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

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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.)

Not Your Job. Or Is It?

Workplace-HellI realize that unemployment in this country is a serious problem, but talk to people who have jobs and most will tell you they don’t like them very much.

Reason #1 is that the purpose of the job isn’t your satisfaction: you’re working for someone, or some company, whose goal is to maximize profit (or attract funding, if it’s a nonprofit), not to make you happy. You’re inherently a cog in the machine, and most bosses treat their employees that way.

That’s not to say that all bosses are bad or mean people. Many may be great to their families and friends, committed to righteous causes, and maybe even decent to work for. But lots of bosses are under lots of pressure themselves to perform: to demonstrate their value to their boss, in some measurable way, whether by increasing profits or producing some other specific outcomes that will capture their manager’s attention, and keep them employed with the hopes of eventually reaching a higher rung on the ladder. And you, as a cog in the machine that they’re required to manage, are not on top of their list of priorities.

Again, they may be very well-meaning. But human beings pretty universally put their own needs first. Some are better or worse at considering the needs of others, but chances are your boss isn’t losing sleep over whether you’re feeling fulfilled in your work, employing your greatest talents or learning anything new. That’s for you to lose sleep over.

If you do, and you actually want to feel fulfilled at work (reportedly only 13% of people in the world actually feel engaged in their work) you have two choices: either 1) quit and work for yourself, so you get to be your own boss (and take on the boss’s responsibilities as well); or 2) find ways to create meaning for yourself while working for someone else. Above all, don’t expect someone else to do it for you.

In a recent NYT column, Management Consultant and Executive Coach Tony Schwartz laid out six ways managers can make their workplaces better, including such basic things as respecting the people who work for them, measuring employees’ worth for what they create and not their hours clocked, and encouraging them to get off 24-7 e-mail. All of that sounds really good, but I’d bet your boss didn’t read that column. Probably he was too busy answering to his boss; or, he was enjoying his own free time and not worrying too much about you. After all, he generally doesn’t have to. Yes, his employees might be happier and more productive if he did, but managers, like politicians, don’t generally think that far ahead. They tend to be more focused on getting done what they have to so they can get out of the office and go vent (or ignore) their own frustrations.

While management consultants may have great advice on how to create a better workplace, in my experience, few employers actually take them up on it. It falls to employees to make the better work environment for themselves. While you can’t control everything, there are probably many more things you can control and take charge of than you realize.

So, I’m going to take the liberty of twisting Tony Schwartz’s tips to put the power back in our own hands. Here are my top six ways:

1. Respect yourself, and your own work. Instead of looking to the boss to tell you you’re doing a good job, consider your own goals at work. What are you trying to accomplish? What matters to you about this job? What will be different if you do a better job, and how would you even define that? Then, set an intention to fulfill your own goals, for your own purposes. And feel proud of yourself when you do.

2. Measure yourself by how well you do what’s important in your work, and not by how many hours you put into it or show up at the office. Many employees worry about “face time” or otherwise looking like they’re working hard, maybe by sending a lot of useless e-mails. For those who work on occasion from home, we worry we’re not taken as seriously or efficiently because we’re not seen sitting at our office computer. My advice: forget about all that. Instead, keep in mind your own goals for the job, the outcomes you want to accomplish, and measure yourself by how well you achieve those, or how much you focused your efforts on achieving those, if the outcomes aren’t within your control. Forget what you look to others, since chances are they’re not paying as much attention to you as you think. But in case they are, be sure to let the higher-ups know when you do accomplish something you’re proud of. They might not know about it otherwise.

3. Get off e-mail. Stop reacting immediately to every e-mail you receive, or you’ll never get anything else done. Unless that’s the primary function of your job, take time to disengage from the constant e-mail chatter so you can concentrate on the work you want to accomplish and the goals you’ve set for yourself. E-mail is a huge distraction and a time-suck. And while sometimes it’s necessary, few people really have to respond as quickly as we do, in most instances. Maybe keep an eye out for e-mails from your boss, is she’s a stickler for quick responses, but otherwise, take time to turn it all off and focus. You’ll find you’re able to accomplish a lot more of what matters. Then you can send an e-mail letting everyone know that.

4. Build downtime into your life. The more demanding, stressful or boring your job is, the more important it is for you to take time off from it. Make sure you have daily things you do that aren’t work-related and really take you away from the job. They could be exercise, meditation, yoga, gardening, walking, painting or dancing – whatever it is, have other things you do in your life that you find fulfilling and relaxing and take you away. That’s key to not feeling burned out by work, whether you like your job or hate it.

5. Define your work in ways that matter to you. Why did you take this job in the first place? Other than the pay, was there anything about it that interested or appealed to you? Are those things still possible? If not, have new aspects of the work opened up where you feel you can make some difference? In other words, what’s important to you about your job, and how can you stay connected to that? Ultimately, that’s what should define how you feel about your work, more than how somebody else judges your performance, and whether or not anyone else ever tells you your work is appreciated.

6. Remember what you can do for others. Ultimately, workplaces are collections of people who come together with at least some shared purposes, even if it’s just to earn a living. And in those people are lots of possibilities, both to learn from and be enriched by them, and to give them something of yourself. We all have basically the same needs for appreciation, respect and security, and each of us has some role to play in helping others get those needs met. So when you go to work each day, consider what you can do for someone else to make them feel more appreciated and respected – whether it’s the receptionist, your office mate or your boss. That will both make you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile each day, and can help prevent conflicts (particularly with your boss) in the future.

Each of these points merits a lot more attention and consideration, and I’ll go into more depth on them in future posts. But this summary list is my first step toward exploring how we can all stop waiting for the managers in our lives to change things from the top. Chances are, it’s not going to happen. Start taking the matter of your work – and your life – into your own hands.