After years of working in large corporate organisations I realised shallow work had become the norm for high level executives and management teams. I’m defining shallow work the way Cal Newport defines it in his book ‘Deep Work’. Shallow work consists of completing tasks that are not cognitively demanding and do not contribute in achieving success of any form. These tasks include of things such as sending unnecessary emails, attending meetings and coordinating work, as opposed to actually doing the work that is going to make the difference.
It is amazing how many managers think their work is crucial to the success of the business, hence demand a pay rise or more senior titles. Sure managers have a great degree of responsibility and are supposedly knowledgable in the areas they are managing (even if though they don’t do the work themselves) but most of them will never be put to the real test to see whether or not they could truely do the job on their own.
What do I mean? I mean most managers are faking it. I’ve spoken to managers who are essentially overpaid coordinators. They are literally delegating every task to skilled professionals, whether internally or externally, because they themselves wouldn’t know how to do it if they tried. Sure they make the final decisions and regurgitate what the skilled professionals have said (which is how they justify their payscale), but just speak to them and their vague explanation about how complicated it is to explain shows that they barely understand the concepts that make the project work. Once I was asked by a much more senior manager then myself “you define the media strategy? instead of letting your agency decide placement?” I was so shocked I could barely answer. I thought to myself, of course, if I’m paid over 100K per year, I think I would understand what media and target audience works best for the business. I mean shouldn’t I understand it more than a agency who is either commissioned by media outlets for their paid placements or has had less then 10 minutes to understand the unique nature of our business? In fact, in my experience agencies barely get the brief right. Not to any fault of their own, but they don’t work, nor do they know the business like a person who spends most of their days there. So whilst they are great for fresh eyes and new perspective, they need guidance, not full reign. That’s when I learned, manages like these only survive in our business and companies because shallow work has become the norm.
Business owners that have come from corporate backgrounds should work hard to erase these traits and behaviours that we may have become accustomed to. Shallow work is largely rewarding but is also time consuming. Why is it rewarding? Because it makes us feel a sense of accomplishment, even though nothing has been achieved. Small tasks on our “to do list” get ticked off and we feel a sense of progress. I remember a colleague once gave me advice when I felt I had not achieved anything for the week. They said they make their bed every morning because it meant at least they got one thing done for the day (this, they had read in some magazine). I remember being confused by the advice thinking, who cares if your bed is made how does that make you feel better? Now, there is nothing wrong with being proud of achieving minor tasks but I obviously felt this way, because I’m a different person. The sad truth is, if you want to develop a successful business, then you need to do relevant and difficult work… if it wasn’t cognitively demanding, then it probably wasn’t a big achievement in your business’s operations. However if you are the type of person that can feel a sense of accomplishment over smaller irrelevant tasks, that’s great, but I suggest you don’t get into business.
I’ve done a lot of shallow work in my time. When I first started doing shallow work, I was embarrassed. But as I started to get away with it, I knew geniuses worked for other people and got paid a lot of money, to do very little. Why? because shallow work was widely accepted. Fortunately for me, this false sense of achievement did not feel truely rewarding. Whilst it was convenient during pregnancy, I soon left and I started my own business. Of course, I didn’t need to. I could have stayed in corporate and grown my career through commitment and achieving real work (which would have be recognised and promoted) but I needed a lifestyle change and I didn’t want to see anymore shallow managers rise to the top. Plus it was becoming increasingly annoying talking to them.
Most of my growth, whether in business or my career, came from deep work. Deep work, in contrast to shallow work is where I challenged my skill set and pushed for growth. My husband has always laughed at the success of my first business, how did I win a $10,000 website development job when I didn’t even know how to build websites? However it was this learning curve that propelled both my career and business into success.
Career and skill capital is essential to success in business. Don’t enter business if you are a shallow worker or rely on other people to do the work. You won’t survive. You need real skills and a strong commitment to hard and challenging work. You are going to be the lawyer, accountant, cashier, book keeper, developer, manager, designer and more when you start your own business. Unless of course, you’re already rich 🙂