Workhorses, Catalysts, and Visionaries

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This image has really nothing to do with this essay. It’s a file of a recent photogrammetry experiment I did at CoMotion Labs. These shards of images can be stitched together to create a 3D image of my face, and of my obviously plaid shirt.

I have a theory that there are three types of workers in any enterprise—workhorses, catalysts, and visionaries. I’ve spent most of my career as a workhorse and it occurred to me recently that I’m evolving into a catalyst.

The bulk of my workhorse years happened between 1998 and 2011. My first corporate job was as a customer service representative for Amazon when they just sold books. I was twenty-six years old and had energy to burn. I started by working the 2pm-11pm shift then went to fifty hours a week and barely broke a sweat. In my spare time I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree via a low-residency creative writing program, which had me reading one difficult novel, usually in translation, per week, as well as producing a hundred pages or so of my own prose a month.

By 2009, the peak of my workhorse years, I was working a 40-hour week editorial job at Expedia, and teaching creative writing for an MFA program, and writing movie synopses for Netflix, and managing the care of two children under the age of seven. Oh, and writing my novel Blueprints of the Afterlife. I pulled it off by exploiting down times in each work situation—I used vacation time to teach at creative writing residencies, wrote Netflix synopses when my kids were napping, and worked on my novel during lunch and during slow periods at Expedia. I also got up earlier and went to bed later.

My workhorse years were also my most tumultuous, career-wise. I lost three jobs, wrote three books, fathered two children. Losing jobs was unpleasant, but in hindsight those disruptions allowed me to concentrate on my fiction in periods of unemployment and gave me a much richer variety of experiences in tech, the arts, and academia than if I had stuck with the same job for a decade. When I look back now, the thought of showing up every day at the same job I had in 2001 makes me shudder.

By taking on as much responsibility as they can themselves, workhorses put themselves in a position to learn a lot, and quickly. Catalysts, on the other hand, are those whose medium is the talent and potential of other people.

In 2013 I started a project to get Seattle designated a UNESCO City of Literature (a venture that ultimately failed in a spectacular and ridiculous fashion, and which really deserves its own essay, if not a book.) One of the reasons the project failed was that I was approaching it as a workhorse while attempting to occupy the role of catalyst. I took too much of the responsibility on myself and didn’t delegate nearly enough. This caused some people to resent me, shut other people out, and led to the whole thing collapsing.

Being a catalyst means trusting other people. Catalysts have faith in the people they gather around a project. They provide them some guidelines and encouragement. Then, if they’re emotionally mature, they empower their crew to make decisions and let them take the lion’s share of the credit.

I recently launched the virtual reality content production company Starbird Reality, and I’m trying to be mindful to approach the work as a catalyst. In order for my venture to work, I have to bring people on board who have expertise in areas in which I’m largely ignorant. It behooves me to trust and encourage them and understand that what we can create together is far superior to what I can envision alone.

Visionaries are those who can articulate ideas that inspire catalysts. A visionary must trust that his or her ideas are strong enough to withstand the messiness of operating as evolved primates in social groups. To be a visionary is to place one’s faith in the conceptual, rather than the tangible. While a catalyst motivates directly, a true visionary can motivate people via his or her ideas alone.

One example is the story of how Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his ouster in the 1980s. When Jobs came back to the company he founded, he discovered a team, led by Jony Ive, that had carried his high design standards forward. A visionary’s ideas can lead people even when the visionary is no longer present.

Seems to me that certain business problems arise because members of a team don’t understanding what role they inhabit and how that role is supposed to operate. Micro-managers are workhorses who occupy catalyst positions. The “too many cooks” phenomenon happens when too many people mistake themselves for catalysts. And venture capitalists lose big when they mistake workhorses for visionaries.

I work alongside a lot of workhorses. I see how many hours these people pour into their projects and I can’t help but feel jealous. Damn, if only I had that kind of capacity. But I’ve also gotten better at figuring out what people are best at and what’s most rewarding to them, which 99% of the time is the same thing. I’m learning to better understand what motivates people, and have come to measure success by how much those around me are fulfilled by the nature of their work itself.

The irony of this progression, from workhorse to catalyst to visionary, is that each step requires relinquishing control. Taking the step from workhorse to visionary means you have to cultivate faith in other people, and taking the step from catalyst to visionary means you have to cultivate faith in ideas. If you step back and look at our society, you start to see that we are governed by the ideas of visionaries, many long-dead. These ideas are what give our work meaning.

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