What Would You Do If Nobody Knew?

UnknownWhen thinking about what to do with our lives, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the idea of doing something, rather than how we’d enjoy the experience of doing the thing itself. I loved the idea of being a public interest litigator when I got out of law school, for example, but it turned out I really didn’t enjoy the process of writing briefs arguing over endless procedural details and reviewing thousands of pages of documents to build my case. I was bored.

The esteemed management professor and consultant Warren Bennis was once asked how he liked being a university president after he’d left teaching at MIT to run the University of Cincinnati for seven years. He was stumped. He couldn’t say. Later, after some reflection, writes psychologist Tal Ben Shahar in his book, Choose the Life You Want, Bennis acknowledged that he liked the idea of being a university president, but not actually the job of doing it. At the end of that academic year, he quit and returned to teaching and writing.

In thinking about what sort of work we want to do, it’s easy to get caught up in how it sounds, what we’d tell people at cocktail parties, how our profiles might look on LinkedIn. Of course, at some level we know that doesn’t really matter, but it’s still easy, when we’re feeling insecure, to get hooked by it.

As Paul Graham writes in “How to Do What You Love,” that’s a big mistake:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. . .

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like. . .

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself. . .

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

The philosopher Alain de Botton similarly cautions that rather than get caught up in ideas of “success” that we’ve sucked up from other people: “We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  It can be difficult at times to separate out what you think you want from what others have told you that you should want. To separate out our often subconscious worries about what our parents would say or what our ex-boyfriend might think of us, I think the following exercise, proposed by Tal Ben Shahar, can be very useful.

Consider:  What would you do if you had complete anonymity? In other words, if no one else would know your actions and their consequences, what would you choose to do? It may be hard to imagine, since we live in a world where it’s so easy to be constantly publicizing our actions, and there’s so much pressure to do that. But what if you were somehow invisible to the world, there were no Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, no parties to boast at or family visits or reunions where you had to account for yourself?  What if only you knew how you were spending your time? Now what would you do?

Give yourself time to sit with that and see where it takes you. If you’re like one of the many people struggling with this question, it could help clear the messy mental landscape a bit. Kind of like pulling weeds.

Respect Yourself

I was at a company retreat a while back, one of those two-day events where management spends a lot of people’s time and the organization’s money having people participate in getting-to-know you exercises and breakout groups designed to make employees feel like their opinions about the organization’s work and direction actually matter. Everyone put on a good face and participated, at least half-heartedly, with the underlying understanding that nothing anyone contributed at the event would actually make any difference. After all, it never had before.

Just before the retreat ended, though, each department held a group meeting, at which employees could actually ask questions related to the work they really do.

That’s when sparks flew. One after another employee, from the most junior to the most senior (except the department head, who presided over the meeting), some with anger and some choking back tears, asked why it was so hard to get anything done; why decision-making by higher-ups was so opaque or nonexistent; why backbiting among staff had become the norm; and ultimately, what did the boss plan to do about it?

Not surprisingly, the boss, who has his own boss to answer to so ultimately couldn’t answer most of the questions, let alone solve the problems, had little to say. But what struck me was that under all of the complaints was one core problem: no one felt valued. Whether the complaint was that they didn’t receive timely responses to important questions, that necessary approvals for work to be completed never materialized, or that they were tired of another departments’ employees’ snickering comments, the upshot of it was that no one felt like the work they did was appreciated.

It was stunning to see: the same core problem had infected all rungs of the organization, from the most junior administrative staff to the most senior professionals.

This ties back to what I wrote in an earlier post: bosses aren’t there to make you feel good. Most of the time, they’re not thinking about you at all. They’re just thinking about what you produce and whether it meets their needs. If it does, they may or may not tell you that. If it doesn’t, you’ll hear about it – or it will trickle down to you in some fashion, because that’s what the boss is focusing on. But even if you’re doing great work, or the best you can, given the situation’s limitations, you may never hear about it. Managers are usually too busy focusing on all the things that aren’t working. And most bosses aren’t thinking about whether the people who report to them feel valued or good about their work.

That’s not a good thing, and I’m not making excuses for it. Organizations can and should do better. But ultimately, feeling good about your work is your job. And it’s important, especially if, like most people, you spend most of your waking hours working. If all it’s giving you is a paycheck, that’s a waste of a good chunk of your life.

