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The Time to Change
How does work change when we give ourselves the necessary time instead of treating everything like an emergency? Plus, ideas from Jordan Maney & Joanna L. Cea
Today's work exists within narrow slices of time.
Corporations are always working toward the next quarterly report or earnings call. Teams work in "sprints" to stay "agile" and responsive to changing business needs. Attorneys track their time to the tenth of an hour. Delivery drivers speed from one gig to the next. Productivity tracking software allows managers to surveil their team members to make sure every minute is being used efficiently.
But let's be real: good things take time. And generally, lots of it.
In The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz, we get a glimpse of how a massive time scale can alter work and its priorities.
The Terraformers takes place over 1,000 years—more than 50,000 years in the future. The story is divided into 3 parts and details different crises in the development of a planet being terraformed and sold off by a private corporation named Verdance. Terraforming is a process common to speculative fiction that involves making a (usually) unoccupied planet into a more Earth-like environment that can sustain human life.
The planet in The Terraformers is called Sask-E. It's privately owned by Verdance, but the project manager decided to invite the Environmental Rescue Team to participate in the project. The Environmental Rescue Team, or ERT, is a sort of ecological watchdog group. They're tasked with ensuring that the terraformed planet and its inhabitants stay in balance as the process unfolds. Throughout the first third of the story, we get gems from the ERT Handbook, such as:
A successful community requires thoughtful participation, hard work, and a healthy appreciation for the absurd.
When in doubt, don’t kill anyone.
The humans in The Terraformers are "decanted" as the property of the corporation and live for hundreds of years. Some are decanted as more or less recognizable homo sapiens. Others are decanted in specially engineered bodies designed for particular jobs. And still others are decanted as living, sentient vehicles.
Over the course of the novel, we see Sask-E evolve. We also see social and political evolution among the human and non-human people who live on the planet.
For instance, in Part II, we meet a team of four workers, two human and two non-human people. These workers must finalize plans for a continent-wide public transit system, including securing approval from various city leaders, getting production started on vehicles for said transit system, and conducting an environmental impact analysis for all of it. And their time frame? Just two months.
One of the workers, named Sulfur, is incredulous at these tasks and their deadlines. They say, "I don’t care how fast you are, there’s no way to do all that unless you are going to dedicate more people to it.”
There's explicit tension between the profit motives of Verdance and the planetary motives shared by the workers.
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Profit needs work done fast. But planets exist on their own time—even terraformed ones.
Without spoiling too much, the story of the transit system culminates with some light political subterfuge to circumvent the half-measures that served corporate profit. Verdance's preferred system would have met short-term needs but deteriorated quickly. The system the workers come up with takes long-term needs into account. Ultimately, they achieve the goal of a socially and ecologically just transit system.
In an episode of Our Opinions are Correct, the podcast that Newitz co-hosts with fellow author Charlie Jane Anders, Newitz explains that it was important to them to foreground labor in The Terraformers.
We don't think about the people very often who maintain our streets, who grow and pick our food, who are building our houses, painting our houses, building freeways, driving buses, all of the people who actually make everything run. Those people are kind of terraformers. They’re the ones who make sure that you don't fall into a pothole and that your forest doesn't burn down and consume your house. And so those are the terraformers in my novel, those people. And part of what this book is about is a very long revolution against property owners. It takes a long time.
It takes a long time to challenge long-held assumptions about who is worthy of freedom, who deserves to have their needs met, and who gets to reap the rewards of others' work.
Ecological justice is, of course, a key theme in The Terraformers. But so is social justice. As the novel's 1,000-year trajectory plays out, more and more lifeforms are recognized as people and welcomed into the social fabric of the world. There are all different forms of humans and animals, but also a fleet of sentient drilling vehicles, colonies of earthworms, and autonomous intelligent flying trains.
Social justice takes time, too. Even when it feels like an emergency.
Exiting the Chronic Care Cycle
Social media created a vector for raising awareness of injustice. Through Instagram posts and YouTube videos, more people are exposed to news and analysis that make structural oppression clear. Before social media, that kind of awareness was largely fostered through organizing. People learned about or discussed injustice with others in an environment geared toward substantive change. Today, though, we're often exposed to a firehose of information with little context, no community care, and few options for making change.
Given that media environment, our sense of urgency and panic mounts. Everything feels like an emergency that we want to solve right now. And it's that reactive frenetic state that leads to what coachfrom calls the chronic care cycle. Jordan first noticed this cycle in herself and saw it crop up again and again with her clients. She says the beginning of the chronic care cycle sounds something like this: "Oh my God, we got to figure this out! I just found out this terrifying thing! We got to figure this out today. Like everybody, get on Zoom. Let's brainstorm."
Well, that certainly sounds familiar to me.
"If I could solve racism by the end of the day," she explains, "of course, I'd do that. Sure. Great. Let's check them all off the list before the end of the week. But this is a lifelong thing."
