What Is Your Boss Buying?

Here’s a post about the sellability of various college skills:

In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications.

Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields.

Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

Now of course perhaps not every liberal arts program is in fact imparting reading and writing skills to its graduates. But that’s a problem of execution not of concept. It’s a fallacy to think that in an increasingly technology-performed society that technical skills will be the only sources of value. Computers are going to put accountants out of business long before they start hurting the earnings of talented interior decorators. The important point is that mastering a specific body of facts is not nearly as useful in 2012 as it was in 1962.

I realized the other day that most of the things my employer pays me for aren’t technical skills or expertise on particular topic areas. Most of my day is spent building relationships within and outside of my organization toward goals (fundraising, partnerships, awareness-raising, etc.) defined for me by someone else.

It sometimes feels like my employer isn’t buying a set of skills from me, but rather renting my actual personality and applying it toward its own development.

I spend most of my day listening to colleagues describe their projects, telling other colleagues about them and describing them to people outside of my organization. I write lots of e-mails notifying internal and external people of things they need to know about. I try–flailingly–to convince other people to be interested in what my organization is doing.

If I had to sum up the skills that I use at work, it would be things like listening, reading between the lines, telling a good story and being empathetic. These aren’t job skills, they’re personality traits.

Sometimes I think jobs like mine represent some kind of post-Marxian dystopia where we don’t sell our skills to the highest bidder, but our selves. If there’s no difference between your personal skills and your professional ones, what is your employer actually buying?

I still fundamentally have the power to draw a line between my work-self and my weekend-self, of course. The convergence of the two simply reflects the fact that my work addresses an issue I’m personally passionate about, as well as my own failure to develop technical skills beyond liberal-arts faffery.

But I wonder what it means, at a structural level, for employers to requisition employees to this extent. As employee marketability shifts away from skills and toward selves, what will our employers start to expect from us?

A lot’s been written in recent years about the implications of employers checking the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of their workers. Maybe our bosses aren’t monitoring us, they’re just assessing their purchase.

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