Refocusing on what matters



Author: Will Needham Published on: May 3, 2020

For many, the Coronavirus crisis has offered the chance to reconnect with what we truly value in this world. Against a backdrop of devastation and suffering, huge proportions of the working world have been reduced to powerlessness and Zoom calls, whilst essential workers save lives and keep our world functioning.

This realisation, that your work can be paused without real side-effects (other than economic), is a sobering one for many.

This is especially true for large parts of the traditional built environment sector. Non-essential projects have been put on hold in many geographies and productivity dramatically reduced in others as workers abide by physical distancing measures.

I have had people from many sides of the industry approach me, questioning their current roles and asking for advice about moving to a more impactful career.

I will admit I am yet to make a substantial impact in my own work, I am at the beginning of a long road. But I have made a conscious effort to spend more time thinking about and working on important problems. These are my current thoughts on the matter.

Working on important problems

The quote that I always come back to is from Richard Hamming’s 1986 Bell Labs lecture (you can find the full lecture here, or the key message embedded below):

Hamming offers a clear, succinct way of reviewing your current trajectory by asking two questions:

  1. What are the most important problems your industry faces?
  2. Why aren’t you working on them?

With COVID-19 bringing into perspective what we value, now is the perfect time to ask yourself these questions.

For me, it was the answering of these questions that led me to start FutureDistributed.org.

I realised that the AEC industry faces unprecedented challenges over the coming decade. I also realised that not enough people are working on these challenges.

The distribution of effort and resource is skewed far too much in favour of “keeping the corporate cog turning” and not addressing the longer-term systemic challenges.

I hope the coronavirus pandemic will lead to more people questioning the work they are doing in the industry. Asking whether or not is it important work and if it has the potential to grow into important work.

Of course your definition of what is ‘important’ is personal, but I find the UN Sustainable Development Goals align closely to my definition of important problems to be working on over the next decade.

But what about…

Having said that, I didn’t want this post to come across as post from a dreamworld without any real grounding in reality.

A self-rebuttal I would make to the above way of thinking is eloquently summarised in this famous Simon Sinek video about millenials in the workplace and their quest for meaningful work:

In the interview, Sinek talks about the millennial’s pursuit of an abstract concept called ‘impact’:

“It’s as if they’re standing at the foot of a mountain, and they have this abstract concept called ‘Impact’ they want to have in the world, which is the summit. What they don’t see is the mountain. I don’t care if you go up the mountain quickly or slowly, but there is still a mountain.”

Simon Sinek

Sinek is making the point that millennials lack focus and that anything worth achieving takes time.

To a certain extent I agree with this point. To make any sort of lasting impact takes perseverance and time. The most important problems are complex and multi-dimensional.

But, going back to Hamming quote, you need to make sure you are working on problems that are important to you. There is no point in being patient, spending years learning your craft on a subject with does not interest you or make a difference in this world.

It’s important to plant the acorns which have the potential to grow into something meaningful.

So what can you do?

This last section lays out some practical steps to help you start your journey towards more meaningful work:

  1. Define what is an important problem to you: the first step is to assess what you perceive to be the most important problems in your chosen field. I personally find the UN Sustainable Development Goals useful. If I can’t tie something I’m working on, back to one of these goals, maybe I shouldn’t be spending much time on it. If you are finding it difficult to know what is important to you, then remain curious and try to gain experience across a broader spectrum of industry and opportunities - this diversity of experience will likely lead to you honing in on what is important to you.
  2. Make your line manager aware of these values: in doing so, it opens up a discussion about the type of work you find meaningful and perhaps the type of work you don’t. Good employers will be receptive and look to adjust your workload to suit your values. If they are not, either convince them of the benefits (commercial, social or environmental) of focusing of this type of work, or find a better employer.
  3. Join communities which are tackling the important problems you care about: surround yourself with people who are passionate about solving the challenges you care about. This might be locally, but also internationally. It’s likely that important problems will not just be problems affecting you locally, but other communities around the world are tackling. Look to them for inspiration, advice and collaborations.
  4. Start something that has the potential to be important: the thought of tackling large important problems is enough to paralyze some people into inaction. Where do you even start? How could I possibly make a difference?  But all trees begin as acorns in the ground. For me personally, in 10 years from now, I would rather look back at a failed attempt on an important problem, than a successful attempt at something which doesn’t matter.

Thanks for making it to the bottom of the article, I hope it was useful for you. If you think others could benefit from reading it, please share it with them!

If you would like to discuss anything I have written in this article, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

Final note: I appreciate this approach is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution for all. I accept that many people are content in not solving important challenges and find meaning in many other aspects of life. This is great. However, this article is targetted more towards those with aspirations of making a difference, who needed an the inspirational “you can do this” pep talk.

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