100. Using the data on first generation, low income professionals to help create high performance teams | Gorick NG
This is the final week we are chatting with author and adviser at Harvard College, Gorick NG.
This week we had the pleasure of spending an hour in the company of Sara Barkat, a Gen Z writer, editor, and artist who has potentially very different views on work and where it is going. Sara loves amongst other things, art, science, and books.
Sara Barkat loves art, dancing, medieval armor, Victorian literature and clothing, Star Trek, Norse mythology, museums, science, and books. She is a Content SEO for Tweetspeak Poetry, an editor for T. S. Poetry Press, and a writer for Poetic Earth Month. Her latest creative works include The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Graphic Novel and, in partnership with Tania Runyan, How to Write a Form Poem: A Guided Tour of 10 Fabulous Forms.
[00:00:00] – Sara Barkat
My personal definition of work is kind of interesting. I consider work to be something you do that you’re not very interested in, because if I’m interested in it, I don’t personally intend to define it as work.
[00:00:23] – Doug Foulkes
Welcome to The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at, believe it or not, the future of work. It is brought to you by WNDYR for their blog. Chaos & RocketFuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behaviour specialists whose goal is to help us humans remain relevant in an ever more technology based workplace. Check them out at WNDYR dot com. That’s WNDYR dot com. I’m Doug Foulkes. And along with WNDYR CEO Claire Haidar, we regularly meet up with industry experts and mavericks to get their take on work in the future.
In this show we offer you something a little different. We recently had the pleasure of spending an hour in the company of Sara Barkat, a Gen Z writer, editor, and artist who has a very different view on work and where it is going. Sara loves, amongst other things, art, science, and books. She’s a content SEO for Tweetspeak Poetry and a writer for the Poetic Earth Month. Today, we give you the chance to look through the eyes of the current generation and see how they view work unfolding.
Our aim is to leave you with more questions than answers and to challenge your view of what is possible in the future of work. So Claire let’s start, over to you to get Sara’s definition of work.
[00:01:44] – Claire Haidar
We are here to talk about work today, but I suspect that it’s actually going to be in many ways, a personal story in terms of how you craft your own work. So I want to throw it wide open and start the conversation with what is your definition of work?
[00:01:59] – Sara Barkat
That’s a really interesting question and almost more complicated than it seems to be at first. Like, you know, there’s a lot of possible definitions of work. I mean, I guess there’s the basic one. It’s something you do when you get money for it usually. But my personal definition of work is kind of interesting. It’s something you do that you’re not very interested in, because if I’m interested in it, I don’t personally define it as work.
[00:02:34] – Claire Haidar
Interesting. So those things that you’re really passionate about, and that you’re really interested in, what do you call those things?
[00:02:42] – Sara Barkat
Just goals, mostly. Projects that I’m working on and things that I’m learning or trying to get done.
[00:02:58] – Claire Haidar
In that case, if that’s your personal definition, do you think that that is what work is becoming? Is it becoming a series of projects in somebody’s life?
[00:03:13] – Sara Barkat
For some people it is but the world is huge. There’s many different places in the world, many different social strata. There’s a lot of places where this is not true. So I don’t think I can say that’s what work is becoming. I mean, for some people it is. For me, I’ve had the privilege to work like this.
[00:03:43] – Claire Haidar
You’ve used the word privilege. Expand a little bit on that. Why do you feel it’s a privilege to be able to work like this?
[00:03:51] – Sara Barkat
Well, first of all, because that’s how I like to work. The ability to work in the way that you enjoy is actually a big privilege. I haven't had to work at some job since I was younger. And because I went to a smaller school, I went to a state school and an art school, and got to be involved in the art scene. I also didn’t come out of college with a huge debt.
So I didn’t have that pressure that was forcing me and that forces a lot of people to go and get a job where they have to do something that pays well enough to get rid of that debt. That’s a really big privilege.
[00:04:45] – Doug Foulkes
So right from the get-go, we can see how Sara has been lucky or privileged enough to choose a path that she wants to follow rather than one that she is forced into. Sara, I’m going to just say hello and jump in here. Nice to meet you.
[00:04:58] – Sara Barkat
Nice to meet you!
[00:04:59] – Doug Foulkes
So I think taking on board what you said around your thoughts of work, do you think that the world is doing work right at the moment or are we missing the mark, do you think?
