World-Building a More Sustainable Work Environment
Morgan Harper Nichols realized that creating fictional worlds gave her a way to "imagine what a world could be like where I felt I belonged."
When I was a kid, I thoroughly believed that the best books started with a map.
Books that take place in the so-called "real world" don't need maps. Especially not now when I can pull up the satellite image, population, and history of any place name I'm not familiar with in an instant. Books that start with maps contain stories set in an imagined world.can pinpoint her interest in world-building to the discovery of a thrift store copy of one of the Lord of the Rings books—a book that started with a map—when she was just a little kid. "That, to me, was a pivotal moment," she recalls. While she hadn't yet learned to call what she saw world-building, she recognized the potential in that map. "This is a fiction book with a map on the inside ... so this is not a real world. But there are maps for the world. I like that ... I guess I'm making maps."
Morgan remembers her first map like it was yesterday.
As we talk, she notices her hand moving in the same way she did when she first sketched out the rivers and mountains on that map. "I was like seven or eight years old ... and I just remember how free I felt to just map that out," she reminisces.
World-building is a critical tool for speculative fiction and fantasy. And it can be a critical tool for how we imagine different ways of working, organizing our economy, and governing ourselves. Here's an example that's a bit less alien than the Lord of the Rings.
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Making the Familiar Unfamiliar
In The Years of Rice and Salt, author Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a world in which The Plague kills off the vast majority of European Christians, and neither Europe nor Christianity becomes an imperialist, hegemonic force that shapes history. The novel follows, instead, the rise of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic societies—including an eventual crossing of the Pacific to get to the west coast of a continent they call Yingzhou, where they encounter the native peoples who also become key players on the world stage.
Robinson's novel begins with a Chronology rather than a map. It's a simple timeline that identifies a few key events in Robinson's history after it departs from our own. It indicates those events using the Islamic calendar primarily—but also provides some indication of the Chinese, Christian, and Buddhist calendars.
Check out the full timeline and reimagined maps here.
The novel unfolds over nearly 1,500 years and takes place all over the globe. Each chapter begins with its own map and takes place in a different era.
In many ways, Robinson tackled an extremely challenging bit of world-building here.
He started with a simple enough question: What if the European Christian hegemony never came to dominate the world? And constructed an intricate history that explored the many ways the world would be different—and the many ways it would be the same. It's not a book that tries to argue that it would be better if Europeans had all but died out. But simply probes the question, "What if?"
What makes this world-building such a challenge is that Robinson tasked himself with constructing a mirror world—an uncanny representation of what's familiar rather than what's utterly foreign. The world Robinson builds is layered on top of the world we know—the same physics, the same geography, and even many of the same cultural and political contours.
What I find so fascinating about the use of maps in The Years of Rice and Salt is the way they encourage the reader to look at familiar shapes and see something completely different from what they're used to seeing. The reader sees what looks like the Indian subcontinent but also sees that it's labeled "the Travencori League." The reader sees what looks like the North American continent but also sees it labeled as Yingzhou. Each map is its own "What if?"
Each map reminds the reader that, even in our own world, there are different names for places and different key figures in different histories. We simply go about our days forgetting that those worlds exist.
But I've gotten ahead of myself.
All of the books I mention in this series are in the Strange New Work Bookshop list.
So, what is world-building?
"I’m most interested in character," explained award-winning speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin in a workshop for the WIRED25 conference. "However, character is informed by culture, and culture is informed by environment. In a lot of cases, to understand the character I need to understand literally everything about their world." You can find a map of the world of Jemisin’s Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth Trilogy here.
Jemisin says that a critical piece of imagining a secondary world is considering power—who has it, who doesn't, and how it's wielded.
Without paying close attention to systems of power within a culture, a world-builder is likely to reproduce the systems of power they're already familiar with:
“People go into creating a world that is not like ours with their embedded assumptions about how our world works still firmly in place, so they end up creating our world but with tentacle sharks.” (quoted in LitHub from the same workshop)
World-building is "creating the history, geography, the lore" of a fictional place, says Morgan. "What are the characters like? It's all of those rules of the world behind the scenes."
I've recently discovered that I'm often much more interested in the "rules of the world behind the scenes" than I am in the story. I absolutely relish backstory. And a novel that includes historical texts? I'm in heaven. Both The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood end with a transcript from a meeting of the Gileadean Research Association—swoon.
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For me, the story being told is a tool for learning more about the imagined world in which it takes place.
I'm drawn to understanding the culture and history of the fictional world in the same way I'm drawn to understanding religion and philosophy—what are the rules that shape this place?
It's no surprise, really. I should have seen it sooner. I approach speculative fiction in the same way I approach the quote-unquote real world. And so does Morgan, it seems.
"After I received my autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder diagnosis," Morgan tells me, "I realized that the worlds that I had been building was so much more than just a creative practice. It was a way of me being able to imagine what a world could be like where I felt I belonged." That got me wondering:
Is there something about how our autistic brains are constantly decoding the rules of the world around us that makes us especially interested in world-building? Does our own heightened awareness of social rules as "made up" help us see world-building as a tool for exercising personal agency?
"Absolutely, yes!" Morgan exclaims. As she's analyzed her life post-diagnosis, she's considered that "maybe the reason why I was so drawn to it was because I was picking up on everyone else's making up rules. So I need a space to make up rules too."
