Book review: Work the System

cogs and gears of a gigantic machine

I suppose there are small business owners and solopreneurs and plain old freelancers out there who never find themselves with too little time or too much stress, but I've met a lot more of the other kind.

Most of us seem to spend most of our time running from fire to fire, an all-too-recognizable analogy, along with Whac-A-Mole, that perennial favorite of arcade-dwelling masochists everywhere, that author and business owner Sam Carpenter evokes many, many times in the revised 2nd edition of his 2008 book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.

If we're lucky, we come to a moment of awakening, then follow it up with the kind of right work and right action that will get us out of the hole we're in; if we're not, we just work until we or our businesses drop dead. Carpenter was about as close to the breaking point both personally and financially with his telecommunications outsourcing business when he had, as he calls it, a kind of out of body experience: he rose up and was suddenly able to see his business differently; it was not a mass of fires but a working organism, a gigantic but self-contained mega-system made up of many smaller, self-contained mini-systems that all worked (or didn't) together. The picture worked for this engineer-minded businessman, and in that moment, he both vowed to right the system to its natural state of balance, and began the process of systematically (haha) doing so.

I've yet to describe my own epiphany in detail (saving it for my book!), nor have I fully internalized the idea that everything is a system that can be broken down into components, but I completely get how everything in Carpenter's world suddenly made a whole lot of sense, because he could actually see things differently.

And even without fully internalizing the Work the System concept, I can see instantly how I already have implemented orderly processes in many of my own life's systems, which gives me hope that I might be able to wrassle the bear that is my business to the ground with sound principles applied methodically. I point to my homemade, SCD-compliant yogurt as Exhibit A: if you'd told me 10 years ago that not only would I make my own yogurt, but that I would do it with the nonchalance and regularity of brushing and flossing my teeth, I'd have laughed...after I put down my leaded Coke and Chee-tos. And the more I scan for them, the more I can, as Carpenter suggests, start seeing them everywhere: my Photoshop workflow for creating presentation templates; my years making silver jewelry in metalsmithing; even the way I can come up with a cheese omelet and hot espresso in the morning on autopilot.

The Chief Atheist used to like saying (and, I imagine, still does), "Life is a series of techniques." This is the kernel of Carpenter's thesis, to which I might add, "...nestled together like a series of Russian dolls or CSS boxes." He says it rather overly, perhaps, section the first, which is all about the underlying theory, nudges hard up against being overly repetitive, something Carpenter cops to: it's too important not to flog at length.

On the other hand, parts 2 and 3 fly by, full as they are of actual examples from Carpenter's life and business: of the systems implemented, of the kinds of documentation he developed for them, of the crazy lessons he learned along the way. And he's funny! And earnest, and real, with diverse interests! The commie-pinko-liberal-hippie in me completely grooved on all the references to '60s and '70s musicians (anyone who brings up Zappa in a business book is my kinda guy), while the nerd in me nodded along to his invocations of Stephen Covey and his 7 habits, or Gerber and his E-Myth.

Obviously, I haven't "worked the system" for my business yet. The process begins, as I mentioned above, with a thorough internalizing of the concepts, followed by a crap-ton of paperwork (he walks you through that part, as well as sharing the documents that he developed for his company).

That's okay. First, I don't mind paperwork, and second, I understand first-hand that once you spend a little time up front thinking through and plotting out and implementing a system, the time saved on the other end is tremendous. Just ask someone who's lost cognitive faculties and is having to re-learn how to do everything with new neural pathways. Or hell, make yourself a PB&J with your feet: you'll see right quick.

Me? I'm already sold, and starting work on communicatrix 3.0: the well-oiled, smooth-running, mole-free version...


Through this evening (Tuesday, July 14, at 6pm PDT), you can get a free PDF version of Work the System by visiting the website and entering your email address. Click here now, dammit!


Image (top) by Elsie esq. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.