[00:05:10] – Sara Barkat
I don’t think I can answer that for the entire world. From what I’ve seen, some people are happy with their work. A lot of people are not happy with their work. I don’t think you can say that it’s doing work right or that it’s not doing work right. Some places are doing better. Some places are doing worse. And there are many different situations.
[00:05:38] – Claire Haidar
So let’s narrow it down. I totally respect that you don’t want to speak on behalf of the world and that there’s nuances that we have to account for. So many, particularly in the US, start their careers with an enormous amount of debt on their studies. Let’s focus in on that. Do you feel that this system is broken or wrong and needs to be reengineered?
[00:06:10] – Sara Barkat
It limits a lot of people’s options when they have to do a certain job that makes a certain amount of money because they've got loans. They're less able to explore different options. For instance, there was one girl in college. She was trying to start a business that had something to do with art and helping other artists. She was really passionate about it, but she couldn’t really focus on it to the extent she wanted to because she had another job that was taking up most of her time. This job became a hindrance to her entrepreneurial goals.
[00:06:54] – Doug Foulkes
Let’s move the conversation to your views on education.
[00:07:03] – Claire Haidar
You chose to go to school in a way that allowed you to focus on the educational component because of the sheer joy that that brings to you.
[00:07:12] – Sara Barkat
Yeah, basically, I think the educational system has always been about prestige. If you think back to earlier times, maybe not formal systems of education, but like in the Renaissance period, If you were an apprentice painter and you wanted to become a painter, you would work in the painting studio under the guy who is really good at painting.
And you would learn from that and you would do the small pieces of paintings, and you would get into this network and that education. It was teaching you something, but it was also offering you opportunities at the same time. Education has always been about opportunities.
[00:08:14] – Doug Foulkes
From your perspective, Sara, you’re very much coming from an art side, or creative side. How does that play out for someone who wants to be a lawyer or a carpenter?
[00:08:30] – Sara Barkat
I think the same general idea would apply, again, whatever field you’re trying to get into, if you know people, it’s a lot easier to get into it.
[00:08:40] – Doug Foulkes
Right, that whole apprenticeship method of working. OK, so let’s cut to the chase. Are Sara’s views typical of Gen Z?
[00:08:51] – Claire Haidar
Sara, I want to move on to something quite personal. I’d like to ask you how old you are? The reason why I’m specifically asking this is because the audiences who listen to our podcast are managers and C-level executives in large companies. Some of the clients that we work with have two hundred thousand employees under them. And these people are really grappling right now with what does work need to be in the future.
What does it need to look like? What are the environments that they need to create? And so the reason why I’m specifically zeroing in on your age is because I want to determine whether these views of yours can be generalised to represent your generation. They’re asking, are we looking at a generation who reviews work completely differently to how we view it right now.
[00:10:03] – Sara Barkat
I'm twenty three. I took a career class in college for a couple of credits once. It was only a really small sample, but what I did notice was that the thing most people could agree on as to what they wanted from life and from their ideal job was something where they didn’t have to wake up to an alarm.
[00:10:41] – Claire Haidar
I don’t think it’s small. I don’t think it’s trivial what you’re saying there. I think it is actually very deep. It can appear very superficial. But I think if you peel the onion back on that one, there’s actually a lot in there. Let’s unpack that. Like, I don’t think it’s about the alarm. From my perspective.
[00:10:58] – Sara Barkat
Part of it is because college students don’t get enough sleep. But it’s the idea of it, too, I think. Getting to do something where you’re not being forced to, well, consistently wake up earlier than you want to. It’s the idea of sort of having a little more leeway in how you want to structure your life. It’s not so much a focus on what kind of job it is, as much as it's how the job is structured and what it allows for your personal life.
[00:11:39] – Claire Haidar
I think that is so pertinent to this conversation because it's exactly what the world of work is grappling with right now. Like we can see it in our audience that that’s what they’re grappling with because their employees have been forced into a remote virtual environment working from home because of the pandemic. And they're realising that it gives them so much freedom and it gives them a much healthier life where they’re not bound to rigid time blocks.
I can see it just from the circles that I move in, but also from the general conversation that’s happening at company level right now is that employees like it.
