Who are you? Your answer to that question will shape what you do and feel on a daily basis. We each have a unique personal identity, but underneath that are layers of identities that help us to connect with others based on communities, values and interests. These layers are undergoing profound and long-term shifts that will have profound impact in our personal and professional lives.
A few months ago, I wrote a manifesto for passionate creatives. In a later post, I explored what I meant by passion. I chose “creative” because I believe that this identity will become increasingly widespread. In fact, I believe we are in the early stages of a significant shift in identity from “consumer” to “networked creator.”
20th century identities
In the 20th century we witnessed a deep split in our professional and personal identities. The quest for scalable efficiency in all of our institutions required us to conform to highly standardized organizational routines. To do this, we had to sacrifice much of our individuality, which was compartmentalized into “after hours” time. While passions in this domain were certainly acceptable, we were increasingly encouraged to seek status and expression through consumption. Scalable efficiency required mass markets. Mass marketing programs were all geared to reinforcing the message that our identity depended on a large home, a big car, lots of state of the art appliances and stylish clothing that changed with each new fashion season.
As a result, identity in the 20th century increasingly took two different forms – we were company men (and as the century progressed, company women) and consumers. Since the professional identity offered little room for individual expression, we poured much of our energy into expressing individuality through our consumption – perhaps a sportier car or a fancier dress. Our status hinged on our ability to consume.
The big shift in identities
That is all changing now – our identities are shifting in ways that we are only beginning to understand. All around us, we see people engaging in creation of various forms, sharing these creations and deriving satisfaction, meaning and status from these activities. Whether we look at the resurgence of crafts and hot rod cars, the rise of the “maker” movement, body hacking, social media or open source software, we find people who are investing more and more time and energy in the creation of things they are passionate about.
What is behind this shift? Well, it is all part of the Big Shift. It is emerging because we face unprecedented opportunity and unparalleled pressure.
Pursuing opportunities. Let’s look at the opportunity side first. The tools of creation are being democratized. Rather than remaining the province of the very wealthy, these tools are increasingly within the reach of far more people around the world. Much of this is driven by the rise and dissemination of the digital technology infrastructure on a global basis. This certainly has been central to the proliferation of user generated media, whether it is video, music, photography or text. But there are other design and production tools emerging – more affordable 3D printers for example, that give us the ability to “print” all kinds of physical objects, ranging from ceramic art objects to architectural models. On another front, more sophisticated scientific tools ranging from powerful telescopes to advanced electron microscopes are becoming accessible on a shared basis to anyone with a passion for discovery.
As important as the tools of creation are, the tools of sharing may be even more central. Digital infrastructures give us the opportunity to connect with others who share our interests, no matter how obscure or marginal they might be. This capacity for connection matters on many levels. First, we can derive encouragement for our efforts. We can learn from others who may be more skillful than we are, both watching what they produce and having their feedback on what we produce. In growing arenas, we can watch how others use our creations and gain insight into what works and what doesn’t work. We can create things that others build on and enhance, so that we collaboratively create new works that can then be shared with others.
But these are just tools and platforms. They help us to give voice to what is inside of us. We were born with passion but, over time, this passion was gradually suppressed as we learned that the institutions we spent most of our time in, starting with schools, viewed passion as somewhat suspect at best and deeply dangerous at worst. Sure, we were offered an outlet for our passion outside the institutions we studied and worked in, but even there we were encouraged to channel our passion into purchases. Passion for food meant going to the finest restaurants, passion for clothing meant buying the latest and most expensive styles, passion for automobiles meant buying the most powerful and exclusive sports car models.
The problem was that this outlet for passion rarely satisfied. The more we bought, the less satisfied we became. Many of us felt a deep seated need to achieve our potential, not by buying even more, but by discovering and developing our unique talents. We could apply these talents to creative activity that could then be shared with others. For some of us, the creations will be physical objects like crafts, robots or new ways to harness renewable energy. For others, it will be practices like the extreme sports enthusiasts who work together to push performance envelopes. And for many, it will be ideas that generate debates and coalesce communities of interest.
