A Tale of Three Cities: The Role of Work

What is work? And to be more exact, the philosophy behind work?

Lately, I’ve found myself asking this question with increasing frequency in thinking about what it is that motivates and propels us to simply … do.  The simplest answer is that of pure survival; in a society that, for the most part, is now largely structured around work and reward, work represents the primary means to shelter, food, and basic livelihood.

However, as I’ve spent the past four months split between Shanghai, San Francisco, and Sao Paulo, very distinct philosophies around work have emerged as well. Shanghai, the city of work in pursuit of wealth, San Francisco, the city of working to innovate and change, and Sao Paulo, the city that works to live.  All giants in their own right, each city has that combination of numbers and general allure/folklore that solidify their places as major global metropolises.   All attract the curious, adventurous, and ambitious from all corners of the world, and are melting pots for ideas, culture, and movements.  And yet, each are reflections of the history and nation-states they are a part of, and provide fascinating lenses into the spirit and underlying pulse of how these elements are shaping the way each work.

Shanghai — The Pursuit of Wealth

Population: 23 million

For anyone who has visited Shanghai on multiple occasions in the last ten years, you cannot help but marvel at its change — and the pace at which it has done so.  While the Bund’s iconic waterfront still retains the old facades that hearken the Shanghai of the 1920s, you only need look across the riverbank to see the story of China’s present and future. Pudong now plays home to a host of buildings that now represent Shanghai’s modern skyline from Jingmao to the Oriental Pearl TV station.

A walk down any main street brings you face to face with Cartier, LVMH, and Hermes storefronts as Ferraris, Audis, and BMWs (China overtook the US last year as the German automaker’s largest market) line the streets … at the end of the day, all of it screams wealth and after three decades of economic reform, consumers are unabashedly demonstrating their economic prowess.  All economic forecasts point to China’s role as the largest luxury market in the world within the next three years, the result of the country’s simple mantra famously uttered by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s: “To get rich is glorious.”

And yet in many ways, this singular pursuit of economic wealth has left Shanghai — and China at large — socially lost and hollow.  Luxury used to mean buying brands popularized and idolized by Hollywood, and buying things that your friends and acquaintances bought, but increasingly, it is about carving out identity and growing numbers of discerning Chinese consumers now see consumer decisions they make as a reflection of their own personal tastes/values.

Socially, the impact of this shift in mentality in emphasizing economic wealth can be profoundly felt in the way average citizens view issues such as co-habitation. What would have been publicly unthinkable just ten years ago is now widely accepted, in large part justified by resulting savings  in the midst of the city’s skyrocket rent prices.

While I think this pursuit of wealth will continue to define the Chinese work philosophy for this generation, I wonder how true it will hold come time for the 19th National Congress to meet in 2022.  During the next decade, headlines from China will no longer be only dominated by its steady and impressive economic growth — it will (and has already started to) show signs of a society struggling to balance the economic progress it has made with environmental, social, and cultural trade-offs.  And for Chinese leadership, it will be a true test in how politics can influence culture, and how the legacy of nation state’s cultural identity can shape its future.

San Francisco — The Pursuit of Innovation

Population: 813,000 

Ever since the days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been the land of pioneers, and while the meaning behind that word has changed through the decades, the spirit that runs through the city has remained largely unchanged. Today, San Francisco’s 7×7 territory is home to some of the most recognized (and youngest) companies in technology like Salesforce, Twitter, and Airbnb. Walk into any bar / cafe (especially those within the SoMa / Potrero Hill / Mission radius) and you’ll likely overhear someone sharing their latest idea or battle stories in the war for talent and/or funding.

Last year, I had the opportunity to be help create a program called “OpenCoSF” — a city-wide open house that opened the doors to 86 companies in San Francisco to give the general public an opportunity to learn more about what made these organizations tick, and what innovation meant to them.  And each organization had their own culture and purpose of doing things, and along the way, even if it started as a product, developed their own philosophy that drove the way they evolved and grew.

And that’s what I love most about San Francisco — while everyone is looking for the next exit and/or “next big thing”, it’s a search that’s fueled by a love for innovation and grounded in the belief that some times the best way to change something is to create something new altogether.

Outside the traditional walls of industry, we are also seeing a city that is actively trying to infuse the same thirst for innovation that defines its booming tech sector into the public sphere as well.  Mayor Ed Lee’s recent election was built in large part on the platform of working with the tech community to foster an environment that actively encouraged entrepreneurship, resulting in programs such as sf.citi.

But regardless of what happens to these programs, what I think will always persist in this city is that same spirit of adventure and innovation, in re-defining what is and imagining what could be.

Sao Paulo — The Pursuit of Life 

Population: 11 million

I’ll have to admit that Sao Paulo is the city which I had the most to learn about, having never visited Brazil and speaking no Portuguese. Friends had told me before visiting that I would hate Sao Paulo after going to beautiful Rio — a “concrete jail” to Rio’s picturesque beaches (and how can you not love Ipanema?), and they were right — compared to exquisite Rio, Sao Paulo looked industrial and sterile with endless traffic that at times rivaled even the worst times in Beijing.

But like most things, there is beauty in the madness and you quickly learned to appreciate the way that Sao Paulo’s maze of streets also gave way to hidden neighborhoods and rich histories.  Despite the quick pace of the city’s life, Brazil’s two hour lunches are still a long-standing tradition, and relationship-building is a core part of the Brazilian work culture. Greetings, no matter in what environment, make up a huge part of any interaction, and when Brazilians talk about work, it’s more about the life that that work enables.

Compared to glitzy Shanghai, there was no sign of the economic boom the city itself was undergoing at the same time (in large part because of high inflation and high crime rates), but at the same time, it seemed to give Brazilians the ability to more deeply enjoy the things they’ve always been vested in — relationships, soccer, creating memories, and spending time with family.

With Brazil’s place in the global spotlight in the next couple years as it plays host to both the World Cup AND the summer Olympic games, it will be fascinating to see how the world influences Brazil — and how Brazil will impact the rest of the world.

What are your thoughts? And how do you think work is defined in your city? Share them in the comments to this entry. 


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