The goldsmith and the chaos warrior: a typology of workers6 min read

As I’ve spent a number of years working for various organizations, big and small, with different types of collaborators and staffers, I’ve devised a simple typology of workers that can help explain the various levels of success, self-organization, productivity and stress of those workers, depending on whether there is a fit between their work type and their work processes. This is one of the many typologies I use to describe human behavior, and I haven’t spent years and a Ph.D. thesis devising this, this is just some down-to-earth reflections I’ve had. Without much further ado, here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The first type of worker is what I call the “chaos warrior”: this includes the busy managers, professional event organizers, executives, deal-with-everything assistants, researchers, freelancers or contractors.

In my view, “chaos warriors” are the types of workers who—from a systemic point of view—have to deal with constantly changing environments and demands, time-based deadlines, dependencies on other people or materials, multiple parallel projects, etc.

  • Chaos warriors, in their natural state, very rarely have the luxury of single-threaded work and interruption-free environments (though those certainly would be welcome, and chaos warriors sometimes have to naturally retreat to external “think spaces” to get foundational work done).
  • Chaos warriors don’t necessarily enjoy the chaos (some of them hate it, some of them crave it), but it’s part of the system they find themselves in, so they have to structure their workflow around it—or risk incompetence or burning out really fast. They have to become “organized” chaos warriors, otherwise they’re just chaos “victims”.
  • The in-between state, the somewhat-organized-but-not-zen chaos worker that many freelancers experience, is what I call, “Calm Like a Bomb”.

Note that the chaos I am referring to is cognitive, not physical; firefighters, paramedics and ER nurses, the police and military, are “emergency” workers, not warriors of cognitive “chaos”. They are beyond the scope of what I’m covering here (and what’s coming in my next blog posts). They don’t need a “productivity system” to sort through cognitive overload, they deal with whatever comes forth as best as they can in any given situation.

The ultimate embodiment of a chaos warrior is the nameless heroïne in the 4th DaiCon event opening animation from 1983: you can’t get a better representation of triumph amidst chaos than that!

The second category of workers is what I call the “goldsmith”—that is, people with a very specific role, who work in a single regular “employment” type of job, often with set hours, and possibly on-site (in an office/warehouse/shop/etc.).

This may include most office workers, public servants, software design & development folks who make a sharp separation between work and personal life, construction subcontractors working as part of a big real estate project, waiters and bartenders, technicians, retail sales & logistics, etc. I’m vastly simplifying and generalizing of course, but here I sketch the picture of someone who comes in in the morning, looks at the task list/assignments/inbox, works on that throughout the day, and then leaves their work life behind to enjoy their personal life; then the process resets on the next day.

  • “Pure” goldsmiths do not track work items outside of the workplace, and usually do not need to track personal items while at work (or aren’t allowed to). As such, in both settings, their mind is focused and clear. You arrive at context A, you work on context A’s items that are in front of you. You arrive at context B, you relax or deal with whatever has come up in your home “as it happens”. Arguably, from this standpoint of work-life separation, you could put some “emergency workers” in this category.
  • The goldsmith may have a simpler life, which is kind of a luxury, really: they can more easily have a tranquil mind, without the cognitive weight of hundreds of pending items and complex dependency chains governing their tasks. You do the job, you move on.
  • When they are asked to “produce” output in their area of expertise, those are often the type of workers that would benefit from a quiet, interruption-free work environment. There’s a reason why Joel Spolsky designed the FogCreek offices to allow developers to close the door and work in peace, instead of the chaos of open-space offices (that’s a story for another day).

Some specialized “creative” goldsmiths have a hard time separating work from personal life; even when they are home, they can’t help but think about potential creative solutions to the challenges they’re trying to solve at work. In that case, those may be “chaos warriors” in disguise.

In my view, personal productivity methodologies like GTD cater first and foremost to the “organized chaos warriors”, rather than the goldsmiths, who may have little use for all-encompassing cognitive techniques, or who may have tools that already structure their work for them.

Notably, in some industries like IT or the Free & Open-Source software sub-industry, we have done a pretty good job at externalizing (for better or for worse) the software developers and designers’ todo list as “bug/issue trackers”, and their assignments may often be linear and fairly predictable, allowing them to be “goldsmiths”. Most of the time, a software developer or designer, in their core duties, are going to deal with “whatever is in the issue list” (or kanban board), particularly in a team setting, and as such probably don’t feel the need to have a dedicated personal todo list, which might be considered duplication of information and management overhead. Input goes in (requirements, bug reports, feature requests), output goes out (a new feature, design, or fix). There are some exceptions to this generalization however:

  • When your issue tracker (bug inventory) is not actively managed (triaged, organized, regularly pruned), you eventually end up declaring “bugtracker bankruptcy”, or, like Benjamin Otte once said to me on IRC, “Whoever catches me first on IRC in the morning, wins.”
  • Some goldsmiths may have more complicated lives than just their job duties and might be interested by this approach nonetheless.
  • Sometimes, shared/public/open bug trackers are a tyranny on the mind, much like a popular email inbox: the demands are so numerous and complex (or unstructured) that they are not only externally imposed goals, they become imposed chaos—in which case the goldsmith may find that they need to extract a personal subset of the items from the “firehose” into a remixed, personalized, digestible task list for themselves.

Do you recognize yourself in one of these categories I’ve come up with? Or do you fit into some other category I might not have thought about? Did you find this essay interesting? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re a chaos warrior, or you fit any of the goldsmith’s “exceptions” (or if you’re interested in the field of personal productivity in general), you’ll probably be interested in reading my next article on (re)building the best free & open-source “GTD” application out there (but before that, if you haven’t read it already, check out my previous article on “getting things done”).