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The Good Heist
Basher just turned on the “Pinch”, an EMP bomb so devastating it shuts off power to all of Las Vegas for 30 seconds. Now Danny and Linus have that instant to rappel down the elevator shaft previously guarded by a dazzling array of laser beams. Meanwhile, Yen barely survives a daring somersault from inside the vault...
I love heist movies, and of course Soderberg’s classic Ocean’s Eleven comes to mind.
As the movie unfolds, we find Danny Ocean (Clooney) assembling 11 quirky characters that are somehow all perfectly suited for the heist. Everyone is different and yet each brings an essential skill without which the intricate theft would flop. Saul plays the convincing “European Arms Dealer”. Basher is the out-of-the-box thinking munitions guy. Yen is the lithe and supple gymnast. Many in the team don’t even know each other but work joyously together using their talents unencumbered by bureaucracy or tedium.
In my perfect world, I see myself pulling off a couple of these capers every year. Not stealing anything, of course. But I would be experiencing all those feelings I vicariously feel from watching the movie. A shared sense of purpose but also a clear ownership of tasks. We work seamlessly as a team even as everyone has different skill sets. There’s an element of uncertainty, risk, and luck. When things go awry, we improvise. And at the end, there’s this real sense of accomplishment.
Of course, there are many who happily trade all this for a stable, 9-5 job. There are many others who can’t afford to make this tradeoff. Large bureaucratic companies and jobs that make you feel you are just a cog in the wheel aren’t going away. But for a lucky, increasing number of us who are fickle, complicated and contain multitudes, this life, filled with Ocean’s Eleven escapades, looks increasingly possible.
In work, we have tasks we really enjoy and others we can totally do without. The amazing thing is that lots of parts of work we find tough or unpalatable are actually joyful and meaningful to others! So, instead of overly focusing on efficiency and profits, why not redesign work so that everyone is doing more of what we love and less of what we hate?
Think this is too simplistic or will never happen? The open source world provides a glimpse of this utopian vision. Anyone can start an open source project and the way you recruit teammates is basically from the best volunteer contributors to the project, totally bypassing traditional labor market practices!
"Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" - Linus’s Law
Because open source is composed of volunteers, workers basically self-sort themselves to what they enjoy and do best. And often, work is then broken down or redesigned to fit this paradigm. Some folks are really good at characterizing a bug (“this is a security issue”, “it’s a bug in the rendering engine” etc.) but have no idea how to fix it. There are others who love to isolate the bug to the simplest, most easily replicable case, a very important step in fixing bugs. And finally, there are the programmers who do the actual rewriting of the code.
If you hang out with software developers long enough, you will often hear the lament that fixing bugs is both difficult and tedious. For one person to do all the tasks above is often frustrating. Yet, in the open source world, because division of labor is based on a volunteer’s aptitude and interest (and not dictated by upper management or convention), bugs become “shallow” or easy to fix and is thus a much more gratifying activity.
It is high time work itself gets blown to bits and then reconstituted piece by piece so that we all do the bits we love and are good at.
I am currently enrolled in Write of Passage, a writing class that feels like an Ocean’s Eleven-like educational quest. David Perrell, in the Danny Ocean role, gives awe inspiring lectures. But he is also self-assured and introspective enough to allow the collection of “supervillains” he has assembled to run the rest of the course.
We have a dedicated set of mentors that provide deep dives into the many different aspects of writing like how twitter threads can build an audience to dealing with inner conflict. We have amazing editors like Chris Wong and Sandra Yvonne to actually give feedback on our essays. The thoughtful Michael Dean organizes fantastic peer-review gyms. There are alumni members from previous cohorts who help break the ice in our zoom breakouts and steer us in the right direction. Finally, there’s Simone Silverstein who onboarded me and continues to ensure that I don’t fall too far off the tracks!
Compare all this to a college writing class, and you begin to see how Write of Passage is completely rethinking the education experience. Each role is filled by folks who are genuinely great and delight in what they do. The right role makes one feel liberated and not restricted, as a classmate quipped about this piece. I have never been amongst peers as willing to reach out and be helpful for each other as this cohort. Together, it makes me feel like I am a part of a harmonious orchestra playing a glorious symphony.
I like to tell my daughter, “your job hasn’t been invented yet”. Rather than chasing that elusive Ivy League degree, she should focus on building her portfolio, her contributions, her github profile. “Show, Don’t tell” is as applicable today as ever. The nature of jobs is changing, so work in public, get really good at what you truly love, and the world will find a way to joyfully weave your contributions in a never ending tapestry of heists we call progress.
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