Two Kinds of Work

I was studying probability with Hannah, a classmate of mine, earlier tonight and our conversation found its way to the kinds of work we might want to seek out after we finish our program. We started talking and began exchanging ideas about kinds of work being classified in to two main categories: work based on skills, and work based on relationships. We felt that most jobs (admittedly, mostly white-collar jobs) can be  classified by the proportion of the work is defined by possession and use of skills vs possession and use of relationships.

Consider the following: Engineer; Lawyer; Teacher; Lobbyist; Banker; Consultant; Musician; Scientist; Politician; Architect.

Consider further: Executive Director; Development Director; CEO; CTO; Product Manager.

You most likely have some intuitive sense of where each of these positions may fall on this spectrum.

We kept talking, and I raised the point that skills-based workers are more vulnerable and have less job security than relationships-based workers, because they are fundamentally fungible and are only necessary until some alternative means comes along which can provide work for less money. We contrasted this with relationships-based workers, who are much harder to swap in and out, as their value comes from their connections, which they (again, fundamentally) take with them.

I’ve come to recognize this contrast recently, through one of my side-projects. I’m an engineer on the team, but the work is outside of my speciality and I can make only scattered contributions given my demanding school and work schedule. I’ve built relationships within the team and have made some valuable contacts in the city through this involvement, but I am not essential to the success of the project. Contrast this with other members of the team, who have contribute in some technical ways but have done most of their work building relationships with partners and stakeholders. Those people would be much harder to replace, and they hold most of the coordinating power. It was an educational experience in the dynamics of power and influence in a small organization.

I’m not complaining, just commenting on some phenomena. I’ve been very intentional with the way that I allocate my energy, and I have a longer trajectory to follow.

The pendulum also swings the other way. Hannah raised the point about fundraising in non-profits, and mentioned that had a hard time trusting the Development Director at her last organization. This person seemed too ingenuine, she felt, even though they were a successful fundraiser. This brought us around to the idea that people whose work is based on relationships need to sacrifice part of their personality to do their job — to devote some of their character to the task of being artificial.

Those in skills-based work, on the other hand, have the luxury of saving their personalities for themselves and their friends and family. They have no need to put on a show, and can thus build genuine relationships in whatever way comes naturally to them. This seemed to us an incredible benefit with dramatic quality-of-life implications.

It is unclear what is best; it seems reasonable to conclude that individuals should strive to find an occupation which balances these modes of work in a way that is best suited to an individual’s personality, to whatever extent they can.

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