Embracing fluidity

We can’t afford to have anyone limited by a job description. Like, when we started, I didn’t know how to negotiate an office lease, but it had to be done, so I read some stuff and then just plunged in. Realistically, nobody can do everything. When being a regional comptroller, you need to know the GAAP rules for amortizing development costs, and when being a front-end developer, you need to know the Javascript rules for type coercion. But in principleyou should be willing to learn either or both, if you had to. Beyond that, there’s learning to think like an accountant or a programmer. Or, more realistically: for an accountant to think like a facilities manager or market strategist; and for a programmer to think like a product manager or UX designer.

So we aim to develop and reward “fluid competence,” more than excellence in a specific role. We encourage an attitude of “OK, this needs to be done, I can probably do it”—combined with wanting to actually figure out how to do it, not faking it or going through the motions or trying to stay safe by doing it by the book. And not covering up when you screw up! We praise and reward people for screwing up on hard things, if they are open about it.

This wasn’t written by anyone at Automattic, but it could have been. It captures the essence of what brought me to this company. The openness to look beyond rules, processes, how-tos, and job descriptions, and to ask “What purpose does this serve?”. “Does this help us get where we want to be?”. “How can we reinvent all of these things for this new situation so that they serve us better?”.

Asking such questions is typically the job of executive staff.

Everyone else is supposed to follow the rules. Here everyone is encouraged to look outside of their virtual cubicle, think of the bigger picture, and how what we do contributes to it. It’s unfair to expect a bunch of executives managing hundreds of people each to know exactly what is happening in the trenches and to come up with the perfect action plan for every possible scenario.

In very many ways, this is challenging. There are always more problems to solve than people, and the sheer number of them can be quite overwhelming. In my past corporate life I would be able to say it’s belongs to a different team and move on. Here I often feel responsible for more than I can handle, and it’s hard not to interpret putting some of these things aside as failing the customer who reported them.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this arrangement for anything else.

Rather than just do what I’m told to, I have room to grow, discover new problems, propose new solutions, try to implement them, fail, then try again. What I do today is very different from what I did a year ago, or two years, or three. It’s not like I come up with what I’m going to do next myself. We’re all co-creating this reality together.

The quote at the beginning is from a blog called Meaningness. It explains in very logical terms how we’re all co-creating this thing we call reality, and how no set of rules, theories, or truths can ever be a complete description of it. Instead of searching for that one system, philosophy, workflow, or corporate procedure that will guarantee success, we can see them all for what they are–tools designed for a certain purpose, with their advantages and limitations, and navigate between them with fluidity and grace.

It’s easier for me to be fluid at work than in other areas of life.

It’s one thing to accept that corporate processes are arbitrary and subject to change, but completely another to think the same could be true about moral codes. People need a solid moral code rooted in something trustworthy and real, or otherwise we’re all going to kill each other. With no solid ground below, how can you build anything of value?

However, the need of such solid moral code is precisely what led to all the horrors of twentieth century, and people killing each other on an unprecedented scale. Every side of each conflict had a very precise and all-encompassing explanation of how the world works, that couldn’t coexist with any conflicting system. When hardcore communists meet hardcore nationalists, there’s no room for nuance and ambiguity.

To my fiancé, fluid thinking comes naturally.

To me, not so much. I still sometimes find myself craving for a complete system through which I could interpret the world and decide what to do next. I’m sure this has something to do with my religious upbringing.

But just like constantly reinventing my job description is much more rewarding, effective, and fun than simply following the handbook, so is reinventing my role in the world, in a co-creation with people around. It’s unfair to expect a bunch of philosophers and religious figures to know exactly what is happening in my life, and to come up with the perfect action plan for every scenario.

2 responses to “Embracing fluidity”

  1. Love this and how you’ve applied it to everyday life and morals beyond the workplace 🙏 I will be certainty meditating on the unstructured textures of life as opportunities for growth!

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