Wasting Ourselves on Work

I have some ideas about work that are pretty far out there for an American. In the United States, we prize work so highly that we put up with all kinds of BS in order to make more money, show our worth, and earn particular titles. It is true that we need to work and earn money to live comfortable lives, but the extent to which we chase money and status is far beyond what is really necessary for us to be comfortable and this pushes the work we do in strange ways. We elevate the importance of our careers and often judge ourselves and others first by the jobs we have. When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do?” meaning, what is your job. We don’t ask what someone likes to do for fun, what hobbies someone has, or where someone last vacation. Instead we ask about their job so that we can compare ourselves to them and get a feel for the kind of person we are speaking to.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” We are going to spend about 80,000 hours of our life working. The time we spend earning money can be time that we spend engaging with something just for the purpose of earning a living, but it can also be time we spend trying to make the world a better place. We can push for ever greater responsibility in our job, ever higher salaries, and more impressive titles, but we don’t need to. Seneca would argue that to the extent possible for each of us, we should try to do the most meaningful work with the time, skills, and abilities that each of us have. This can be a daunting and paralyzing thought today, which is unfortunate, but it is something that many of us can consider as we move forward.

 

At some point I think most of us set out to make a difference and to do something more on the noble side of work. However, we often settle into careers we don’t really like, work in settings and for bosses we don’t enjoy, and push ourselves in our careers at the expense of our family, happiness, time, and sometimes sanity. At a certain point, once we have a high enough salary, I think our goals and motivations shift from doing meaningful work and making enough for comfortable living to trying to impress others and show how valuable we are. This is equivalent of being busy for the sake of being busy, or worse, being busy for the purpose of impressing other people.

 

We won’t all have the ability to do the most meaningful work on earth, and I understand how scary it can be to step away from a good paying yet boring or meaningless career to take on something meaningful but low paying and unstable. I know that as our income rises our satisfaction with life will also rise, yet we should be considerate and aware of our trade-offs in search of more money, and we should be honest with ourselves about our motivations for the work we do. When we can, we should try to make a difference and do the best with our skills, time, and ability and avoid having a career or trying to climb a ladder just to show off to those around us.

Early in a Career

I recently changed jobs, and a piece of advice that I revisited from Ryan Holiday in his book The Ego is the Enemy has come back to me at a perfect time. Holiday writes, “When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well.”

 

Our tendency as successful young graduates, something Holiday addresses directly, is to want to prove ourselves. To prove that we were worthy of being hired over all the other candidates. To show that we are awesome and can handle the spotlight and the opportunity given to us. Our urge is to take on the biggest project, the most important client, and to do something truly impressive to show that we are great. The problem for us young people, is that we really don’t have much experience and what we learned in the classroom may not be directly applicable or up to date by the time we get into the swing of a job.

 

Holiday suggests that instead of being so focused on proving ourselves and trying to make a big impact by doing something visible and possibly beyond our ability, we should instead look to serve those who have already been in successful in their roles at our new organization. He writes, “It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. … Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” The benefit to this strategy, according to Holiday, is that it puts you in a place and mindset where you are more focused on learning and growth than on individual achievement.

 

When you try to prove yourself early on, you risk doing too much, insulting others who can assist you on your journey, and failing to learn from the mistakes of others. When we make egotistical power grabs others will notice. If we allow our ambition to run faster than our skills and experience, we risk putting ourselves in places where we need assistance and need the buy in from those around us, and if we do this early in our career before we have  developed relationships and proven that we are deserving of help and assistance, we may find ourselves isolated. Helping others shows us where opportunities and trends lie, and it also builds allies for the future when we hit our own rough patches. Working to assist others early on doesn’t mean that we won’t have opportunities to do great and meaningful work, but rather that the work and effort we put in will align with the goals and objectives of others, helping the organization as a whole be more productive and effective, ultimately creating bigger wins and more success for us and others. We can still step up to take on big projects, but by making it about someone else and helping someone else succeed as opposed to making ourselves look worthy and impressive, we are likely to have more support and to have more guidance to make our success more likely.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.

Our Careers

A real challenge for many people today is understanding how we should think about our careers and the jobs we do. Growing up we are told to go to college and to get a great job where we don’t have to work too hard. Along the way we watch people take jobs that sound important and impressive and often without realizing it, we develop an understanding that having a  job is less about earning a living and more about standing out and finding something that fulfills us and gives us meaning.

 

This pressure and drive toward a career that is about more than just earning money feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, though I’m sure people have been confronting these challenges for ages. When I look around I see that young people today must balance the need to make money with pressure to become important and reflect their status through their career. At the same time, their position must appear to be desirable, interesting, and lucrative.

 

What is often lost, is that the career is not the sole factor in determining whether an individual is successful, and it is not the only factor in determining whether someone is happy. Senator Cory Booker’s mother gave him this advice on this the day he officially became a senator. In his book United, Booker shares what his mother told him on the day that he stepped into one of the most impressive and easily ego inflating careers in the country, “Don’t get carried away with all of this … Remember,  the title doesn’t make the man, the man must make the title.”

 

We must remember that having a fancy title and having a job that sounds important will not lead to happiness and will not lead to us becoming the person we always imagined ourselves to be. Stepping back and recognizing that our drive for fancy job titles is simply a desire to build our own ego and become carried away in thoughts of our own greatness will help us step back from the career drive that blindly shapes the direction of so many people’s lives. In a recent episode of the Rationaly Speaking Podcast, Julai Galef’s guest Robert Wright shared a similar thought. Speaking about leftover parts of human nature in our brain, Wright stated,

 

“The other thing I’d say is that some of the things are valuable to people. Like, they facilitate social climbing … But that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you. That’s an argument you could have. …

 

And so it might encourage questioning, “Well, why the relentless pursuit of social status?” I mean I understand why I have it. Status got genes into the next generation, so I have the thirst for that … That doesn’t mean, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially again, in a modern environment that may be different from the one we are designed for, if I decide that that’s actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not even useful.”

 

Wright directly addresses social climbing as a status marker that developed when we lived in tribes as a way to help us pass our genes along. We live with a drive for status and today status is represented in our careers and rewarded financially. Wright’s argument, and the sentiment that Booker’s mother shared, is that simply having a title does not lead to argument or reflect that we are somehow better than others, it just raises our status which can be damaging if our ego becomes too inflated.

 

We may not be able to escape the reality that people today judge each other based on the work they do, but we can always remember that what is important is how we do that work, how we live our lives outside of work, and whether we are a well rounded and balanced individual in our time within and outside of our career. Simply having a title or being lucky enough to have a good job does not define who we are as a person or give our lives meaning. It is our actions and our intent that matter.