[00:12:20] – Sara Barkat
Yeah, I think a lot do. Some don’t, especially people who like hanging out with people like very social people, maybe even people who don’t like working where they hang out. But yeah, I have noticed the same thing.
[00:12:37] – Doug Foulkes
Sara has some great insights into how work can be improved with the background of playing.
[00:12:42] – Sara Barkat
There’s a lot of focus on work, a lot of focus on stuff like productivity and what can you get done? What can you make happen? But I would say another important thing that is really undervalued, is play. They’ve actually found that if you’ve played and specifically with your hands, you’re better at working and solving problems.
There is a book and I don’t remember what it’s called right now, but they talk about how Caltech JPL industries was startled to realise that top school graduates were unable to solve the same type of problems that earlier generations had. And they were like, what’s with this? So they did a study and discovered that it was because a lot of these people hadn’t played and solved problems with their hands.
They hadn’t taken things apart and put them back together. They hadn’t done all these things as kids. Instead, they had been very focussed on Scholastic’s and working basically for their whole lives. And so, they were less able to solve problems later on. And so then this company decided, well, okay, we’re going to focus on that. Even in our interview process, we’re going to ask people how they played as children.
[00:14:37] – Claire Haidar
I don’t know if your mom’s ever told you about this, but I’m like a big kid and I love to play myself. And this is a topic that I’ve done a lot of reading about and am very passionate about as well. So let’s go down this rabbit hole a little bit. Like what does that practically look like? So it’s obvious in certain industries where play can be part of the daily work routine. Let’s talk about the harder industries like frontline workers.
How does an ambulance driver play? How does a doctor or nurse play? How does a lawyer play?
[00:15:14] – Sara Barkat
Hopefully, a good job is going to allow for some kind of play or moments where you’re not always "on" and you can take a small break. If you think about what play is, it takes place a lot of times when you aren’t working. So one thing I just discovered recently; apparently people in the US work more than in any other, you know what they would call a developed country more time working. That seems weird that we would spend so much of our time more than we really have to even just as a country on work.
What’s it all for on a grander scale? You know, are we just trying to do more, like at some point, what is even the point of more? That’s what I start wondering.
[00:16:14] – Claire Haidar
Are you saying that the play does not have to be directly related to the work, but it could just be, it can be something random and different, but it just needs to be incorporated into the workday. So can you get practical with us and share with us how you play?
[00:16:33] – Sara Barkat
Well, my big hobby is writing, so I do that a lot. I think that is a kind of play for me personally. I’m always like, well, what if this happened or, what if that happened? And I like go over things and I have fun with it. And a lot of times I also play with my sister. We make up funny stories and like we talk about them together and that’s what we kind of do a lot as play.
I like baking. Sometimes I like sewing, even though it also really annoys me because I’m not quite patient enough to be good at sewing. But I like finding something that I don’t know how to do, trying to figure out how to do it. Another thing I like doing is just researching something random that I didn’t know anything about and just seeing where it takes me, what I find out about it.
[00:17:34] – Doug Foulkes
That’s interesting because when you started talking about playing more, gamification came to my mind, which is where, you know, more and more people are trying to bring maybe the habits of playing into everyday life. But, I mean, that’s slightly different to what you’re saying. What you’re saying is take a break and do something completely different.
[00:17:56] – Sara Barkat
Yeah. Well, and again, I think even for the idea of creativity, many times what the creativity research pinpoints is that what makes people most creative is when they also have those spaces where they take those breaks, or they do something completely different. It creates connections that wouldn’t have been created otherwise.
[00:18:17] – Claire Haidar
I can distinctly remember when I was doing hardcore mountain biking in Europe. Mountain biking was play for me. But because it required such intense focus on something so entirely different from the business, I came off of the trails and like a whole bunch of problems that I was facing in the business had been solved in my brain without me even thinking about them. I think gamification is very different to play, they’re two totally different things.
[00:18:46] – Doug Foulkes
No for sure.
Yeah, I can see that. I mean, gamification is just trying to make work more fun. So you’re not doing something different. You’re still working, but you’re trying to gamify it to be a bit easier or come to you naturally.
[00:19:08] – Claire Haidar
You’re going to be passing something on to the next generations. What are the skills that you would like to cross on to future generations?
[00:19:17] – Sara Barkat
The skills I would want to pass on cooking and sewing.
