In 2018, I saw Simon Wardley speak at Craft Conf. In his talk, he mentioned in passing a model for types of work and the people best suited for each.

His casual aside was a “holy crap” moment for me because this framing unlocked a new perspective on my working history. I suddenly understood why I’d succeeded in certain jobs I’d had — and why I’d burned out quickly in others.

Let me explain.

What we do every day matters

Imagine two people with the job title “software engineer”.

What do they actually do every day?

The first might handle Jira tickets for their team’s section (billing) of an enterprise product’s dashboard. The tickets are mostly minor tweaks and bug fixes. Over the course of an average quarter, there aren’t many large changes to the codebase. Instead, there are long-running initiatives to modernize outdated code, fix performance issues, and handle edge cases as they’re reported by customers.

The second might work at a startup and every day is a new adventure: sometimes the CEO codes up a new proof of concept over the weekend and now their task is to turn it into a production-ready feature; other times they’re handling priority tickets from important customers; other other times they get handed a partially completed set of requirements and a tight deadline.

These people have the same job title, but these are two completely different roles.

Our working archetype should match our job duties

In the two hypothetical software engineering roles described above, I feel very different about one vs. the other. I could see myself thriving in one of the roles, and in the other I’m relatively confident I’d be back on the job market pretty quickly.

I would wager that you, dear reader, probably feel the same way. But whether you and I feel that way about the same roles is a coin toss. That’s the critical point here: each of us gets our energy from certain types of work, and feels drained and/or stressed by other types of work. It’s up to each of us to figure out what our individual strengths are — and then work toward landing roles that let us spend most of our time leveraging them.

a three-panel composite image with a covered wagon on a rural landscape in the left panel, a construction site with a house framed with wood in the center, and a complicated network of pipes and valves on the right

Simon Wardley describes “explorers, villagers, and town planners” as the three core archetypes that make a company function.

People are complex, so I don’t think we all fit tidily into one of these three boxes, but I do think there’s a spectrum, and each of us can observe our own behavior to get a pretty good idea of where we fall on it.

Explorers thrive in the unknown

The explorer archetype is at their best when they have a problem to solve and very little structure around how to solve it. Explorers are comfortable with ambiguity and excited to try something new — in fact, they’re often bored by things that aren’t new.

Explorers thrive when:

  • Working with uncertainty — they thrive on chaos and get energy from creating new ideas
  • Trusting their instincts — they have a good gut feel for what will work and have enough strength in their convictions to act on them
  • Experimenting and “failing fast” — they see failure as progress and roll the lessons of unsuccessful experiments into new hypotheses

Explorers will struggle with:

  • Highly structured environments
  • Prescriptive direction (dictating how to do things)

Villagers turn promise into product

The villager archetype shines in roles where there’s strong evidence that an idea will work, if only someone would sit down and do the work properly. Villagers find satisfaction in turning potential into reality, combining customer feedback and iterative testing to smooth out the rough edges and build something commercially viable.

Villagers thrive when:

  • Turning good ideas into actual products — they turn a cool demo into actual revenue
  • Getting customer feedback — they take pride in user feedback and act quickly to respond to problems
  • Getting the angles right — they’re iterating toward success and energized by steady progress

Villagers struggle with:

  • Losing progress due to upstream changes
  • Isolation and lack of feedback

Town planners build resilience and scale

The town planner archetype is driven by the pursuit of a flawless system. They’re process-driven, meticulously organized, and patient — willing to put in the hours to hunt down the most elusive edge cases and mysterious imperfections.

Town planners thrive when:

  • Standardizing and operationalizing — they work toward consistency and repeatability in a detail-oriented, very thorough manner
  • Responding to analytics and data — they care about clearly defined goals and verifiable measures of success
  • Steadily working toward perfection — they aim to perfect systems through small, incremental improvements

Town planners struggle with:

  • Lack of clarity and/or consistency
  • Rapidly changing priorities

It takes all three to run a successful company

In case it’s not clear: none of these archetypes are better or worse than the others. All three have unique strengths and weaknesses, and any successful company will need all three archetypes in roles that match their strengths.

Knowing your archetype has nothing to do with your intrinsic value. Instead, having a clear idea of your archetype and the types of work that energize you will help you optimize for roles that take advantage of your strengths and don’t force you into work that drains you.

While many jobs have the same job title, what actually matters is the day-to-day duties. It’s important that your duties match up with your archetype if you want to remain happy in your role for a long time.

Which archetype best matches you?

As you read the descriptions of the archetypes above, did one feel the most “you”?

I believe these archetypes are more of a spectrum than a clear delineation, and I know people who feel like they’re a blend of two of the archetypes. (In fact, I’d wager most of us will see parts of ourselves in two of the archetypes.)

I don’t think it’s important to force ourselves into one of these archetypes. The point isn’t to shrink ourselves down to fit into a box; it’s to understand what gives us energy so we can optimize our career efforts toward landing roles that make us feel happy and fulfilled by lining them up with our preferred working styles.