13 February 2013

Dreaming of the chance to do great work

I'm a designer who works in technology. In my sphere there is a lot of talk out there about how you go about getting the best work out of smart, creative people.

Last month I did a retreat with a bunch of smart, creative people. We spent a long weekend doing problem-solving exercises together, a bunch of capable, strong-willed people juggling our different skills and agendas, working on some hard problems. I commented to one of the people there that it was uncanny that a bunch of technocrats like us went to great trouble and expense to spend our precious free time doing something very much like our day jobs. He said, “Yeah, but here we get to color outside the lines.”

How do you get the best work out of smart, creative people? It's simple. Let them do it.

It's not hard to see how most organizations are, in countless ways, actually hostile to people doing their best work. If you let people do their best work, if you really facilitate that, you won't have a hard time getting smart, creative people to work for you; they will walk through fire for the opportunity. Now it's not easy to create that environment. As is so often the case, simple isn't easy. But most organizations aren't even trying.

And that's just about doing good quality work. But there's another sense of good work, and this problem is present with that, too.

Early in my career, I decided that I wanted to do work worth doing. I was prepared to do pointless work for a paycheque, if necessary, but I was going to do work worth doing as much as I could ... and I was going to refuse to do work that made the world worse. Also off the table for me was the thing better than work worth doing, work that is important. (Me designing a better interfaces for computer network hardware is worth doing; a firefighter rescuing a child from a burning building is important.) I had looked around at the world and realized that in general, important work is very, very hard to get; many people devote their lives to pursuing important work, make great personal sacrifices in its name, and count themselves lucky to have gotten just one bite at the apple. And I just wasn't prepared to do that. That choice has been weighing on my middle-aged mind a lot lately. But not as much as the fact that I had to make the choice that way.

This is something seriously wrong with society.

I'm thinking of this because of a silly pop culture thing. I learned from twitter that someone uploaded to YouTube the lost pilot for the TV adaptation of Warren Ellis' comic book series Global Frequency. (Update: The upload that prompted this post is long gone, but it seems to keep popping back up.) The conceit of the comic and show is that there's a secret organization which recruits people who are really good at things — all kinds of random things — and gives them a special phone, so that when an emergency comes up that calls for their weird, obscure skill, they get a call and get to use their deep knowledge of, say, cabaret music of the 1920s that one time when it can literally be a life-saver.

The show didn't get picked up. I have showrunner John Rogers (who wound up doing another show about the fantasy of super-competent people running around Doing Good) talking about a memorable part of making the pilot.

There's a sequence in the show, when Aleph gets everyone on the Frequency, and they figure out what the problem is. All these citizen-experts, pitching in to save strangers' lives. To get a good feel for the timing, all the actors were kind enough to show up on that shoot night (Aimee shot separately) at 3 am and do their parts LIVE. So it played out, just like on the show -- the call went out, people responded, voices chiming in, all in one, long flawless take ... like it was actually happening.

It was incredible, one of those alchemical moments were it stopped being television, stopped being a performance, and actually took us to another world.

Nelson calls “cut”. I step into the set, basically this glorified warehouse, and realize that there's a weird silence. Cast and crew are spooked. Some people are tearing up, I actually hear a little sniffling. I turn to one of the show staff and say “Hey, you okay? What's wrong?”

And she bursts into tears. “I was just ... what if it were real? Wouldn't it be beautiful if people could really ...” And she fades out, wipes her eyes. Whispers: “It would just be so amazing if it were real.”

That's right. For two glorious minutes in a waterfront shed in Vancouver, the Global Frequency was real. And it destroyed people. For just the chance at that, I'm glad I tried.

The scene comes about eighteen minutes into the show. Yeah, the show is a little hokey, but check it out and tell me it doesn't make you wish your phone would ring and give you a voice whispering in your ear, “you're on the Global Frequency.”

What is wrong with us that these are only our fantasies?

Update: Warner Brothers found out about the video and had YouTube take it down. Because if you own something that people love, it's a good idea to make sure that they have no way to access it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Love it, Jonathan! The Global Frequency pilot is on the torrents, Thank Thor! http://kat.ph/global-frequency-an-unaired-tv-series-2004-t1146800.html