That rush to action, that urgent push to do something, anything, right now—that's not a new phenomenon. Caring people have been rushing in to right wrongs and resist injustice since, well, forever.
There are emergencies. Injustice is an emergency. But there are also emergency responders—people whose job it is to stop the bleeding, protect the vulnerable, or respond to immediate threats.
But emergencies inevitably give way to long-term work and recovery.
If we're not emergency responders—and most of us aren't—then we need to be prepared to care for and maintain change over the long haul. Now, I'm mostly talking about big social, political, and cultural issues here. But this absolutely applies on a much smaller scale, too—including in our daily work.
Most work benefits from more time. While there may (and I stress may) be times that call for moving fast and breaking things, remarkable work moves slowly. And it does so not only because you need time to do remarkable work but because remarkable work requires the worker to be rested and well-nourished, figuratively and literally.
When our deep, long-term care meets with the constant press of urgency, that's when we enter the chronic care cycle. Jordan describes the cycle in four parts: awareness, illumination, response, and despair.
Awareness begins when "you find out about something that's usually painful, incendiary—something that creates that sense of urgency in your nervous system," she explains. Once aware of the problem, you trigger your desire to act "because your empathy is boundless, and you want to do something about the fact that people are in pain."
Action often includes telling other people about the pain others are in, the injustice that's been done (or is ongoing), or the problem you've spotted. That's illumination. You post a black square on your Instagram, call up a friend, or go on a rant in your inner circle group text.
After trying to share what you've learned with others, you wait for a response—that's the third part of the cycle. What you're hoping for is others rallying to your side, someone sharing some good news, or even just validating your anger. "You're waiting for some type of response that makes you feel like your nervous system can calm down," Jordan tells me.
Unfortunately, we don't often get the response we want. "We don't get that signal that our nervous system can calm down," and our state of mind "plummets into despair," she cautions. The danger, Jordan says, is getting stuck in despair. Feeling disappointment, frustration, and even despair from time to time is normal. But getting stuck in those feelings makes it impossible to act constructively.
"Despair can really calcify into pessimism, skepticism, distress, [and] resentment," she explains.
The chronic care cycle doesn't only occur around big issues or collective trauma. You can find yourself caught in the cycle responding to things in your own work or business.
And by you, I mean me. I can find myself caught in the cycle.
"It's very similar when it's not some big collective thing," she tells me. "When it's up close and personal, it can be even sharper." Again, it might feel like you have to tell everyone about what you learned (or what you did wrong). You might feel like you have to upend your business or quit altogether. So what can you do instead?
Change the focus.
Jordan tells me that she focuses on the mantra, "When they go low, we go local." That means that instead of trying to fix an industry-wide or global problem, focus on what's right in front of you. How could you plug into what's happening in your community or even your corner of the internet?
This brings The Terraformers back to mind for me. Part of the world that Newitz created is this hyper-capitalist approach to planetary exploration and expansion. Remember that Sask-E is owned by Verdance. Everything on the planet is the corporation's property. One might imagine a novel that tells the story of a great uprising—a rebellion against evil corporate overlords that changes the whole galaxy. But that's not the novel Newitz wrote.
The ERT rangers and many others on the ground don't like their relationship to Verdance. They don't like the market-oriented decisions that get made about ecological development. But Verdance isn't the villain of the story.
The story takes place in the local inflection points where real change can be affected. Sure, "local" in this case is planetary scale. Nonetheless, the story's characters are working slowly and methodically to make life better for the people—human and non-human alike—who share the same air they do.
We can use this same "go local" shift in focus at work and in business, too.
Most people don't have the power to directly influence the trajectory of their industry or even their organization. But frontline workers, managers, and small business owners all have a sphere of influence they can focus on making better for themselves and those around them.
You can't change the way capital flows through social media companies or the moderation standards that platforms use (or don't use). But you can make decisions about how or if you'll use social media.
You can't change the way the market values (or doesn't value) certain kinds of work. But you can choose to pay people who do that work more and openly acknowledge the value of that work.
You probably can't change the way your large corporate employer trains new hires. But you can take some extra time to mentor and develop newer members of your team.
Along with going local, it's critical to realize that you don't have to be in charge of making change happen. Lots of people and organizations are already doing the work.
That's not to say that new issues don't come up and new needs don't present themselves. But 99% of the time, there is an existing movement for change that you can plug into. "On your own," explains Jordan, "you could probably do something pretty cool for a short amount of time. But at some point, you really have to tie into the community." Generally speaking, the more sustainable approach to change-making is working with others. And that requires learning who is already doing the work and asking how you can help.
"We shouldn't want martyrs," she cautions. "I don't think that this cycle of process and advocacy is calling for that. I think it's really calling for us to be hyper-connected to one another and interdependent in a way that we haven't been."