This creative activity would help us to express our unique individuality rather than simply showcasing the mass produced designs of others. The new tools and platforms provided us with ways to re-connect with the passion many of us lost from our youth and gave it new forms of expression as we sharpened the talent that many of us never even knew we had.
As our passions drive us to connect with others sharing our passion, we discover a powerful reinforcing loop that begins to play out. The relationships that we build pull us into creating and sharing even more. Relationships thrive on reciprocity. As we become the recipients of the creations of others, we feel a desire to create for them as well. The more we create and share, the more we draw out creations from others and the cycle begins to repeat. Our identity becomes increasingly associated with what we have created but also what has been adopted and used by others that we care about.
As we slowly began to re-connect with our passion and connect more broadly with others who shared our passion for creation, many of us began to take the next step. Rather than simply pursuing our passion as a hobby, we felt a growing need to make our passion our profession. We simply could not compartmentalize our lives any more – our passion would not tolerate it. While institutions had a hard time accommodating this passion, we found that we could strike out on our own and once again leverage digital infrastructures to build revenue generating businesses based on the creations driven by our passion. This began during prosperous times, but became even more pronounced in the current economic downturn. Many found themselves without a job and decided that this was a good time to make their passion their profession.
These trends have not played out evenly across the world. Perhaps the group most immediately experiencing this passion to create is the younger generation just coming out of college or, in a growing number of cases, bypassing college entirely. They are the ones most comfortable with the digital infrastructures that can enable and amplify this passion. Gaming and other online habitats nurtured a questing disposition that gave them the confidence to explore their passion and talent outside the confines of traditional institutional boundaries. This questing disposition among the younger generation becomes particularly strong in developing economies like China and India where youth have a strong desire to seize upon the opportunities for talent development and growth that digital infrastructures offer.
At the other end of the spectrum, many of the developed economies confront a rapidly aging population that is likely to live far longer than any previous generations. This older generation in many cases has achieved a degree of affluence where the continued accumulation of consumer goods has diminishing appeal. They are seeking more meaning in their lives and are hungry for an opportunity to discover, or re-connect with, passions that can define the next phase of their lives. Unexpectedly, this older generation is the most rapidly growing segment of users embracing the digital infrastructure.
Responding to pressure. These are the opportunities drawing more and more of us into networked creation activity that increasingly shapes our identity. But there’s another set of forces shaping this new identity as well. We are all under increasing pressure as a result of the Big Shift. No matter how talented we are, we now find that we face competition from talent across the world. And much of that talent is developing rapidly, driven by the opportunities described earlier. The result for all of us is increasing stress as we wrestle with growing demands on our time and attention.
This pressure and stress calls into question our choice to split our professional identity and our personal identity as consumers. We have long since learned that our employers are only as loyal to us as the latest quarterly financial results. We run the risk of being let go as soon as financial pressures begin to mount. Anyone who cultivates a professional identity as a company man or company woman runs a growing risk of having that identity shredded in very short order.
At the same time, we find it harder and harder to deal with the mounting pressure in our work. Our recent Shift Index revealed that very few employees are passionate about their work. We were conditioned from a very early age not to seek passion in our profession, but rather to view it as a paycheck that allowed us to pursue our passions in our spare time. The problem is that, without passion, we have a hard time coping with growing pressure. We have a much higher risk of burning out or becoming marginalized as we find it harder and harder to keep up. Our traditional identities of company man (woman) and consumer become more challenging to maintain.
The only way we will be able to cope with the mounting pressure is by making our passion our profession. As this happens, we will find ourselves driven to create and to connect with others who share our passion for creation. As discussed earlier, this will drive the definition of a new identity – the networked creator – which integrates at last our professional and personal identities into one primary source of meaning and fulfillment. This new identity will help us to drive the development of our talent as we begin to recognize that participation in diverse knowledge flows will help us enrich our creativity and that sharing our creations with others will accelerate our learning. It will provide us with a solid foundation to turn stress into stimulus as we begin to see and embrace new challenges as an opportunity to pursue our passion and more effectively achieve our potential.