Life is short – do work that matters to you – these are the words that greet you when you arrive at Escape the City’s website, summing up perfectly what the organisation is all about. We were really excited to pick the brains of Dom Jackman, Escape’s co-founder, for our next Leaders + Disrupters blog. Dom shares with us his thoughts about the future of work, and tips for finding work you love.
What is Escape the City, and how did it come to be?
In its fundamentals, Escape the City is a community of people who believe in finding work they love. It was born from the frustration myself and my co-founder, Rob, felt when we were working as consultants. We used to work with such amazing people, who were capable of doing amazing things and having a massive impact… but we were stuck in this corporate world of Powerpoint and Excel, going to client meetings and working on projects that frankly didn’t make any difference to the world or anyone else other than a few shareholders.
It was a pretty soul-destroying experience. I did it for 6 years. It was crazy – there were a lot of people with an underlying sense of discomfort and dissatisfaction, so we thought we’d try and see if we could start a community and build something around that. No one was really talking about this sort of thing, or the people that were weren’t talking openly. Our belief was that together we could try to help solve this problem. We started off with a blog and a weekly newsletter with 10 job listings we thought people would find interesting – we got some early traction and have grown from there!
Why do you think communities like Escape have been so successful? Is it a sign of a wider societal shift?
I don’t think people’s aspiration to find fulfilling work is new, but there are a couple factors affecting how people are approaching work – one is a push against consumerism, and the other is developments in technology.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s, we lived in the era of mass consumption. For this to exist, you needed to get paid more, buy bigger houses and faster cars – status was a big thing. People were chasing happiness through those means, but we’re moving away from that now. We’re getting to the end of this unsustainable way of living, rejecting this dream of being wealthier but actually not happier. The world isn’t progressing this way, so people have started looking for other ways of living and working. I mean, I can work for myself – I might get paid less, but I’ll enjoy my days more and that’s ultimately all I’m after here. And actually I don’t need all this stuff that I’ve got in my wardrobe. I can throw ¾ of it away and be happy with a much simpler life – if I’m spending my days doing something I care about. Everyone wants to have impact, and see the impact of the work they’re doing.
What’s also happening now is that there are more possibilities to do something different. This is really based around technology – technological advances have meant that it’s now easier than ever to start your own business, gain traction, and reach and audience that you would never be able to reach 5/10/15/20 years ago. The everyday person now has this platform to do anything they want to do – if you have an idea worth spreading, you can do it within a few weeks, and reach millions of people; in the past you just couldn’t do that without a massive advertising budget.
What does the future of work look like?
I think there are three things. The first is the growth of the freedom economy, where we’re replacing the middle man, or agency model, with platforms. A really good example – quite a controversial example – is Uber. Before, you would sign up and work for a mini-cab company, getting paid per ride and having your hours mostly defined by the company. Uber has come along and created the platform for people to work for themselves. I think that’s a symptom of what will happen for a lot of industries, be it professional services, banking, teaching, medicine, and so on. Instead of having to work for the NHS, there will be platforms to find practitioners who work for themselves.
Second is location independence. It’s already there, but we’re still hung up on old practices of having to work together in the same room. This is relevant in many cases, but there are jobs you can do anywhere in the world.
The third one is a push against corporate-ism and consumerism to more impactful brands and purpose-led organisations. Companies will start thinking about their reason for being, rather than using business to make one person, or shareholders, rich -- the best model for sustainable business are the likes of Etsy and Patagonia, who use their businesses as a force for good. People will start to want to work more for companies who don’t just have their CSR as lightly veiled thing to tick a box; it’s actually embedded in their vision and values, and is important to them. I think we’re going to get a lot more companies becoming B Corps.
Are traditional organisations changing in response to this shift in attitude towards work?
They are! And it’s not for me to say that they’re all bad -- there are some amazing big corporate companies doing great stuff. Unilever is a really good example of this -- their aspirations are to become more of a B Corp. Because so many of their best people are leaving, and companies are only a product of their staff, businesses are realising that they need to change and adapt – they’re thinking about how to offer employees what they want.
I’ve spoken to a few corporates who are really tearing their hair out about this, wondering how things have changed so much. Ten years ago this wasn’t a problem: companies were batting graduates away; they had the power. Now it’s almost the other way round because of this changing of opportunities and attitudes, and it’s forcing them to adapt.
What have you personally learnt through your involvement with Escape the City?
My biggest learning that has come more to light recently is that understanding yourself is basically the route of everything. If you know what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, what your passions are, what your interests are -- and you know deeply about who you are and why you do things, then that can be your starting point for what you want to work on.
I don’t think these questions are ever really asked that freely – because they’re so deep, people don’t really start with them. I think it’s people’s initial reaction to want to make progress – because we’re so hardwired that way – but sometimes in order to do that you have to take a step back and really look at yourself.
Advice for people who are looking at Escaping?
Three things, again. The first is what we just talked about, asking yourself those questions.
The second thing is that you can never make big decisions when you’re on a treadmill. Find a way to carve out time - a weekend away, for example. It’s very difficult to get perspective in an urban environment – you need to get out and be in nature.
The third thing is just to take everything in small steps. Don’t make big leaps; start by chasing curiosities. If your considering a start up, start hanging out with people in that space. If you want to have a food truck, then start making food at home for your friends to see if they like it, and then take it from there. It’s all about the small steps – they will always lead to bigger things.
Interview by Grace Waters