And again, this includes our daily work. We aren't on the hook for figuring everything out on our own. We aren't required to dream up the end-all-be-all strategy for harm reduction when it comes to working within capitalism or even for more inclusive workplaces. We won't—and can't—solve every problem on our own. We need help—and we need time.
Having identified the chronic care cycle, Jordan proposes that we let it evolve.
We can crack open the cycle at the point of illumination, get some perspective, and make a strategy of care. Instead of waiting for an "all clear" response to our nervous systems and spiraling into despair when it doesn't come, we can proactively work toward gaining perspective. Once we have perspective, we can craft a strategy for long-term impact.
"Our approach to a lot of this has been very all-or-nothing and very led by urgency," she tells me. Gaining perspective means acknowledging your capacity, taking stock of your skills, and figuring out how to connect with others who are working for change. Trying to squeeze yourself into a set course of emergency action might seem like the best thing to do—"but then your impact usually sucks."
"Let's make a strategy of care. Let's make a strategy of advocacy that's sustainable," encourages Jordan. And often, that requires stepping out of the spotlight. Take the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. "There are so many people behind the [famous] faces that contribute, come with strategy, and come up with ideas," she observes. They're the "hands and feet" of the movement.
And while the civil rights movement and your daily work are, obviously, very different, there's a lesson for work and business here, too. At the same time the internet has exposed many people to issues of injustice for the first time, it's also changed the calculus around how we think we should present ourselves to the world. There are far fewer material rewards for taking a "hands and feet" approach to working on the internet than there are for being a "face." But if we only conceive of right action in terms of public presentation, we're going to fall on our faces again and again.
"If you center center your impact on ego, that's not really impact. That's not really care," Jordan observes. "That's something else."
Trust There Is Time
Think for a moment about whatever project you're working on right now. Maybe you're putting together a big report for a client. Or you're preparing to run a workshop at the company retreat. Or you're overhauling your website.
What's your deadline for this project? When are you supposed to have it done?
Alright, now imagine you had twice that long. Even three times that long.
How would the work change? Sure, the pace would probably slow down. But what changes would you make to the project itself? What would you do better or more thoroughly? Who else would you involve? What parts of the process might you linger on?
Of course, it's one thing to say "trust there's time" or "remarkable work takes time." It's another to actually practice it. "How do we trust there is time," Joanna acknowledges, "when we're in this context right now where we're all starving for enough time?" People are working multiple jobs, hustling to make ends meet, and wrestling with real urgency in their lives. And at the same time, the world and its "loveless economy" is full of a "generalized sense of urgency."
In Beloved Economies, Joanna and Jess point to 3 ways to practice trusting that there is time. These aren't the only ways to put your trust in enough time! But there are a few good places to start.
The first is "honoring people's time constraints and real urgency." Trusting that there's enough time doesn't mean monopolizing other people's time or downplaying the urgency they feel. Everyone has different demands on their time and feels the insistence of their needs in unique ways.
The second is "pointing out that varied approaches to time exist." The kind of timekeeping that prioritizes productivity and efficiency is only one—quite limited—way of understanding time. Outside of capitalism-controlled spaces, we all experience the malleability of time. We experience embodied time or seasonal time rather than clock time.
And the third is "prioritizing the fundamentals." In this case, the fundamentals are all the things we wish were part of work or business but never seem to have time for: nurturing collaborative relationships, listening to stakeholders, sharing decision-making power, etc... Prioritizing the fundamentals means including these components of the work on the timeline as necessities. They're not nice-to-haves, they're essential. We can trust that there's time if we insist that we make time for doing things well.
Joanna adds that, often, making the time for work that "prioritizes relationship, reckons with history, and sources from multiple ways of knowing" ends up getting to positive outcomes in less time than trying forge ahead with the status quo.
The Time for Change
The Parable of the Sower starts with these words—a brief quote of Earthseed scripture:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
God Is Change.
Part of the teaching of Earthseed, the religion that the protagonist founds, is that we can shape Change. And key to shaping Change is recognizing that every action or non-action results in something. By thinking beyond our next action to consider the Change we might catalyze, we can intentionally shape Change and, with it, the future.
To get along with God,
Consider the consequences of your behavior.
Urgency makes it impossible to consider the consequences of our behavior.
Those unforeseen consequences end up causing more urgency.
Considering consequences requires wrestling with time. Few actions have truly immediate consequences. But over time? Consequences may not make themselves known for a year, a decade, or even a century or more—which is not to say that we can't consider the potential consequences of our actions.
Octavia Butler gives us this more direct guidance on predicting the future:
Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today.
When it comes to work, we're living the consequences of policy and business decisions made in the 1970s and 80s. If we make similar (or worse) decisions today, we can be assured that the consequences 40 years from now will be the same or worse.
Today, I can choose to do what "future me" will thank "today me" for. I can look beyond the particular circumstances of the present to consider the consequences of any choice I may make. I can think long-term to direct my life, business, or community toward balance, justice, and care.
All of the books I mention in this series are in the Strange New Work Bookshop list.