On choosing work in times of deep change

We live in strange times.

I’m not sure how it compares to the intensity of other eras, but it seems significant when looking at a longer timeline.

My grandmother, for example, walked hundreds of miles to escape work camps during World War II, got on a boat to Israel that promptly sank, and somehow still made it through. And that’s an abridged version, with none of the suffering mentioned.

Syrian refugees have been facing the same kinds of problems for the last several months. But we can’t seem to do much about it because we’re angry, upset, or grief stricken for what feels like a minute or actually is only a minute. Then we either forget or become too overwhelmed to do much about the problem. 

Some of being overwhelmed consists of the fact that we have more information, and not much more to do because of it than we had in the past. 

Constantly bombarded by live updates or video from Berlin, Turkey, Paris, London, Baltimore, St. Louis and more, we feel connected globally but forget that what grounds us to other humans is the ground we share together in a given moment. That moment consists of seeing that other people are trying to do the same thing we are (eat? sleep in a safe place? figure out what’s next?), and when we do see them, truly see them, we get a reminder that we have to be good to each other. 

That’s all to acknowledge that it makes sense to be frustrated, to be angry, to feel a deep sense of grief, of loss, and of division. And you can do that without even saying “I’m an X who believes Y is wrong.” It’s the simple math of being human, and doesn’t require us to automatically visit the fire ourselves or throw others in.

And then, down there at the very bottom, tucked away, is the decision about what to work on.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice. But it’s always there, as it was and is now, even in jail cells and ditches. It’s why even the best among us can screw up, and even the most screwed up among us can, in a moment, do the most important work.

One part of that choice requires thinking about where you can do the most good, and be useful. That crosses paths with: what do you know the most about and what have you practiced.

Another piece has to do with who’s on the other end. Your people, your family, your crew that has the same perspective, that is passionate about the same kinds of things.

Those things become mainlined into the work you can actually focus on, and put out into the world.

(startup and tech people would call this the “who’s your customer” problem but you could just as easily tag it “who’s the tribe of people that you care about, that you want to engage with”)

And just like in the world of startups and entrepreneurs, you can’t work on everything. Do one thing well. Know it, absorb it, and work on it. 

Those choices about what to work on, and how, become even more important during deep turmoil, because you can’t add on ethics or values when the going gets tough. 

Whether it’s digging into local politics, putting your artistic or design skills to work on the digital or physical space nearest you, sharing nutrition or local foods knowledge with your community, recommit to the work or find work that you can stick, measure, and see progress from.

For me, it’s about supporting creativity and autonomy. And not just in the people that I know already, or that look, sound, or act like me, but people who haven’t had a lot of access to those things. 

That means putting money, time, and space into helping a wide array of entrepreneurs and creatives grow, whether I connect deeply to the particular mission they’re on or not. 

Whatever you decide to work on, put it out in the world and make it literal. Make it challenging. Make it real.