The Increasing Fragility of Professionals

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If you look up professional in the main dictionaries they usually define it in relation to skills, training, and organisations. Interestingly, none of the ones I looked up defined it in terms of earning money. In today’s economy, I suggest the pursuit of money is one of the defining qualities of a modern professional.

By comparison, amateurs do it for the love of it. It is the root of the term. “amatore”. Latin for “Lover”

In between though is the Artisan. People who do it for love, and earn money from it. The main difference perhaps is that for the professional, money is the anchor of the relationship and time is money. Charge by the hour (or for lawyers and accountants, in six minute increments). Artisans create something they are proud of, and then hope to sell it. The ultimate payment by results, with the result being determined by the engagement of the customer. Joy and appreciation as much as functionality.

There is another difference. Professionals comply with standards defined by other people. By qualifications, regulations and behaviours set by professional bodies. They have to meet standards set by them, but no more than that. Artisans set their own standards. Picasso was not a qualified artist. Orville Wright never had a pilots license.

Some professionals of course are also artisans. They meet the standards set by professional bodies, but go way beyond them. The standards are a floor, not a door. Many though of course just do the job they qualified for. What I term buskers. Those who perform for money for passing strangers.

Which is why, right now so many professionals are fragile. It’s been easy to sell what they have learned – it’s been a limited market. Learn once, use many times. Consultants who fit client problems into previously designed expensive PowerPoint templates. Both learning and sales are case study driven. now however, beautiful case studies have lost their power.

The world around us is changing rapidly. The last pandemic of the scale we are in was in 1918. We have no working memory of it. Musicians are complaining the the Brexit deal doesn’t suit them (with some justification, although it’s industrial age thinking) And now, algorithms can do much of the heavy lifting when it comes the data analysis and document preparation professionals have relied on for income. Right now, we are in the realm of original and transrational thinking beyond the logic based approaches of highly trained professionals. They haven’t been here before, nor have they trained for it. They have little to fall back on. It makes them fragile.

Artisans are different. They start from scratch. For them, a pot is made from a lump of clay, not cast in a mould. A painting starts with a blank canvas and a sculpture with a lump of marble. A table starts as a tree. Artisans always start pretty much from scratch, whether its designing a spreadsheet rather than calling up a template, and starting with an open discussion not a presentation. They do not rely on history.

This is not a normal decade. Covid has kick started it, and we’re now where we might otherwise have been mid decade. What might otherwise have been gentle decay of old ways of working is now a collapse, and it’s a good thing. We can’t ignore it any more.

Whatever we do, we would do well to behave like an artisan:

  • Develop the skills that make you independent of an employer. It’s fine to work for someone else, but on your own terms. Don’t become dependent.
  • Whatever you do, learn more than you need to in order to do the job. Think like a craftswoman.
  • Find a virtual guild. People who can support, train and develop you as you train, support and develop others.
  • Turn up as an original human being, not a cloned functionary.
  • Treat debt, personal or business, with great respect. Until debts are settled, they own you, not the other way round.
  • Create more than process. The industrial revolution made much manufacturing a commodity. AI is doing the same for intellectual processes.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a real point in “Anti Fragile”

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Anti Fragile.

Beyond our reputation, our experience up to now counts for increasingly little. It’s who we are that matters now. Professionals are fragile, artisans are anti fragile.

It’s time to think like an Artisan.

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