Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Do Good Work

As promised (though a little late), I have a few words to add on the subject of Mike Rowe's talk.

First of all, I couldn't agree more with his assertion that in our culture, generally speaking, work--real, hard work--is denigrated. As he says, it's explicit and implicit: in the way we're taught to think about work, the way advertising is always promising us ways to escape from work, and the get-rich quick mentality that infects the culture from the top to the bottom.

However, I think that it's not entirely fair to blame workers for feeling this way. Much of the time, workers come to a job ready to do their best, work their asses off, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done, whatever the job. However, where things go awry is when the worker is not allowed to do his job. I suppose it's true that there's some number of people who can't be trusted, but rather than micromanaging them, I say, fire them. They'll figure it out faster that way. And besides, the vast majority of people want to do a good job, and want to work hard. So there are a few bad apples? Why make life miserable for everyone else?

And yet, this is what happens. And so good, hard-working people find themselves in jobs that are controlled from three management levels above them, by people who have no inkling of what the details of the job really are.

Much like Mike Rowe's anecdote about the animal rights people in an office somewhere dictating how a lamb should be castrated.

That's why I think Mike Rowe has found that the people who do the dirty jobs are generally the happiest. They are generally allowed to do their jobs without a lot of interference or second-guessing. They are trusted to do their work. They know they will suffer consequences if they do a poor job, either in terms of job loss or job safety. They understand and are allowed to employ personal responsibility.

In the "knowledge" work that so much of the country does, the culture is nothing like the "dirty jobs" culture. And the people who work under the micromanaging egomaniacs suffer mightily for it. What do they produce? Not much. Who takes credit? Not them. Where is the satisfaction? Missing, it appears.

As a freelancer, I do "knowledge" work, but on my own terms. This makes my risks and rewards that much greater. And trust me, it is certainly not easier. But it is more satisfying, and I know that the more I put into it, the more I'll get out of it. Not so at any of my old jobs. One of my mantras is "The worst day working for myself is still better than the best day working for someone else."

One other point: Mike Rowe, in his speech, says the worst advice given to young workers is to "Follow your passion." He then goes on to talk about guys who made a ton of money improving on an old business model, or finding some niche that no one else was filling, and going into that. And he says that they are extremely happy, even though what they are doing is not the stuff of dreams.

He says these people have found success and are extremely happy. I won't question that. But the reason, I think, Mike Rowe thinks "Follow your passion" is bad advice is because we so often confuse passion with profession. Maybe your passion is singing or painting, but you can't make that your profession. I think the important thing is that whatever you're doing is coming from someplace authentic. If you enjoy business or lawyering because you are good at it and you get a lot of satisfaction from it, nothing says you have to quit it all to be an artist or musician. It's just that you have to feel passionately about whatever it is you're doing. If you're not able to feel excited and compelled by your work, well, you won't be happy. Furthermore, if your passion is something that doesn't earn money, "Follow your passion" doesn't mean you have to earn money. It means you can do that thing whenever you can, even if you have to do another kind of work for money.

Of course, hopefully whatever work you are engaged in for your living, it should be one that gives you the autonomy and responsibility and satisfaction that is the heart and soul of a good job, of good work.

P.S. As a refresher, here is a post discussing my idea of what makes work good: "It's Not You, It's Me."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Thought-Provoking Video: Mike Rowe on TED

Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel's peerless "Dirty Jobs" series, gives a talk about passion, the nature of work, and where we're headed as a society with regard to the work we do.

I know this video has me thinking about things, and I'll post a response to it in the next day or so.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Make A Decision, Period

The most frequently visited page to this site, by a large margin, is to the post titled "How to Make a Big Decision."

In that post, I dispensed some advice, based on my own experience, on how to use your imagination, reason and emotions to pick the correct path when faced with a difficult choice.

Recently, I realized that there's a different kind of decision-making process to take into consideration. This realization came after talking to a friend who is in a hell of her own making, but not because she can't make a decision. Indeed, she's made many, many decisions. Many of them even appear to be wise, good decisions, that should help her travel a successful and happy life path.

But, nope. So what's the trouble then?

I think it boils down to a lack of commitment. For various and sundry reasons, she can't get behind the decisions she makes. There's no conviction, no faith, no whole-heartedness.

