“Don’t tell me how good you make it, tell me how good it makes me when I use it.”
Even though I don’t get paid to do so, I think about work, its meaning to people, how it may create some meaning for people and how we could make work, and the way we work, better.
“Man is an agent… a center of unfolding impulsive activity “teleological” activity… seeking… some concrete, objective, impersonal end. …he is possessed of a taste for effective work, and a distaste for futile effort. He has a sense of the merit of serviceability or efficiency and of the demerit of futility, waste, or incapacity. This aptitude or propensity may be called the instinct of workmanship.”
Thorstein Veblen 1899
I, personally, believe whatever work we do, especially if we get paid for that work, always means more than just ‘work’ or a paycheck. It is part of our identity. This view is not shared by everyone. There are many people who say “your work is not who you are” or “work should not define you.” I believe that’s absurd.
That doesn’t mean I believe work should be all that defines you, but even if the workplace, itself, treats you as if you are a widget or judges you in some less than human ways, more an ‘output generator’, this does not mean you should ignore the workplace as ‘de-humanizing’ (or wall off because it doesn’t encourage ‘positive human identities’). In fact. I believe its healthier to say “despite the environment, its more than a paycheck” and start thinking about what you do that actually has meaning (things that make things, or people, better). I believe its healthier because work, whether you admit it or not (or like it or not), represents a significant portion of waking hours within which there is a constant feedback mechanism between “what I do” and “what I get.”
What I “get” is sometimes called ‘purpose’, I will not do so. I think it easier if people just acknowledge that everything we do touches people, and by extension, changes people’s lives – in a little, medium or big way. And, yes, I said everything.
Which leads me to the invisible economy.
To be clear, in economic terms the invisible economy is a reference to ‘unmeasured GDP.’ This is not what I am talking about. My invisible economy are the unseen workers, who contribute to not only GDP but just to making sure the daylight working force gets its shit done.
- The high school maintenance person at 6:30 in the morning clearing the grounds for students
- The nurses walking in for their shift at 7 am (and the ones leaving who got there at 10 pm)
- The trucks rumbling down the streets at 4:30 in the morning carrying supplies & food stuffs for buildings, offices & schools throughout each city
- The groundskeepers who mow all the public lawns & fields, at 6 am, before everyone arrives to use them
- The garbage trucks
- The building cleaning teams working overnight
They aren’t faceless, just invisible doing what they need to do so well we don’t even notice. Yes. When they do their work well we don’t even notice. I bring them up because far too often we look at these invisible workers (when we choose to see them) and think “they must be miserable” or “they must be doing it just for the paycheck.” Well. I certainly know some people who say and think this.
This belief is driven by the insidious ‘some work is more valuable than other work.” That’s utter bullshit. All work is invaluable to a business. All work.
Note: if you doubt me on this please take a look at Zach Mercurio’s study “Its Time to Stop Dehumanizing Frontline Workers”
“I don’t know how to talk to everybody, only to somebody.”
Look. I love working. I am probably a borderline workaholic. It kills me a little each day I am not working. I have had two of my closer friends say in different words that my work defines me. I cannot argue. And, frankly, I don’t want to. But that’s not the point <although it will contribute to my points>.
My point has 2 aspects:
The perception that work is a grind. Yes. Sometimes it is. No. You don’t always have to be passionate or find some grander purpose . But. Work is still a valuable part of a life.
At best, work should be fulfilling and your efforts reflect tangible benefits.
At its worst, people drain the meaning out of it and encourage you to believe anyone could do it. That said. Even at its worst the benefit of what you do STILL EXISTS its just that the environment and people are trying to convince you it does not. If you listen to people telling you your job is mundane and worthless, it becomes easy to believe so. Don’t.
Related to that.
A significant amount of people in my generation are ‘dropping out of the rat race’ and shifting to ‘doing something that matters’ <let’s call it ‘doing something nobler’ for the sake of this post>. They are doing so like it is a light switch moment in Life.
Off with ambition and ‘work.’ On with noble and ‘purpose.’
