The Maasai could teach us a thing or two about how to approach our working future.
Early morning and we are walking with a Maasai warrior to the top of a hill overlooking the Maasai Mara. The air is still cool and before us golden brown savannah stretches far into the distance. My teenage son’s eyes are being opened to a world beyond his bedroom, his phone and his friends. Instead we are in a wide-open space where lions prowl and men carry spears. Gazing out, we’re struck by how our technology-ridden and over-scheduled lives have distracted us from what is really important.
Suddenly the silence is broken by a muffled tone. It grows louder, more insistent. Our guide reacts instinctively. Reaching, without hesitation, into the folds of his traditional red Shuka and swiftly drawing out………his mobile phone.
Perhaps our lives are not so very different after all.
The short conversation that follows is as animated as you’d expect from any 23 year-old chatting on the phone. After hanging up he explains his younger brother rang to say that he’d just found green grass for the family’s goats to graze on.
I’m still reflecting on that trip with my son and how I wanted him to see Africa and witness a way of life very different to his own. Of course Maasai culture, like all cultures has many shortcomings and flaws and I’m not proposing it as an ideal. But standing on that hilltop made me think that the Maasai could teach us a thing or two about how to approach our working future.
The Maasai are traditionally herdsmen. Cattle are at the centre of everything they do. They spend long hours tending livestock and can recognize each of their cows by its colour and shape. If you need to know something about cattle you’d be hard pressed to find someone more knowledgeable than a Maasai. Their kind of specialised expertise – mastery - is what we all need to cultivate.
Historically we’ve been advised to be generalists in the workplace. That’s an outdated model. Today if we need an overview of something we’ll consult Google or Wikipedia. As individuals we need to master particular skills or gain in-depth knowledge. We need to become hyperspecialists.
Pick something you are passionate about and concentrate on doing it well. If you can find two things that you want to do then so much the better. Focus, research and hard work will make what you can offer difficult to imitate and valuable.
During your working life you can expect to have a portfolio of careers. Don’t spend too much time thinking about how to manage your next career transition, begin doing it. Identify those tasks that absorb you and make you lose track of time. Then find ways of doing them more often. Start now.
Our Maasai guide spent day after day caring for his family’s cattle. This work was at the centre of everything he did. It was literally life sustaining - milk and meat from the livestock constituted most of his family’s diet. There was no separation - work was life and life was work.
Many of us in the UK will live to 100 (shockingly, that’s twice the age expectancy of a Maasai). If we’re going to be working until our mid-seventies then work is going be at the centre of our lives for a very, very long time.
This is a marathon not a sprint.
With such a dramatic increase in our working years we need to think about what we want to achieve and then craft a future that is materially, physically and emotionally satisfying.
Many people think, “I work to earn money to buy stuff that makes me happy.” But does it? After a certain level there is little correlation between income and happiness. Of course everyone needs a certain amount of money and I’m not suggesting that being poor will make you happy - but neither will consumption.
We need to shift our thinking so that work is not just financially rewarding but is also a source of creativity and happiness. Of course work needs to produce tangible assets like a salary but it also needs to yield intangible benefits – interest, inspiration and potential for development1.
We may not be roaming African plains like the Maasai but all too often we experience isolation of some kind. Despite their bustle and noise, the cities where many of us live and work often make us feel alone, a feeling that’s exacerbated if we’ve moved away from family and friends. Today’s more flexible work practices give freedom but also create isolation. In 2015 it was estimated that almost 1 in 7 people in the UK were regularly working from home rather than in a shared office2. That’s 4.2 million of us sitting on our own.
Except that we aren’t.
A beep signalling the arrival of a text message or email is often an unwelcome interruption and claim on our time. The flipside is that the same technology that fragments our lives is also a tool for extraordinary co-creation. By connecting to people with different skills and experiences, sharing thoughts and solving problems together we gain creative insights and see possibilities for innovation. The ringtone from our Maasai guide’s mobile phone may have interrupted my rose-coloured reverie but it also alerted him to the location of good grazing land.
Historically in the workplace we’ve been taught to compete with each other. Now we need to build value through cooperation and collaboration. It’s the difference between fighting over the largest slice of cake and making the whole cake – and therefore everyone’s slice of it – bigger.
When the Maasai run out of food and water for their cattle they pack up their homes and belongings and travel to land where it is more plentiful. They’ve adapted to the demands of the market economy by embracing entrepreneurial spirit and selling not just livestock but also beads, charcoal and grain3.
In today’s workplace we also need to be prepared to be nomads. When our business or personal needs require it, we must be flexible enough to move on, ready to morph and prepared to master different specializations.
There may be tough parts on the path ahead and the odd lion to face but there will also be exciting opportunities - and green grass for grazing.