[00:19:23] – Claire Haidar
Cooking and sewing. Why?
[00:19:25] – Sara Barkat
Why? Because they increase your self-sufficiency. And personally, that matters a lot to me. So if you can cook, you have a lot more options, first, even so much as what you can get for what money, you’re not stuck with what somebody else made for you. You can choose what kind of stuff you like. You can also choose stuff that is better for you. And you also just have more options. It’s something that opens many options with some very basic skills.
Same with sewing. It opens many options like you don’t have to just buy clothes or a bag or this or that. Whatever you want, you can also, on the one hand, maybe you can make it, on the other hand, even if you can’t make it, if you know a little bit about it. It’ll be easier for you to pick out. Is something well made? Is it going to last? Stuff like that.
[00:20:28] – Claire Haidar
OK, so you’ve been very specific with us with two skills that you want to pass on. I think what I love about what you’ve just said is that it’s the skills of self-sufficiency, like you specifically called out cooking and sewing as two of those. But more broadly speaking, it’s self-sufficiency. So if we were to generalise that, do you believe that those are critical skills that current generations are not learning?
[00:20:55] – Sara Barkat
I do think so, yeah. In fact, I remember Sonia, my sister, telling me, she was in some club at college, and she was like, yeah, there’s like 15 people there. And they got to talking about something. Ended up talking about cooking, and it turned out that Sonia was the only person in that entire club of 15 people that knew how to cook. I found that really surprising and really too bad, because, again, that means these young people, their options are a lot more limited.
They’re forced to take just what’s on the shelves. They don’t even know necessarily what’s going into that food and they don’t have a connection to it on a basic level of like just if they are somewhere random, you know, what can they do? They have less at their fingertips with that.
[00:21:55] – Doug Foulkes
Sara has some great views on the concept of speed versus slowness. So from our side, what questions are Claire and myself not asking you about work?
What should we be asking you?
[00:22:09] – Sara Barkat
Maybe the idea of, I guess, the conception of speed versus slowness. I think that’s an interesting question. Like why do people value speed? Is that always what’s necessary in a certain arena? A lot of times you get to thinking, you know, I’m doing it fast, I’m getting it done. And then you start thinking about, well, why am I doing it or does it need to be done in the first place or even, you know, is the product that I’m putting out worth putting out into the world?
Is it going to help people, or is it going to maybe even make things worse for some people, or is it just totally irrelevant to people?
[00:23:02] – Claire Haidar
Sarah, sorry. I’m kind of hesitating because what you’ve just said is actually really profound and really deep and my mind is just like mulling it over. How do you apply that, that slow versus fast in your daily life? Like how do you balance those two things?
[00:23:22] – Sara Barkat
I definitely like working fast at things. I can work fast, and I like seeing things get done that makes me feel really happy. But part of the thing I try to keep in mind is before I start a project or if I’m thinking about a project like am I going to put my effort into this, I usually try to take a moment to think should it exist. Can I think of a good reason why it should exist? And if I can’t, why am I doing it?
Yeah, I guess that’s what I think of. Personally, I like to write for fun, so a lot of times I’ll write something, I’ll get a story started and I’ll want to race to the end of the story. But something’s not quite working with it. So I’ve learnt, even though it’s kind of annoying sometimes, you know, like sometimes I’m like, all right, I’ve got to take a break from this story, you know, I’ve got to let it sit there.
One time I left a story sitting there for a whole year, you know, and I was just like, I haven’t quite got what needs to happen next. And I knew that if I pushed through it, I could probably get something, but it wouldn’t be the best thing and it wouldn’t be quite what I wanted it to be. And I had to wait and think about what do I want to happen next in the story and let that all coalesce by itself.
And then when I came back to it, I could write it and I was like, yeah, I figured out what I want to do here.
[00:25:01] – Doug Foulkes
That is very interesting. I’m just trying to think how you would translate that into everyday work. Employees are pretty much tol, you know, they have a job. They have to produce something, or maintain a certain amount of productivity, how you can use that mindset and that thought pattern to help.
[00:25:22] – Sara Barkat
Yeah, that’s harder. And that gets into, you know, like what is the specific job, too. But I do think if thinking about the concepts, for example, the concept of slowness or of taking time, people who, for example, people who meditate are happier people. Even just taking a moment or a small time to take time can help, I don’t have something more specific to say. But I do think that allowing yourself to slow down sometimes can absolutely make things richer and lead to just more personal fulfillment in a way, even just like taking a walk outside and then just like.
