What do you sell?

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague yesterday about the nature of how we earn our living—triggered partly by a provocative article on the nature of consulting and partly by the increased fluidity of work.

If we sell our labour, we’re exposed to anybody local who can do it better or cheaper, or the work itself moving to somewhere where better/cheaper is in greater supply. So selling our labour is the messiest end of the stick. Measurement based on output, not input.

Selling our skills is scarcely better, given the increasing sophistication of automation technology. Unless we’re in some form of personal service business, from Dog Walking to Dentistry, it is little different to selling labour. Skills and talent are also different in that skills can be trained whilst talent cannot.

If we’re selling our labour or ordinary skills, we will have to physically or digitally go where the work is.

So perhaps we get down to the liminal spaces surrounding what is created and who pays for it. Those who make the space for ideas to emerge – the physical and psychological “safe space”. Then we have those who can turn ideas into products and services – the creative souls who give substance to those speculative ideas to create something marketable. Then we have those who craft the stories that persuade people to buy and those who connect buyers to sellers. 

These people create the conditions for business to happen, so it is fascinating to watch them stand by as these intensely human skills are replaced by more efficient but bland and soulless technology. I’m witnessing people using “paint by number” templates when they do not understand what underpins them. Accepting text autocorrects from devices with a poorer vocabulary than they do. Replacing the richness of conversation with people they know, and instead, trading short bursts of assertion or aggression with people they don’t know on platforms whose only relationship with them is to bring their attention to advertisements.

We can do better than that. Properly used and shaped, originality, craft, and relationships can bring the work to us rather than have us chasing it. 

When I consider the richness of good conversation with the turgid compliance of transactions defined by process and protocol, I notice an enormous amount of value – emotional, relational, creative and financial generated being generated for free. 

Of course, great conversations are never efficient but are much more effective with the added bonus of spontaneity with a chance of joy.

In the end, of course, what we sell is our image of ourselves, and we need to pay attention to that because it is irreplaceable.

Technology, no matter how good, has its limits.

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