Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting in on a Q&A with Seth Godin, who engaged with a small audience for three hours. He said a lot, but made one point that really made an impression.
“We don’t live in a factory economy anymore.” Yes, I know, NAFTA opened up the borders for all the manufacturing jobs to go overseas, we don’t need factory workers anymore, I’ve heard this plenty of times. But Godin offered a more nuanced description of a “factory” that made me think.
A “factory” is any business or venture that relies on simply rolling out the same products and the same marketing strategy, and is only concerned with maintaining the status quo. For example, he argued, the “television industrial complex” of the post-war era involved buying a lot of ads on TV, which helped you build a brand and sell products, which allowed you to invest the profits into buying more TV ads. It worked great. All you had to do was show up and keep the cycle going around and around.
But we don’t live in a factory economy anymore. There’s no such thing as “set it and forget it.” The pace of change in the digital age is too rapid, and the competition too relentless. You’d think that Facebook, with it’s hundreds of millions of users, would be able to sit back and simply let the profits come rolling in. But it recently recruited the CEO of Netflix to its Board of Directors because it knows that it’s not 2009 anymore. Times have changed since then.
We don’t go to work in factories anymore. Now, we work on projects. Sometimes those projects last three months, or they might last nine years. These projects typically involve either solving a specific problem or, if you’re doing truly innovative work, identifying a problem before it becomes a problem and being the first to market with a solution. The have a beginning, middle, and end. When the project is finished—remember, there’s no specific timetable for how long any given project will take—then it’s time to get busy on the next one.
Schools set up kids for trouble by teaching them that life is a factory. All you have to do is show up, follow directions, and keep the cycle going. Don’t start anything, don’t bother making something. Just fit in, and if you work hard enough and you’re compliant enough, you’ll be rewarded.
This may have been great advice for kids graduating in the post-war era. My sense, however, is that a dramatic shift is taking place. Increasingly students who follow this advice will find themselves a step behind peers who understand how to start something, how to make something, how to solve problems, and how to finish a project.
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