Innovation Roadtrips

The Life-Passion-Project we Used to Call “Work”

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There have been a lot of great (and not so great) articles about how our generation has a very different approach from our parents’ generation to what “life” and “work” is, and how this distinction is fading and the lines between private and professional identity are becoming increasingly blurred. Many of the meetings we had during the first days of our Innovation Roadtrip made me think about this topic again.

Our Approach to “Our Jobs” is Changing

First, to clarify: I am not a real fan of the whole “Generation X/Y/Z”- clustering, because I feel that the year you were born in is not really the distinguishing factor when it comes to adapting a new work-life-balance. Setting aside the age issue, I certainly do feel that our approach to “our jobs” is changing. When you look at highly educated, well-situated individuals, flexibility, meaning and passion seem to gain importance over continuity, money and security.

It is, of course, a very specific segment of society, and I would find it rather cynical to expect that someone working at a supermarket cash register or in an industrial plant working on minimum wage should care more about meaning than money. But in this young-ish, well trained, urban group, it is rather striking how many people I talked to about life and innovation in the last months who somehow put passion and meaning over traditional hierarchical careers: Journalists starting organic farms, students travelling the world, startup founders not looking for an exit, professors leaving academia to mentor people with an immigration background, PR-experts following their passion rather then the only money, teachers who work on creating urban spaces, employees deliberately switching to part time jobs because they want to have enough time to follow their other passions, highly respected professionals taking sabbaticals, people in leadership positions leaving legacy companies to start something much smaller from scratch.

The Berlin Momentum

In short: Doing all those things that would lead our caring relatives to ask us: Why do you already leave your job again? Are you really giving up X and Y already? Isn’t that going to be damaging to your career? Will you be able to make a living with this new thing? There is an undeniable generational gap when it comes to the duration of our stays at companies or assignments – I hardly know anyone in their Thirties who thinks that his employer or startup will be the same one he retires with.

And there is another phenomenon aside from people really deciding to change pace or switch careers: Having multiple professional identities and interests at the same time. It’s something I like to call the Berlin momentum, because there, it’s hard to meet anyone who isn’t trying to turn his or her passion into some kind of “project”. Everyone who talks to is doing A, but “really I am working to reinvent B, C and D”. Job and passion and life become one, forming a diverse professional identity that can hardly be distinguished from the “private” person.

The Effect on Creativity and Innovation

So what does this have to do with creativity and innovation? It seems to me that environments that foster this kind of diverse project-based life and work are much more likely to provide a fertile ground for innovation. Some examples: Cities that allow citizens to prototype smart city solutions even though their official “job” is something completely different will benefit form the out-of-the-ordinary input that creates. Innovation hubs that put interdisciplinary collaboration at the core of their work will see that unexpected teams and projects form due to cross pollination. Companies that empower their employees to have a diverse and project-oriented career and give them the freedom to have side projects will do better in terms of change and innovation because they will have engaged and enthusiastic people. Universities that adapt the classic curriculum to make it more diverse and surprising will run little risk of becoming ivory towers .

All of those places make it easier for employees, students, citizens or participants to stay excited and engaged about their work there. And, therefor, they have a better chance to attract highly skilled people who are simply not willing to devote 40 hours a week to a confined environment that will force them to leave their passions at home before they leave for work.


1 Comment

  1. Robert Franken

    February 21, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    So true! And although fundamental correlation between freedom and innovation is not very complicated to grasp, most companies stick to controlling their employees and forcing them to work “full-time” (while even “part-time” is a ridiculous euphemism nowadays) rather than providing spaces of freedom, creativity and commitment – a task downright tailored for corporate entities!
    It has probably never been easier to establish the very conditions for innovation. How come that a vast majority of companies instead follow through a mere quantitative approach to measuring results? Change will come bottom-up, watch out!

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