I love talking and reading about work — my own work, and what other people do for work. I took a copy of Working by Studs Terkel with me on a backpacking trip once. There are infinite paths through life, and that’s true for the working world as well. There’s a fabulous series called What Do You Do that illustrates anonymous interviews with people working all kinds of jobs (art handler! bouncer! best-selling author! negotiation coach!) that I read with glee every time there’s a new post. One of the reasons I love learning about other peoples’ work is that it’s about finding other perspectives, other voices, other approaches. It reveals that what we are all doing is pretty darn similar, just using different words and different frameworks. The delight of a generalist: it’s all related, you just have to find the common thread.
And one of the things that is so neat about finding the common thread is that it removes the need to think about the work at hand as a problem, a fire to put out, and instead lets us think about it more openly, with more curiosity, and see it as a project to be investigated and explored. The cost of thinking about work as a problem is that it changes how you approach the work — it strips away inquiry and replaces it with urgency. Worse, it creates a barrier to finding the root of the issue.
Say I’m approached by someone at work saying “we need to change ______” (fill in the blank document, process, specification, really anything). If I were approaching it as a problem, I would just do what they ask, and just fix their problem. But if I approach it as something worthy of investigation, I dig deeper into why they think they need this fix. What’s this symptomatic of? What is the underlying frustration? Who is impacted? This is the way medical professionals are trained to interview their patients — to assess first, and act second. That’s not the training in most fields, but it’s valuable everywhere.
There’s a sweet aside in Michael Moore’s autobiography, in which Kurt Vonnegut tells him the meaning of life:
“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
It’s beautiful because it’s totally open for interpretation. It might mean putting compassion and kindness and empathy above all else. It might mean that we do work because it’s hard or because it makes us happy. It might mean doing work for future generations. Or it might mean just surviving.
As Robert Frost famously said, “the best way out is through.” Do the work. Get through this thing.(This gorgeous print is by Patrick Fennessy.)
Shawn Achor’s 2012 Ted talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) makes a very clear link between work and happiness. The premise is that your brain is more open to learning, more motivated, and more able to do good work when you’re happy. And conversely, the usual “I’ll work hard and my success will make me happy” script does not work.
And this Harvard Business Review article about positive work cultures being more productive than negative ones takes that same idea one more step to clarify that it’s engagement that keeps people happy. It points to disengagement as a very costly cause of organizational and individual stress, and goes on to note that you just don’t find engaged, happy workers in negative work environments:
“Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”
The piece goes on to distill six characteristics of a positive workplace culture, and all rooted in empathy. All of them.
Engagement is tied very closely to accountability in group dynamics (really, what reason is there to be engaged if the team, or others on the team are not held accountable?). There’s a somewhat grim discussion of (lack of) accountability in another Harvard Business Review article. It centers around the study of cooperation and what happens to teams with cheaters or “free-riders.”
“Within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice. However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual.”
Accountability and engagement bring us right back to the idea of learning to love the means, the process, the doing, the working, rather than the ends (the completed work). Maria Popova (brainpickings) wrote a lovely piece about Annie Dillard’s book the Writing Life, about habits, about routines, about the way we approach our work and our lives. Dillard said the single most representative sentiment, illustrating how I think about work and life, which can be applied to productivity, but also to relationships and intentions and work style and communication style and our whole selves, our priorities:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard