Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life — Genesis 3:16
I had intended to write something very different today for my weekly deep-dive. But Taylor Holiday of CTC and Twitter fame posed a timely, if existential, question on Twitter over the weekend that gave me pause.
His question: “Sometimes I can’t figure out if work is the gift or curse of being human.”
Is work a blessing or a curse? Well, both.
There is a duality in our work. It can be intensely rewarding and gratifying. It can also be loathsome and soul-sucking. How do you find meaning and purpose in something that you both love — and hate — at the same time?
As a deeply spiritual person, I ascribe meaning and purpose to everything that I do. I believe that anything I create is done in response to, and in tandem with, my Creator. In this ideology I look most like my Creator when I create; I am mimicking my Maker. This presents a challenge — what if I sometimes loathe the work itself? What if I’m tired? What if I feel like giving up? Am I failing in my spiritual quest to find purpose and meaning?
If you’re in eCommerce right now, you probably feel all of the above.
At the risk of seeming like I’ve got it all together (spoiler: I do not) I thought I’d at least share with you how I’m making it work at the moment. I’ve found three ways to reconcile my feelings about hard work, and ultimately what on earth this means for Commerce in 2022:
- I am not unique, and in that I am not alone
- The crucible moments demand that we discover essentiality
- Our response in times of trial reveals our true nature
1. I am not unique, and in that I am not alone
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
If you’re feeling wearisome, you’re not alone. I doubt it helps, but you’re also nothing special. I’m reminded of a quote I once heard: “to make a cappuccino from scratch you must first invent the entire Universe.” You can’t do anything alone, despite what the gurus on LinkedIn tell you.
Your work is a product of many, many, people who have contributed both directly and indirectly to your success. From the iPhone in your hands, to the degree that opened the doors to your career, the work you produce is the result of many other people’s sleepless nights, and the totality of the learnings of the human race up to this point.
Kinda puts it in perspective, doesn’t it? We need each other.
Whenever I think I’m having a moment of utter brilliance, it never fails that there’s someone else who did it before me. Thinking that my work isn’t all that important, and in the scope of the entire Universe, is actually quite small and trivial? That actually takes off a lot of pressure.
Now, while you’re not so important on your own, being part of a community is actually a force-multiplier for change. While we cannot accomplish very much on our own, there’s very little that we cannot do if we pull our efforts together. In this way, I believe that community is one of the most important parts of the human experience. Belonging and purpose are realized through our collective efforts.
At Future Commerce we have a saying — “Commerce is a catalyst for change in our world.” Whose world? Well, yours. And mine. Notice we don’t say “the world”. We don’t saddle ourselves with the grand mission of instigating global change. But because we all have to engage in Commerce, and it touches every person regardless of stature in society, it has the power to affect change.
But it would not be possible if not for the collective efforts of people everywhere. That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t work hard. On the contrary. It should encourage me that I am not alone in my hard work; and that I’m not alone in the journey of the human experience. Finding a community to share my concerns with helps me to realize that I’m not alone, and even that my problems aren’t the worst of it. Others have it much worse than I do. This shifts my perspective.
From an eCommerce lens, your business is probably not unique. You have common challenges to anyone else in the digital commerce space at this exact moment. Rising CAC, churn, economic worries. Are you in fellowship with other people who are experiencing similar hardships? If so, you now have shared experience, and a common bond with others on the same journey.
2. The crucible moments demand that we discover essentiality
When overwhelmed or stressed out, I dream of escaping. I want to run away and hide. This tendency, combined with procrastination, often spills over when my plate gets too full. I overcommit and I let people down.
In a similar fashion, businesses overcommit all the time. In search of arbitrage, we become highly experimental. I call this “shiny object syndrome”, and I am guilty of it to a fault. It takes discipline to say no, to focus on essentiality.
In Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Pursuit of Less, he challenges the reader to define a mission statement. A well-written mission statement, when stated back to yourself as a question, will automatically qualify (or disqualify) every new opportunity by forcing you to ask the question “does this help me complete my mission?”
Mind you, I’m not talking about brand mission or brand purpose. Rather, I’m talking about the individual or team-level, where stated goals and priorities must be established before chasing every new opportunity. We recently had Kiri Masters on the Future Commerce podcast, covering new research about Retail Media Budget Allocation. There are more and more retail media networks popping up seemingly daily. From Walmart to Ulta, retailers are attempting to grab a greater “share of wallet” by appealing to brands direct ad spend dollars.
If you started the year with stated goals, and stated strategies to help you to meet those goals, then the launch of a new retail media network shouldn’t distract you. If you did not, you’ll chase the shiny object.
My mission statement is “to make my ceiling someone else’s floor.” This goal is stated to help make someone else successful far beyond what my own success will ever be. If one of my pursuits does not enable that, I should not be involved.
When facing hard times, your true nature is revealed. Stick to your plan, remember your mission, and hold yourself accountable to it.
3. Our response in times of trial reveals our true nature
I personally ascribe to a “fallen world” theory. I don’t believe that mankind, by nature, is default-good. I believe that to be “good” — whatever that may be — requires discipline. It requires work and effort that is outside of our basic instinct. I know that this is fundamentally a cynical worldview, and potentially an unpopular one, but I choose to use this perspective to challenge myself into growth and improvement.
Our daily work gives us an opportunity to practice discipline. To that end, then, work helps us to perfect ourselves. The frustrations that daily work bring often reveal to us how much more we have left to perfect. Said another way - how often we fall short of our own high expectations of ourselves.
Right now there is a lot of uncertainty in the world of tech, retail, and eCommerce. How we respond says a lot about our true nature.
Now, I’m not talking about emotions. Are you worried? Are you fearful? Those are natural responses, and fleeting emotions. That’s not what I’m talking about. What we do in response to those emotions are telling. Do we lie, cheat, and cover up to make our numbers look good? Do you resort to dark patterns in an effort to drive higher sales? Does your team shift blame?
This realization about our true nature can be powerful. It’s ultimate clarity; you now have an opportunity to recognize a blind spot, an area you have to watch out for. This knowledge is crucial in an organization. It allows you to rethink incentives, to coach people into personal growth; after all, can there be organizational or cultural growth without personal growth? I don’t think so. Your team is a small community. As Margaret Wheatley said, “There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.” If your team know the goal, knows the mission, and hold each other accountable along the way — then, even if you fail, you’ve succeeded. Each person is better for having gone through the trial.
Like Taylor, sometimes I can’t figure out if work is a gift or a curse. Work can be rewarding. It can provide a sense of identity. It can provide a sense of community. It can also be a royal pain in your rear, and fill you with existential dread. “What is this all for?!”
Your takeaway: work is an opportunity for you to perfect yourself, experience community, and accomplish things bigger than you are capable of alone.
Jobs come and go, coworkers come and go, and brands rise and fall. Work, then, is just a vehicle for personal improvement. If you don’t use it for such, what have you gained?
So don’t worry so much about a current environmental challenge. Instead, take each moment as it comes. There’s always more work to do.