Standing for a moment and looking at, you know, like what’s growing, are there any flowers up today, you know, something like that.
[00:26:19] – Claire Haidar
If I look at how we function as an organisation, I think that’s the power of sprinting in many ways and having that, like daily check or that daily stand up, because that is a form of slowing down in order to go fast. You know you’re getting, you are working in these two week sprints. You’re allowing the team to take time to slow down, to plan, to think about usefulness, to question relevance, etc. And then at the end of that two week sprint, you are allowing the same space again because you’re doing a sprint retro.
So you’re allowing them to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work. That is a type of meditation. You know, the way we do the daily check-in’s is like one of the things that we insist on in the company is that people write down a happiness. It’s so interesting to see how people genuinely resist it when they join our company for the first time. Like they actually find it really difficult. Whereas with Tracey and myself, because we’ve been doing it as individuals for literally our entire working life so far, like I mean, I’m coming up on almost two decades of this already.
It’s just like my happiness list is longer than anything else that I’m writing in my check-in because there’s just so much that I notice. I think what you’re saying is vital and it is critical and it is something that businesses should think about. And it literally can be as small as, you know, bringing in a daily check-in or bringing in a different type of channel into Slack or things like that. But I think where it does get tricky is, again, you know, if I go to some of the examples that I listed earlier in the call, like a front line worker, an emergency surgeon, an emergency room surgeon, you know, it’s hard to go slow when you’ve got a dying patient on the operating table.
[00:28:11] – Sara Barkat
And again, like, some of that can happen just by, not within work, but by having more time. When people aren’t having to work, they can incorporate that themselves. I do think it’s interesting, this thing about you were saying the two week sprint followed by, I think that might be hard for me that sort of structure, not because that’s not a good idea, because it is, but mostly because a lot of times for me personally, I things get done, not necessarily in a certain these two weeks.
If I know a project has to get done by this date, it’ll get done some time in that date, but not necessarily in those two weeks that’s going to match up what you’re supposed to be putting the effort into it.
[00:29:02] – Claire Haidar
And I think going back to your earlier point around the context, like you kept saying, I don’t want to speak for the whole world. And it’s so relevant that you’re saying that because context is so important there, you know, there’s the work of an individual contributor and there’s the work of a team member. And both of those have very different cadences.
[00:29:24] – Doug Foulkes
I’m going to end today with a chance for Sara to speak about her latest project, the graphic novel, The Yellow Wallpaper.
Yeah, I illustrated the yellow wallpaper. I turned it into a graphic novel. The reason I did it, I started quite a while ago, actually, then just got the first page, put it aside, and then went back to it and finally actually did it. I started it because I’d always liked the story. I always found it interesting and because I was somewhere where I was really bored. So I was like, why don’t I write a story, illustrate a story about someone who’s really bored?
That was where it started. Yeah, I found that it was really, really fun to get to hopefully interpret the story through pictures in a way that I did try to really stay true to hopefully the author’s vision and how she seemed to be portraying this story.
[00:30:30] – Claire Haidar
I can totally imagine, but I just love that origin story that you just shared with us that is like classic. Like I’m bored, let me go and find some work to do around boredom.
Talk about intuition and listening to your body and all of those things. Sara, it’s been so good chatting to you today. Thank you for taking the time. I know an hour is a lot of time to ask of somebody, but it was really good. And I know that this is not the typical type of podcast that our audience would typically find in their stream. But I know it’s one that’s really important for them to listen to, because I know that they are grappling with this right now, so I know that your words and the insights that you’ve shared are going to be really valuable.
[00:31:20] – Sara Barkat
Well, I hope so. And thank you so much for having me.
[00:31:24] – Doug Foulkes
Such wisdom and insight resting on such a pair of young shoulders. We hope that this show has helped you see work from a different perspective if you’ve enjoyed it. We look forward to inviting you back sometime soon. Just a reminder, for more information about WNDYR and the integration services that they supply, you can visit their website. That’s WNDYR dot com. And so, as always, for me, Doug Foulkes and Chaos & RocketFuel. Stay safe, and we’ll see you soon.
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