was also the pursuit of truth, and in seeking that truth, art can sometimes be ugly. Schoenberg’s work was in that latter class, and it was brilliant, but completely and categorically rejected by beauty-blinded Vienna.Somehow, for reasons I can’t locate, Schoenberg, even more destitute than I, make a last-ditch attempt to save his family by moving to Berlin. Immediately on his arrival there were praises and renoun — Berlin, it appears, got it about Schoenberg’s art, he was a cultural hero and from that moment on, he could write his own ticket.Why did the Bodhisattva go to China?While it’s yet another confirmation of how the future does indeed cause the past (would he have gone if he were even midly economically content?) I still can’t locate any reference that tells me how Schoenberg could afford the journey, or, more importantly, why he chose Berlin. John Cage, a student of Schoenberg, told a similar story about when he left L.A. and it’s Hollywood obsession to travel to New York. Only in John’s case, I know he had misunderstood Max Ernst and thought he had been invited, but nonetheless, still doing “what he did” John found himself almost immediately thrust into an ecology where what he did had great value.

  3. natasha says:

    Dave, thanks for a tremendous post. This is a definite hunger in people, one of the great unsatisfied longings. I think I’ve only just started to find my own distinctive competency now that I’ve returned to school to switch fields. When I was broke and doing what I hated, I thought it was all about money. When I was being paid reasonably well and hated what I was doing, I had to face up to the fact that the problem was doing what I hate to do. And not because I was intrinsically bad at it, but because it felt pointless. Because I envied the beautiful competence of people who loved their field so much that, compelled from within, they study it so thoroughly and devotedly that they couldn’t help but be good at it. When you feel that what you’re doing is unaligned with, or even contrary to your purpose, everything is an uphill battle.MrG, When you’re talking to others, yes, the ‘for you’ part does complete the sentence. But when you speak to yourself, the correct ending is ‘for me.’ There’s a compelling self-interest in feeling satisfied and fulfilled by what it is that you spend the majority of your waking hours doing. No amount of being useful to other people entirely substitutes for its absence, even if it’s a component of a sense of satisfaction.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Perhaps you’re sending your resume to the wrong ‘buyers’. My distinctive competency doesn’t and didn’t appear on my resume. I got the current gig by applying that competency in very prosaic ways — helping about 100 small businesses to stay afloat, to find money, to find customers, to find people, in creative ways. It helped me build a professional practice from zero almost entirely by word of mouth. For that I was rewarded by getting ‘kicked upstairs’. Ninety percent being in the right place at the right time. I have been staggeringly fortunate in my life — my job, my life partner, the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve met. As for the PC, it belongs to my employer, and they just let me blog and watch DVDs on it in the evenings. The trip to Miami was also strictly business, and as you know yesterday was a holiday in Canada that I had to give up. No advice, I’m afraid, on what niche might be yours (or where it might take root), but perhaps when we meet in person as scheduled (you still on?) we can talk about that.Natasha: Lovely, eloquent comment. Whatever your niche, it surely involves language.

  5. Rayne says:

    Dharma, baby. We are called — we may have many callings, at once, or along the course of a lifetime. What is it that we’re called to do? as Joseph Campbell said, Follow your bliss.

  6. mrG says:

    Ninety percent being in the right place at the right time. is closer to my experience; I haven’t a clue how I got to being the “Sr Scientist of Information Technology” for the province of ontario, it was just there, it just opened, so I’m with you that far, and also with “the wrong ‘buyers’” is obvious when I deliver a message of social software I meet people like yourself (fascinating, challenging and valuable as friends and comrades, but, alas, not a buyer) or I meet blank stares while the subject turns to vendor lock-in or sorry, but I see you don’t dance with Microsoft.And that’s the problem with the dharma approach: Luck runs out. Networks you have, they get downsized, they retire, they dry up — John Cage told me (when I was 24) “I will never learn anything about computers; it keeps young people involved in my work!”helping about 100 small businesses to stay afloat, to find money, to find customers, to find people, in creative ways. … hmmm … now that’s a set of problems and a service I could relate to — that’s the essence of the Schoenberg Problem — how does one become a customer of someone like yourself? ;)A local preacher was on the radio today telling the story of Thomas Edison’s great fire of 1913; after a string of failed and expensive experiments had left them almost in Chapter 11, as he watched those few remains of his entire life’s work burn helplessly to the ground, Edison told his son, “Go tell mama to fetch all her friends — it will be a long time before they see another fire like this one!”Once the rubble was down to a smoulder, he laid out his plans for rebuilding, adding at the end “anyone know where we can find some money?“I’m not out yet, and the only thing I know how to do is be useful, so that’s the approach I’m taking with the Copps campaign manager — all I can do is explain to him as I explained to the rest of the past two years’ rejections that social software willwork, that we can boost the Copps campaign iff (if and only if) Sheila can get it and, and I don’t know how to phrase this to him, if we do it right, it won’t matter if she wins the bill or not, her attempt will leave behind a permanent network of small-l liberals.My luck: The Copps campaign has no money either ;)

  7. mrG says:

    oh, and yes, I’m still on for the Caledon Social Computing Revolutionaries Conference ’03 ;) … even if I have to hitch-hike to get there — I hope you folks are also still contemplating a trip to the beach. (if it ever stops raining)

  8. ScaramoucheX says:

    I am reminded of ‘Perceval’,by Chretien de Troyes, written approximately 1190…the original Grail text…reminded because Perceval, when he is in the presence of the Grail KIng, who suffers from the un-healable wound which lames him, is meant to heal him by asking the question, “Whom does it serve?” And by this healing of the king life is returned to the land…but Perceval does not ask it, having been taught that it is poor manners to ask questions of omne’s hosts, or betters…he fails to heal the Grail King.

  9. peter nguyen says:

    Excellent posting, thanks… I think what is missing is a framework that allows young people to evaluate the trade-offs they are making, when choosing a particular occupation or job (I don’t say “career” because usually it takes a certain amount of real-life experience to see a career (or pattern) emerge).I’m currently developing such a framework, which is basically a cross, with 4 axes: talent, passion, world’s needs and values alignment. Some people, obviously, have gone very far along each axis. The late Peter Jenning, for example, was very talented at what he did, fulfilled a real need in the world, was passionate about his job, and did the kind of work that was aligned with what he believed to be the right thing to do.

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