This applies no matter what your job is. Whether it’s ministering to the poor, cleaning the office or running a company, it’s important to feel like you’re accomplishing something of value. And you can be. Even if no one ever tells you that.

The key is to set goals for yourself — and celebrate when you achieve them.

It’s something I’ve had to learn. When I was a journalist, it was easy enough: at the end of every project was a story that got published, and I had this tangible thing I could feel good about. I made sure I was always working on at least one story that interested me, so I could always feel like I was accomplishing something.

But when I joined an organization, it became much harder. Now that I was part of a larger machine, my work had to get approved by lots of other people before it could be completed. Much of it didn’t involve finished products with my name on them. And even when they did, I often felt like I didn’t get the credit I wanted for all the hard work I’d put into it, or the support I’d hoped for to ensure it made an impact.

It was on a leadership retreat that I learned the importance of setting my own goals and doing everything I could to meet them. I was choosing to meet them not because someone else expected or required me to, but because these were goals I had decided were important. When I met them – and when I set them myself, I usually did – I could feel really good about it. Eventually other people in the organization might have noticed, too, but what was important was that I knew I had a purpose that mattered to me, and I had fulfilled it.

Yes, it’s still annoying when you don’t get the recognition you deserve from higher-ups – and most managers need to do a far better job of letting employees know their work is important and appreciated. But if you value your own work, you don’t need to put nearly so much stock in winning the recognition of others. What’s important is knowing you’re accomplishing something that matters to you.

(And if you’re not, by the way, then that’s a whole other problem – to be addressed in a future post.)

Power, Play and Hierarchy

40694-24568For anyone who questions rigid hierarchies and power structures or just feels discouraged or deflated by them, the book Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, is worth checking out.

“Walk Outs,” the authors write, are “people who bravely choose to leave behind situations, jobs, relationships and ideas that restrict and confine them, anything that inhibits them.” They “walk on” to “ideas, people, and practices that enable them to explore and discover news gifts, new possibilities.”  Rejecting rigid hierarchies and outworn notions of how things should be done, they learn and create new things.

The book traces seven projects in different parts of the world where individuals and communities created something out of what looked like nothing, relying not on outside expertise or a pre-designed plan, but on the dreams, ingenuity and creativity of local people joining together to build something they need.  I won’t get into the different projects here, which are really pretty amazing and worth reading about.  But I do want to share a few choice observations on power and hierarchy from the authors that could apply as much to a modern workplace in midtown Manhattan as to an impoverished favela in Brazil, the site of one of the projects described.

In physics, power is defined as the rate at which work gets done. This works fine for machines, but it has no relevance for humans. Yet many leaders assume that people are machines, that we can be programmed, motivated and supervised through external force and authority. This “command-and-control” leadership smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming.  Yet it is the most common form of leadership worldwide.  When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.

This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth…. It’s also visible in rigid hierarchies where people, confined to small boxes, can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.

Power of this kind has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness.  People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice.  They must take control if anything is going to get done.

What if solving a problem were instead approached as playing a game, write Wheatley and Frieze, and everyone with something at stake were invited to participate?

Games invite us to let go of our resignation and our sense of limitation – and simply to start dreaming, creating and imagining…. In the logic of play, people are invited to break rules, experiment, innovate, and be original…. Play returns us to a state in which we can see what’s possible–not what’s so…. We are inspired to experiment, to try out new ideas, to take ourselves a little less seriously. We do not have to conform to what we already know.

That’s the reasoning underlying the kind of leadership that leads to the stunningly successful projects described in this book.

It’s also consistent with new social science research showing that people perform much better and have far more energy for tasks they choose to do because the outcome matters to them, even if the task itself seems somewhat tedious, than for work they don’t really care about.  And people generally care far more about work they’ve chosen, using methods they’ve created, than work they’re told to do following someone else’s dictates.

All of this may seem obvious.  But it’s surprising how few leaders in workplaces consider this.  As I’ve written before, your boss may or may not be among the more enlightened leaders, but there are ways of setting your own goals and choosing your own means of accomplishing them that can go a long way towards putting you in the driver’s seat of your own work.

And if your job really doesn’t allow you that?  Then it may be time to “walk out” and “walk on.”