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."

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