I attended a panel about pivoting in startups (thanks,!) yesterday, and one concept that was brought up a few times was the idea of pivoting into an “unsexy business”.
At least in my case, the initial allure of running/joining a startup was the possibility of changing the world, so it seems like no matter what you pivot to, you should pick a field that interests you enough to commit years of your life towards it… right? This gels with the standard advice of “follow your passion” after all.
Yet when you look past the shiny unicorns everyone talks about, you realize that most startups are… well, pretty boring. You don’t hear many people say, “debt collection is my passion” or “I just love lightning rod installation”, but people are raking in the money in unsexy businesses like this.
As someone who quit his job to explore new ways of working and making a living, the notion of returning to an unsexy job seemed unfathomable at first. But through reading and talking to people, I’ve come to recognize there’s a bit more nuance to the conversation.
Here are five ways I’ve been re-examining my view on unsexy work.
1. Joy in the process
For some people, it’s not the content of the business that matters as much as the container. Even if the business itself is not sexy, you can find aliveness in the act of building the business.
I’m not “passionate” about time tracking, but I love running Noko Time Tracking…
What I love is creating something that makes people happy and helps them run better businesses and creates a great life for me, my husband, & my team.
– Amy Hoy
This is what I imagine when I hear someone describe themselves as an “operator”. They’re interested in building the engine that make a business chug along, regardless of what the business actually does.
2. Joy in winning
There are many people who would kill to run a video game company. But I’ve heard that a CEO of one recognizable video game company literally doesn’t care about video games. He said he would be just as happy as the CEO of a toilet paper company.
For him, the thing that matters most is success and momentum. Success brings him more joy than any specific category of work.
After the panel yesterday,observed that many people in the finance sector have this approach to work.
3. Joy in expertise
Related to the previous point, you might find that you become passionate about something through the process of becoming an expert in it. Cal Newport describes this virtuous cycle in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You:
If you get good at something rare and valuable, you are rewarded for it financially and socially
That reward makes you want to continue doing it and improving at it
Newport’s advice is to focus first on deciding what sort of lifestyle you want. From there, you work backwards to find jobs that will enable this lifestyle. If you can nail the lifestyle/values alignment, the content of the job won’t matter because you’ll learn to enjoy it through the aforementioned positive feedback loop.
4. Joy in saving the world
Finding meaning in work is a first-world problem. We’ve lost our traditional sources of meaning and are now scrabbling to define new ones.
So as grim as it may sound, global disasters provide an easy path towards meaning. Whether it’s a world war or a global pandemic, meaning can be found in protecting the tribe from a dire threat.
I think some people find similar meaning when they discover AI existentialism or effective altruism. There’s a sense of relief: obviously this is what I should be working on! All I have to do is follow this step-by-step guide!
Thus, the burden of having to decide on meaning for yourself is lifted.
On a smaller scale, this is the lens my immigrant parents also had when they arrived in America; it didn’t matter what job they took because the priority was putting food on the table.
You don’t have time for frills like finding what you’re “passionate” about. You have to do what’s most urgent.
5. Decoupling meaning from income
America’s historical Protestant work ethic and hyper-capitalist structure has placed a lot of pressure on our jobs to fulfill us.
It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love.
But what if we recognized those pressures as what they are – simply beliefs?
A job is a poor way to bundle content: it’s a model for survival plus the desire to make some contributions to the lives of others plus the desire to leave a mark on the world plus various social benefits such as health care. What would the world be like if we blew up jobs and unbundled this content?
Japanese work culture is ridiculed in the U.S.… but I feel like in Japan there’s a lot more respect for service workers: You do your job, and serve the public, and then you retreat to the private world.
You can cut the Gordian knot of job-meaning by just finding meaning elsewhere.
I had this feeling of having wasted my life until I was nearly 35, and it went away completely after I realized I was good enough as I am. Maybe not all my actions and ways of thinking—i.e., the persona or ego—but the core part of me? That’s just unbounded goodness. As is everyone’s core being…
I know women who’ve “filled” that hole or sinking feeling by becoming a mom. From my experience as a dad, having kids also helps me with a part of that “meaning-making.”
Or by recognizing that you can find meaning anywhere:
You can train yourself to care about anything. You can train to find beauty and meaning everywhere in your life…
You have to put aside your concepts and your boredom, and practice reverence, care, deep love. It has to be ritual, mindful and intentional.
In this way, you can infuse your life with meaning, and reveal the shining, gorgeous, sacred unconditional love that lies at the ground of being.
With these different viewpoints in mind, the tweet from the beginning can take on new meaning as well:
Perhaps what you really enjoy is not the actual field you’re in, but the process of building out a system, or constantly accruing win after win, or providing for your family.
What are your thoughts on unsexy work?
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Section 4 resonates with me the most. "Finding meaning in work is a first-world problem." so true. A lot of founders (myself included) drink the kool-aid on trying to change the world via startups. Savior complex is a form of meaning, but has downsides too, namely the onus of responsibility and narcissism.