People want to make art

By February 13, 2013Innovation, Lyst

I’ve started putting interesting Youtube videos in my ‘watch later’ folder and watching them on my Nexus 7 whilst I stretch and do physio in the mornings. This morning I finished watching a great Seth Godin talk on what’s wrong with our education system (embedded below). There’s lots of very thought provoking content and if education interests you I heartily recommend taking 15 minutes to watch the whole video. I will return to education briefly at the end of the post, but the thing I loved the most was the bit around 8mins 40s when Godin said:

Someone who is making art doesn’t say ‘Can I make one less canvas this month?’. They don’t say ‘Can I write one less song this month?’. … It’s art. They want to do more of it. But when it’s work, when it’s your job … of course you want to do less of it.

Hearing that I immediately thought about our portfolio companies. As you would expect, some of them are places where everyone loves their work and does a lot of it. They put a lot of hours in. For people there work is almost their first commitment. Whereas others have people who don’t love their work quite so much (sometimes they don’t like it at all) and they look to balance their work life and other interests much more evenly. When it comes to recruitment the first set of companies generally have an easier time – they are more able to find good candidates from their networks and people take salary cuts to join (at least in the early stages). The second set end up using headhunters more often and find themselves paying higher salaries.

These differences between companies where people love to work and those where they just work are not the be all and end all. We have had great exits from companies that definitely fall into the latter camp, and we have had our fair share of failures with companies where all the staff have been very passionate. Moreover, whilst I’ve painted a simple picture here with two types of company the reality is more complex with most companies sitting somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes, with different teams in the company being more or less passionate about their work.

However, with these caveats, I believe that companies with passionate people who love their work are more successful than the average.

Which begs the question: what makes people love their work?

Coming back to Godin – one of the big contributors is the feeling that they are making art, i.e. making something important. Companies create that feeling, or rather founders create that feeling, by combining vision and culture and by working in interesting areas.

Our portfolio company Lyst is a good example of a company where people love to work. They are aiming to build the worlds premier online destination to discover and buy fashion. That’s a big goal in an industry that many people find fascinating, and there are many interesting challenges that need to be solved to realise the vision. The company is still fairly small in headcount terms but it’s already clear that Chris and Seb (the founders) have created a positive and empowering culture.

This post is long enough already and I want to come back to education so I won’t comment more here on what constitutes a great vision or a how to build a strong culture, other than to say that for anyone thinking about these topics it is helpful to be mindful of the the distinction between art and work and how the former motivates whilst the latter demotivates. This is a confusing notion for many of us in the west who have been brought up as good capitalists with a protestant work ethic, but it will be increasingly important going forward as the higher value endeavours become more and more about creating something magical.

Coming back to education. The main point of Godin’s talk is that our educational systems were designed to create good factory workers who did what they were told. Too many of our schools teach us how to learn stuff by rote and follow plans without asking difficult questions. Those skills are less useful now. As Godin puts it, learning the dots isn’t enough now, we should be teaching our kids how to join them. The real disruption in education then is changing the goal of school to teaching our kids to create interesting things by joining new dots, and maybe to have an ethical agenda that is more socially responsible and less about industry and production.

  • Andrew Hall (sumdog)

    Asking the question “what is education for” suggests a starting point of privilege. In a week in which gun crime in the US has been highlighted by Obama, especially in the ghettos of Chicago and other American cities, it’s obvious what education is for. Education should provide the skills for us all to contribute to society through work. It’s that simple.

    The important questions are: what are those skills and what’s the best way for our children to gain them?

    Every parent knows, that young children need guidance. The obedience aspect of school is more likely to stem from that parental gut instinct than any master plan to fill factories with willing workers. However, I do agree with Seth that the obedience element can be overdone.

    Seth argues for open book education – that’s fine if you can read. Skills such as arithmetic and reading do require us to learn facts, however this can be done in ways that are creative rather than rote. The ‘work’ vs ‘art’ argument, can be more verbosely characterised as ‘narrow rule-based behaviour’ vs ‘broad creative free thinking’. Using problem solving, or creative approaches still requires discipline but are generally loads more fun. This applies to learning and to work.

    That’s exactly what we aim to put into practice at Sumdog.

  • Sumdog is an example of learning as fun or fun as learning. And it’s great. Well done.

    Now we could do with the same approach for history and geography as well as the rest of the “sciences”.

    It is perhaps only those in a position of privilege who have the opportunity to ask these questions – to the benefit I hope of themselves and those who are not in a position to ask questions which are listened to.

    I think your comment on creative ways to teach reading and arithmentic are very much to the point and Seth’s point as well.

  • Delighted you have shone the spotlight on this important and
    energetic talk.

    We are still sending people (!) to schools to be fed with an almost unchanged
    diet of rote learning.

    John Holt’s books written at the end of the 1960’s sowed the seeds, in a
    popular way, of working with how children learn rather than concentrating only
    on what was to be injected into their receptive minds. Little progress since

    We still do seem to be handing out a few fish rather than starting with
    teaching fishing skills and encouraging children to create their own, better
    methods – to stretch an old adage.

    Any subject can be interesting if delivered in an interesting way. Any topic
    can be a tool to expand upon by use in both daily life, work and creative
    activities. I think sticking to the strict divisions between arts and sciences,
    even Math and Physics, Biology and Chemistry are artificial boundaries mainly
    now serving those wishing to fill in score cards rather than enrich students
    and their functioning and finding good life’s work in the world. I think if we
    move away from these rigid “subject” divisions, far fewer students
    will be “bad at maths”, “lousy at English” and more.
    Subjects taught without Connections, without connection to “What They Are For”
    and “What They Do” have meaning only to those few who have always excelled at
    stiffly academic learning and learning by rote.

  • Hi Andrew – do you think the education system is currently optimised for broad creative free thinking?
    It seems to me that it is inching slowing in that direction, but is still a long way from getting there.

  • I take the point about not everybody having access to even basic education, but it is also important that we set up tomorrow’s leaders, and even senior management, to be successful in tomorrow’s environment.

  • Nic,

    I absolutely agree. I wasn’t clear. I mean that people who have the privilege to ask, should and that the benefitis accrue to all – even those less privileged – in the long run. Good leaders can create and run successful companies, which emply people of all levels of privilege!

    I believe that aspiration is important as a motivator and therefore there is nothing wrong with anyone being in a privileged postion, especially in a meritocracy (where/when it exists!).

  • Andrew Hall (sumdog)

    Seth’s talk seems more applicable to further education. US universities are innovating at a good pace, especially in technical subjects. Sleepy UK universities need to wake up or be eaten by big US ventures.

    Secondary school exams are controlled by governments, who play safe by mandating traditional approaches. So the scope for free thinking in K12 is limited, and in some cases regressing. The one exception to this we’ve seen is Brazil, who have recently purchased 600 thousand tablets for K12, and are definitely more innovative than others.

    In primary there’s always been more room to experiment (simply because exams are a long time in the future). So we’re having fun supporting the more innovative teachers. We’ve got some radical stuff planned for 2013, so hope to really shake things up.