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#13: You Have To Be A Plumber
Our corner of Twitter was recently seized with a very stupid discourse about whether we ought to Go To College, or whether we ought to Become Plumbers.
It’s a stupid discourse because a) the world is not divided between “college jobs” and “trade jobs”, b) there are obviously both kinds of people, and c) it’s not obvious that either of those options moves the ball politically.
What we’re really talking about is, “How do we get out of this mess?”
We all recognize that our country was taken from us when we weren’t looking, that the institutions our ancestors built have become indifferent or hostile to us. We’re increasingly aware that the levers of coercion that make this possible run through our jobs, so we imagine that if we all got the right jobs, we could reverse (or at least arrest) this process.
What the conversation misses is that most people’s jobs are sources of political vulnerability, but hardly any are sources of political strength. Maybe some of you have hiring authority, but you can’t protect your guys (or yourself) if you’re targeted for ideological crimes. If you’re the CEO or chief legal counsel of a major corporation, by all means don’t quit your job and become a VCR repairman — but even those guys have to be extraordinarily careful how they exercise “their” power, because it isn’t their power, it’s delegated.
Asking which careers give you the most leverage is the wrong question — almost none of them do. The question is which careers give your enemies the least leverage over you.
I’ve talked to a lot of independent, “uncancelable” guys, and the white-collar/blue-collar divide isn’t as relevant as you might think.
Some of these guys Went to College; some of them Became Plumbers. Some are wealthy, others are not. Some are in high-status professions, others are not. What distinguishes them as a class is sovereignty. They have power that is not delegated, and therefore not easily drawn back — power they can actually exercise as they see fit.
Usually, this means they own their capital. It often means they own their business, but not always — one of our guys works at a midsize corporation as a COBOL programmer, and can pretty much say and do what he wants because nobody else can do his job. When you’re a COBOL programmer they let you do it.
Another example is the Canadian trucker protest. Organized political action at that scale was only possible because so many truckers are owner-operators with leverage over their employers. They don’t own their business, but they own their capital.
(The reverse can also be true: if you are neck-deep in VC money — in other words, you “own your business” but not your capital — you can be as tightly constrained as any corporate employee.)
The reason most corporate employees are so tied to their jobs is that they’re a replaceable component of a large-scale, optimized internal process. They can’t create any value independently, so they can’t take their value with them; they don’t own it. At best, they can take some of their generalizable skills to a competitor in the same industry, running a similar internal process — but if you fit just as well in the new company’s system, then by definition very little has changed for you.
So the goal should be to find those professions that corporations haven’t been able to automate, systematize, and scale.
If the value still has to be delivered at individual, human scale, then your employer has to teach you how to deliver it yourself, so that you own the process: you can deliver it anywhere, for anyone.
At EXIT, we divide these into three broad categories: jobs that depend on social skills (i.e. sales, business development, and entrepreneurship), physical skills (trades, construction, craftsmanship), or cognitive skills (software development) that can’t currently be done by machines.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, but we have learned the right questions to ask to help people build an EXIT strategy that works for them. Next week, we’ll talk a bit more about these categories, their pros and cons, and the types of people who might choose one over the others.
If you’re ready to build some sovereignty and ownership into your professional life, apply for membership today at exitgroup.us.