This advice has no basis in anything but intuition but as this recession is deepening and more and more of my friends are facing the prospect of un or underemployment, I have one piece of advice: Figure out as much as possible about how one thing is produced. The actual details don’t matter so much, what’s important is to gain the holistic, birds eye view of the entire production process.
What do I mean by the entire production process? I mean try and look at everything. If it’s a physical product, figure out where it’s manufactured & what the manufacturing process is. Figure out the logistics of shipping it from the factory to the store. Figure out how vendors relations and the sales process works. Figure out the task of marketing, what are the various channels it’s marketed through. Figure out the corporate philosophy, both as it’s stated and as it’s applied on the ground and understand the impact that this has on the final product. Figure out the R&D stage and how the idea for it was shaped. Figure out all the design constraints and internal politics that lead to in looking like it’s final form. Figure out the legal landscape that it lies in. Figure out it’s competitive market and how it’s situated in the context of similar products. Figure out how the users think and feel about it, what narratives they’ve built up around it and if there’s a culture around this product. Figure out how the social mores of different cultures and socioeconomic classes play into differing amounts of acceptance for this product. Figure out how the internal accounting rules work and how that impacts the budgets for various departments. In short, just go exploring.
The choice of product is largely irrelevant, what I think is important is to see the diversity of effort that needs to happen for something to be produced, the complex web of connections that constitutes a modern economy. What’s more, it forces you to step outside of the box of abstractions and deal with real, concrete scenarios in all thier glorious messiness. But focus on one product and one product only so that you achieve another limited, but far more useful form of blindness. Of course, even with the tightest scoping possible, you’re still looking at a lifetime of work so it’s up to you to define you’re own personal stopping criteria but I can say for myself I’m nowhere near to stopping. Each step leads to a new step to explore, it adds another hundred things to my already massive to-understand list. Someday, I’ll assume I’ll stop breathing and that’s the day I’ll stop doing this.
What’s the benifit of this? It’s hard to express to someone who hasn’t already done it. Figuring out the entire process gives you perspective and context. It situates your own tiny role within a larger context. I know a lot of bright, enthusiastic, dedicated people who are leaving school and the thing that most frustrates me about them is that they just don’t *understand*. They’ve been trained within their particular discipline and culture for their entire schooling career and they’ve lost the ability to see the forest for the trees. What’s more, it’s given me a certain peace and groundedness. The modern economy is abstractions piled upon abstractions. There’s something viscerally solid about understanding an entire process. Before doing this, I felt like I was floating in a sea of clouds designed to insulate and protect me. Those clouds were great but there was something insubstantial about the entire thing. Now, with the feeling of at least one foot on secure, stable ground, I feel more confident in pushing my head much further into the clouds and maybe that’s the most important reason of all.