Watching closely, younger people see what is happening, hear our words, and are questioning whether the work world my generation created isn’t lacking something or that there is something wrong with ‘this rat race they built.’ Therefore, they are coming out of the blocks into the working world looking for careers ‘doing something that matters.’ Seeking to make some grand gesture or higher purpose investment of time & effort.
With all due respect to my generation <and hopefully young people listen and follow along> I think we are making a mistake. In my pea like brain I think this whole discussion of ‘purpose driven business’ or even ‘business with a conscious’ is kind of wacky. Ok. Maybe not wacky, because it has great intentions, but misguided. It is so, well, grand. I tend to believe we would be better off focusing on the gestures.
Teaching that work can be done with purpose … not TO a purpose.
Teaching that purpose doesn’t have to be grand … but rather working with purpose is noble in and of itself.
Teaching that work, done well, is meaning in and of itself.
Inevitably it seems to me that we would be better served if we simply taught people <and encouraged people> to be the noblest version of themselves regardless of what they did in the working world and who they worked for. It seems like work itself would be better served because then work IS never just a paycheck or some achievement, but rather HOW you did your work.
Note: There is a difference between doing and achievement.
Anyway. Here is a big problem to work: how an individual defines progress.
“Our motivation/focus/attention/behaviour will naturally gravitate to things that provide the richest sense of progress.”
Dr Jason Fox
If the de facto emblem of progress is money or materialistic proof, people will inherently gravitate towards it even if it may not actually be the ‘richest sense.’ This issue gets compounded because at exactly the same time we often value effort more than we value, well, real value. What that means is currently far too many people view progress through a progress toward riches and not rich progress perspective.
Note: I will not invest a lot of time today on progress, but I would highly recommend reading “How to Lead a Quest” by Dr, Jason Fox or for a less intellectual view try my piece The Forward Progress Theory or How Exceptional Doing can Drive Progress.
Without getting too philosophical I would suggest, if you don’t get your definition of progress right, you will never truly find meaning at work and the arc of your career life will bend toward “it is just a paycheck.” And if that happens, I would suggest the problem is not work, or what you do, but rather you and how you think about your work.
This is all food for thought and I imagine my thoughts will be tested in the coming years as technology (AI & automation) seep into work itself.
I, personally, believe discussions of a world in which people do not have jobs, or don’t have a job, is absurd. And, yes, I see a distinction between “work” & “job” and I see work as being ‘creation/doing’ and job being a hollow label for showing up.
Note: listen to Mike Walsh and Calum Chace discuss this..
I do not believe automation or AI or technology will replace human doing jobs, but it will surely change how people work.
I do not believe a job is just a job.
I do not believe people don’t intrinsically enjoy at least some aspect of work & working.
I do believe if you strip away many of the industrial age tropes that barrage people showing up everyday and doing the best they can every day, you will find a core substantive intrinsic interest in productivity.
All that said.
I fully understand increasing self-awareness runs the risk of creating further disengagement with the institution itself even as the institution pursues a different, better, way of judging/assessing human (identity) value in the workplace. On the other hand, we, the workers:
- know there is not only something wrong with business, as an institution
- know there has to be a better way of conducting business
- know most businesses do not maximize our potential
- know (for the most part) we do not get assessed properly.
In other words, we know our work (mostly) matters and we know it is partly a reflection of our identity and we know the institution of business doesn’t engage workers in ways that enhance our identity and meaning in the best, and most effective, ways. In knowing that maybe any short-term disengagement is simply the cost of a longer term better way of doing business.
Let me end by saying:
- 99% of jobs are more than a paycheck
- 99% of jobs that feel just like a paycheck, are actually more than just a paycheck
- 99% of people who say their jobs are just a paycheck, it is actually more than just a paycheck
All of these above are unresearched numbers, but I would bet they reflect some basic truth. Ponder. Because every day you bring home a paycheck it just doesn’t reflect dollars & cents, but also how you did what you do and how it impacted other people. Once again. Ponder.