I'll be digging into the social construction of power, colonialism, and white supremacy in a couple of weeks. But suffice to say, if today's social realism makes sense to you or you're not constantly thinking about to avoid inadvertently upsetting someone, I'll echo Morgan here:
Some of these rules, y'all, they just seem a little ridiculous.
Imagining the Future of Work Must Be a World-Building Exercise
Okay, at this point, you might be wondering what world-building has to do with the future of work. And it's simple, really.
What we think of as "future of work" ideas today are most often incremental changes. They take how things are and just imagine faster computers, smarter machines, more creative artificial intelligence. These ideas largely leave in place the systems, hierarchies, and assumptions of our familiar work world.
But to truly imagine a strange new world of work, we need world-building. We need to start from scratch. We need to question all of our assumptions—and reimagine the physics, geography, culture, economics, and politics of work.
And yet, there remains that magnetic pull of capitalist realism.
Imagining things being truly different can feel damn near impossible. So I asked Morgan to walk me through how she imagines strange new worlds.
"It is a full multi-sensory experience," she explains. She often starts with things she's been pinning on Pinterest and looks for patterns. Maybe she notices that she's been attracted to a certain color or location lately.
For instance, Morgan tells me, "'Gardens' was actually one that I noticed. I was like, 'Why do I keep pinning gardens?'" So she pictured herself in a garden and took note of her surroundings. She starts with the architecture of a place—there's no story or characters yet (if ever). "I just focus on, 'Why am I being drawn to this place? And how can I bring color to this place?'" she explains.
She spends so much time visualizing and building her world that she starts to "hear the message of that place, and how I would want to feel in that place if I were there, and what I might be thinking about." That's where poetry starts to seep in—where visual art might meet written art.
Morgan says that, lately, she's realized she's been much more strategic about world-building than she thought. In fact, she's started to build a sort of wiki of her ideas in Notion. As more of a curator than a creator, I really love the idea of using Pinterest and Notion or other curation tools to construct strange new worlds of work. Or even just documenting what I need from my own strange world of work.
World-building isn't only useful when it comes to imagining how whole systems can be different—including the institution of work.
It's also useful for considering how we can create situations that better meet our needs. World-building encourages us to view the smallest details of our lives and our work as opportunities to get creative, to choose something that works better for us.
The workplace (whether in-person or virtual), as it is, caters to a particular type of personality and mode of communication—which makes it exclusionary to many people who communicate, work, or process things differently. As we talked, I noticed that Morgan seems to build her own work world to suit her unique needs and strengths. She recognizes that she can challenge herself to show up in ways that don't come naturally to her. And she knows that she's often assumed she had to do what other artists, writers, and influencers do when it comes to showing up.
But when she did, she'd wear herself out. Her physical health would suffer. Her mental health would crater. And because she was under so much stress, her finances would suffer because she couldn't do the other things she needed to do in her career. But now, Morgan structures her business around what she's best at.
What is she best at? "I'm really good at color palettes," Morgan tells me. "I'm really good at putting collections together. I'm really good at saying, 'Oh no, that sun is too orange. It needs a little bit of pink behind it.'" And I get that that might sound oddly specific—but realizing that this is what she almost always has energy for meant she could steer her work in the direction of product design and art licensing. "I can have an hour-long meeting about the shade of gold that we're going to use," she explains, but if, "you ask me to do an hour-long informal luncheon, I can't do anything else for the rest of the week."
Similarly, when Morgan is considering whether to take on a new project, she asks herself: What's in it for me? "I used to think that this kind of thinking was self," she admits. But she's realized that asking what she's getting out of a project helps her make better decisions about how she allocates her energy and attention.
Of course, what's in it for her doesn't have to be money or prestige.
It's a much more holistic assessment than that. For instance, Morgan is vice president of the board of directors for To Write Love On Her Arms, a mental health advocacy organization. What's in it for her, in that case, is actively working to further a cause she cares about.
Morgan builds her world of work to prioritize the type of projects that keep her going. She focuses on what's energizing and confidence-boosting. Not everyone has the same ability to shape their work in this way, of course. But I think more of us can think creatively about leaning into what invigorates us rather than what drains us. We can build worlds where the geography, physics, and politics regularly steer us back to the things we do best.
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"A Necessary Imagination"
Now, I know that building my own world wasn’t just about making a foundation for my art. Worldbuilding, for me, was a form of expansive hope—a necessary imagination for being alive.
— Morgan Harper Nichols, "A Necessary Imagination"
World-building is a creative practice. A meditative practice. A systemic and structural practice.
And it's also a practice we can use to think up all sorts of alternative ways forward when the usual expectations or assumptions don't work for us.
World-building is a way we can reimagine work on an institutional, cultural, or economic level. But it's also a way we can reimagine a project, a workday, or an individual task.
The key to putting world-building into practice is to practice noticing and questioning all the little things we take for granted.
This meeting is 60 minutes long? What if it was 20 minutes?
This job is for a contractor? What if it was done by a full-time employee?
The fee for this project is $500? What if it was $5000?
My workweek is 40 hours? What if it was 25?
And those are only some of the most obvious ways to apply the What Ifs. Truly, any small assumption can be questioned. Any best practice can be rewritten. Any new project can be negotiated from scratch.
Just because things are the way they've always been doesn't mean you can't make a different choice—and build a better world—today.