Early this year, while taking a mini-sabbatical to assess where I’ve been and where I want to go, I prioritized spending my time around people and in environments in which I thought I could be inspired. People who were out there doing things, and more importantly, doing things that they wanted to be doing, creating their own conditions for life and work and everything in between.
In my curiosity about what could be next for me, and how I might go about initiating some of my own projects, I did things like attend whatever free SXSW events for non badge holders that I could, had informal networking hangouts with friends of friends, listened to a ton of Tony Robbins — online and live, went to a life-changing retreat for change makers, and had hundreds of hours of conversation with my dearest friends and family.
Naturally, the anthropologist in me was curious about the lives and experiences of some of the people I was meeting. I began to notice that I was drawn to the people and the stories that resonated with prior research I had done for Saatchi’s luxury brand agency — Team One. My participants in both Singapore and Los Angeles had many things in common, but the one that stood out to me the most was that they were creators. Private social clubs, a coworking brand, a literacy non-profit, a community for like-minded lawyers, and a training gym brand were among some of the entities they had created. They had visions for an atypical life for themselves and an alternative reality for the world more broadly, and they were in the process of bringing those visions to fruition.
The people that I started to meet rather serendipitously this spring shared similar aspirations to my previous participants. I began thinking about how many of my new contacts were not tethered to “traditional” career paths or conventional employment. In fact, many of them were enacting their own definitions of work and career. In the words of my brilliant friend Jackie, some of these people are the future of work. They are on the cusp of something that we can’t quite identify, let alone articulate, and, I’m curious about that cusp.
Last week, I took my first real exploratory dive into the field. It was both invigorating and terrifying. After a serendipitous encounter in a shared Lyft ride in New York City about 6 weeks ago, I accepted an invitation to fly out to San Francisco to get a taste of the life and work of a tech founder, which provided the perfect opportunity to start exploring the direction I may go. This wasn’t an interview though, this experience harkened back to the fieldwork of old— utter and complete immersion—I stayed in his home, accompanied him while he took his daughters to school, became the private jungle gym and co-cookie-baker for those daughters, listened in on phone calls and business meetings, and shared meals and wine with he and his co-founder. It was glorious, and it was exhausting. Halfway through my trip, his co-founder invited me to spontaneously accompany her to Austin for two days— there was a space conference she wanted to attend, it was free for women, and she already had the Air Bnb booked, all I had to do was say yes.
So I said yes.
The following 2.5 days were a beautiful hurricane. We flew to Austin, slept a few hours, and then took the conference and the city by storm. What’s more, I got a front row seat to my participant’s life — her joy, her sorrow, her history, her aspirations, her work, her sociality, her communication. I experienced how she interacted with people, and how they viewed (and worshipped) her. She is a force, and I was in awe. I was also incredibly inspired for my research. All kinds of concepts started emerging for me, most of them related to the social dimensions of being an entrepreneur or founder and notions of possibility, interesting-ness, and speculative futures. The whole experience was shrouded in magic and serendipity, and I feel compelled to pursue it.
But how does one design a research project for this level of magic and serendipity? And what is the point? Who is going to care about what I could learn and what I might have to say at the end of it all?
In academia, and potentially even in the applied research world, most of us are afraid to admit that we don’t know what to do next. Up to this point, my research has had clear business objectives: get a degree so that I can become employable, help an advertising agency communicate value to their clients more effectively, assist a hospital in designing alternative care models for particular patient populations, establish foundational knowledge on workplace connection. Super. Clear.
But at this point in the research, it doesn’t feel clear to me. And worse, I feel ill-equipped to call myself a professional anthropologist. Everyone else seems to know what they are doing, or how exactly to design their research, or what business angle their research may have. Yet, I’m putting my feeling of ineptitude in black and white because if you read my first post, I’m committed to demonstrating that I don’t have it all together, and that my work and interests are truly in progress.
For now, I plan to do the only things I know how to do: read, write, reflect, be honest about where I am, ask for help (the hardest task of all!), more reading, more reflecting, more existing in the mess. Though I know all the work I have ever accomplished or been proud of has had multiple phases of impossible-to-see-through mess, it is easy to doubt my ability to figure it out. I have no inspirational truism to end this post with, so I’ll just say this — I suppose the only thing there is to do is to keep engaging with the mess, with the endless becoming of ourselves and our work, trusting that if we just keep going, we will eventually find our way.