In fact, that lack of heart is the crux of the problem. The reasons the decisions look good from the outside, and indeed, might be great decisions for any other person is that they make intellectual sense.

Indeed, many of our decisions start out, and even rely on, the rational faculty. A cost-benefit analysis. A list of pros and cons. For the extremely rational, the geeky and analytical, a post like this can certainly help. But creating a "grid analysis of multiple criteria" or "calculating the expected value of every outcome" can only get you so far. It's true that you can base a big decision on this kind of analysis, but beware: You might end up like my friend.

You may know someone like this. He or she makes a decision. To take a new job, let's say. And it looks, on paper, to be the right thing. The pay is better. It's in a nicer city. It has a clearer avenue for advancement.

But if this person does not choose--mind and heart--to be there, to really inhabit that decision, the chances are good that the decision will only lead to later paralysis and despair.

You might think, given this, that to really commit to a big decision that you'd have to be 100 percent sure, or at least more than 90 percent certain. Ironically, I don't think certainty plays into whether a decision will stick or not.

As with so many of the most important things about this human existence, making a decision that works comes down to faith.

So many people, it seems to me, lack this ability. And I'm not talking about the ability to believe in a higher power, either. I mean the ability to put aside hesitancy and simply leap. To believe whole-heartedly that this is your path that you've chosen and you're gonna stick with it.

So what stops people from doing this? I suppose a lot of it is fear, but to a larger extent, I think it really reflects a lack of practice. Somewhere along the way we have learned to trust others to make decisions for us--parents, teachers, government, authorities--and so we've lost the ability to trust ourselves to do this kind of leaping.

Just as in art-making, the more you get comfortable with the unknown, with the uncertainty of it all, the more you can make your way based on your inner compass. Your true self and your decisions begin to align. Your decisions, even when made with uncertainty, are based in something authentic. You are not inhabiting a false self, living a false life for others. Instead, you are choosing a path that is yours, one entirely of your own making.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Be Thankful for Your Limitations

First, a bit of good news re: my last post. I have been stretching my writing muscles, writing a new bit of creative writing every day. Right now it only amounts to exercises of about 250 words, but just as you can't run a marathon without training...well, let's just say I'm dusting off some cobwebs through this practice, getting ready for longer sessions. Still, even this feels so good.

Which brings me to today's thoughts on limitations. One of the ways I'm getting back to writing is through predetermined prompts, not of my own making. For example, tonight's exercise was this: "Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird."

Most of the time, we think of limitations as obstacles. As in, "If only I didn't have to go to work, I'd get this done," or, "If I had X amount of dollars, I'd be able to accomplish X." (I think that most people's major limitation gripes have to do with time or money, but of course, it could be something like, "If I had a smaller nose, more men would like me," or some such thing.)

While it's true that limitations narrow the range of possibilities for certain things in your life, it would by no means be utopia to have no limitations whatsoever. If you had endless time, you could get a lot done, but would you be motivated to? If you had a mountain of cash, you could buy whatever you wanted, but once you did, then what? Where would value come from?

We are accustomed to looking at our world in a very dichotomous way: black or white, love or hate, good or evil, rich or poor. We are, for the most part, always thinking in opposition, looking at one aspect or the other, but not able to hold the possibility for greater complexity in our minds.

But I submit that you could take even the most terrible seeming limitation and wring something out of it that you could argue is an opportunity. If you have an hour to yourself, and that's it, the opportunity to make that hour really count appears. If you don't have a lot of money, but want to achieve something, you must apply creativity to figure out how to do it anyway.

Will limitations make life less convenient for you? Probably. Might there be additional frustration? Likely so. But if struggle and frustration and limitation were the end of the line, would so many be attracted to life in New York City, or to art careers or to parenthood?

I believe we each have an inherent knowing (not always acknowledged) that we can thrive under limitation, and that in fact, we may even thrive because of limitation. My writing exercises impose limits, but they also get me to be more creative than I might be just staring at a blank page and asking, "Now what?" I am forced to find a good work-around to get started and keep going.

What I'd like you to do today is list your limitations. All the ones you can think of. Then, next to that list, I want you to list how each of those limitations could present an opportunity for greater creativity, motivation or achievement.

Hold the possibility in your mind that your limitations--whatever they may be--may in fact be your greatest assets in your quest to live a fuller, more blissful life.