Sara Barkat | a Gen Z writer, editor, and artist
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
Technically, my personal definition of work is kind of interesting, it’s just 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.
And 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 potentially 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.
The aim is maybe 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 I want to start the conversation with what is your definition of work?
[00:01:59] – Sara Barkat
I guess 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 technically, my personal definition of work is kind of interesting. It’s just 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.
[00:02:34] – 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 I guess things that I’m learning or things that I’m trying to get done. Like I don’t tend to think of it as work, so to speak.
[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 that it is becoming a series of projects in somebody’s life?
[00:03:13] – Sara Barkat
I mean, for some people, obviously, I mean, the world is huge. You know, there’s many different places in the world, many different social strata. There’s a lot of places where that’s not true. A lot of people for who that’s not true either. So I don’t think I can say that’s what work is becoming. I mean, for some people, sure yeah. For me, I’ve had the privilege where I’ve been able to work like that.
For a lot of people, that’s not the case.
[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. And the ability to work in the way that you enjoy is actually a big privilege. You know, I didn’t have to work at some job since I was younger or anything. And because I went to a smaller school, I went to a state school, an art school, because I did want to be involved in the art scene and stuff, but also because I didn’t want to come out of college with a huge debt.
So I didn’t have that thing that was forcing me or a lot of people to then 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, you know.
[00:04:45] – Doug Foulkes
So right from the word 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 a beach, do you think?
[00:05:10] – Sara Barkat
I don’t think I can answer on the world, the whole entire world. From what I’ve seen. Some people are happy with their work. A lot of people are not happy with their work. So I don’t think you can either 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’s a whole lot of different situations.
[00:05:38] – Claire Haidar
So let’s narrow it down. I totally respect that. You know, you don’t want to speak on behalf of the world and that there’s nuances that we have to account for. So the fact that so many, particularly in the US, this is very much a US thing, they start their careers out with this enormous amount of debt on their studies. Let’s focus in on that. Do you feel that that is broken or wrong and needs to be reengineered?
[00:06:10] – Sara Barkat
Like, first of all, that limits a lot of people’s options just when you have to do, for example, a certain job that makes a certain amount of money because you’ve got a huge debt, you’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 that to the extent she wanted to because she had another job that was taking up most of her time.
It became a hindrance to her entrepreneurial goals.
[00:06:54] – Doug Foulkes
Let’s move the conversation onto her views on education, Claire prompted her by highlighting the recent college admission bribery scandal.
[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, though, in some way and about networks and about what you can get from, you know, ever since it was created. That’s what a system manages to do, that, for example, something that isn’t a system doesn’t manage to do, you know, and even if you think back to like, say, earlier, maybe not formal systems of education, but even like in the Renaissance maybe. If you’re an apprentice painter and you wanted to become a painter, you would go 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, yeah, but it was also offering you opportunities at the same time, you know, education has always been about opportunities.
[00:08:14] – Doug Foulkes
So obviously, from your perspective or your viewpoint, Sara, you’re very much obviously 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
So, yes, I mean, 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 how old you are. And the reason why I’m specifically asking that is, the audiences who listen to our podcast and the audiences that we directly sharing this podcast with are managers and C-level executives in large companies. So, you know, 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 and wanting to ask the question whether these views of yours can be generalised to represent your generation is because I know that these customers of ours that we work with and who regularly listen to this podcast are asking those questions. They’re asking, are we looking at a generation reviews work completely differently to what we view it right now.
[00:10:03] – Sara Barkat
I might be answering this wrong, actually. Twenty three I think, I took the first possibility I could to forget how old I was. I took a career class in college for like a couple of credits once and, what I did notice, 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 from an alarm.
So I can agree with that, too.
[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
Well, I mean, part of it is because college students don’t get enough sleep. But yeah, it’s the idea of it, too I think. You know, 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, like what the job is doing so much as how the job is structured and what it allows for in your personal life.
[00:11:39] – Claire Haidar
The reason why I think that is so pertinent to this conversation is that’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 actually realising that it gives them so much freedom and it gives them a much healthier life where, as you say, they’re not bound to these rigid time blocks.
I can see it just from the circles that I move in, but also just 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 either, especially people who like hanging out with people like very social people, maybe even people who just don’t like working where they hang out. But yeah, I definitely 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 about what can you get done? What can you make happen? And a lot of focus on that aspect of work. But I would actually say a really other important thing that is really under emphasised or undervalued, is play. They’ve actually found you’re better at working, you’re better at solving problems. If you’ve played and specifically with your hands, that makes people better working better at working on the level of problem solving of creativity.
There is a book and I don’t remember what it’s called right now, but they talk about how Caltex, JPL industries, that at one point found that the people, the new people from all the top schools were coming in and they were really startled to realise that these top graduates were unable to solve the same type of problems that their earlier generation had. And they were like, what’s with this? So so they did a study and discovered that it was because a lot of these people hadn’t played they hadn’t solve 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 actually less able to solve problems later on. And so then this company decided, well, OK, 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 like the daily work routine, if you want to call it that. Let’s talk about the harder industries like the 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 some. Or some kind of, you know, moments where you’re not always on and you can take a small break, if you think about what play is, it does take place a lot of times when you aren’t working right. 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 really 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 actually have to be directly related to the work, but it could just be, it can be something totally random and different, but it just needs to be incorporated into the work day. 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.
We make up funny stories together. I like stuff 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 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 actually saying is take a break and do something completely you know, potentially completely different.
[00:17:56] – Sara Barkat
Yeah. Well, and again, I think even for the idea of creativity, a lot of 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 and 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, that was play for me, 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, really, 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 so that it is a bit easier or comes naturally. It became apparent that she had a need for self sufficiency. And this reflects on how she would like to leave a legacy.
[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 a lot of options with some very basic skills.
Same with sewing. It opens a lot of options as to 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 serving 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. And 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 actually knew how to cook. I found that really surprising and really too bad, you know, 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 and is that always the best? Like, is that always what’s necessary in a certain arena? I think that’s a really interesting question, because a lot of times you got thinking, you know, like, I’m doing it fast, I’m getting it done. And then you stop thinking about, well, why am I doing it or even 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’s 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 really 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 sort of 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 where if someone’s an employee and they’re being told pretty much, you know, they have a job and they need to say they have to produce something or they’ve got 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 just 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 really 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 bordem.
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 actually 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 really 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.