Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

Continual Effort

At the moment I am recovering from an ankle injury from a few weeks back. I was out for a run one morning and was not looking very closely at where I was going, and there was a rock on the sidewalk that I did not see and I sprained my ankle when I stepped on it. This last weekend was the first time I had run in two weeks. I am slowly getting back to 100%, but it has required each day that I do a lot of small things that all build up to improve the physical fitness and strength of my ankle. I would prefer only needing to ice one time and I would love if the one trip to a physical therapist’s office had solved all my problems, but as anyone who has had an injury knows, the body needs time to heal and continual effort, thought, and care are required to make sure injuries recover and the body is as strong as before.

 

It is a frustrating inconvenience to slowly recover from a physical injury, but we all know it will take time and understand that we won’t be back to full health overnight or with the snap of a finger. But for some reason, this understanding is hard to extend beyond physical recovery from an injury to other areas of our life. Somewhere deep down we recognize that becoming really great at something is going to require a lot of work over a long period of time, but we often don’t have the patience to put forth the effort to truly become a master. We want an instant success, just like I want an instantly healed ankle.

 

Whether it is getting in shape, becoming a good chess player, becoming a good writer, or excelling in our career, there is only one answer: continual focused effort. Author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book The Ego is the Enemy, “to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.” It is not one shining moment that will bring us success, but rather a thousand small moments of effort and preparation that will bring about our one shining moment. The brilliance and the flash are ultimately less important and less valuable than the work and the habits we build that make the impressive moments possible.

 

This feels like a real drag and it feels terrible to be working hard at something and then see another person apparently achieve the success we want out of no-where, but if we can control our own ego we can control the way these moments make us feel. In his book, Holiday continues, “While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach-for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.” Winning a body building competition, having an exciting career opportunity, or cultivating a beautiful garden is something that is possible for all of us, but we must recognize it is not something we will achieve in just one day, one week, or even in one year. Through continual effort and focused application of our time and energy we can get to where we want to be, but we must recognize when we are hoping for a brilliant ego-boosting flash, and instead channel our attention back to the effort and habits that will sustain us for success in the long run. Just as I can’t push my ankle to suddenly be healthy (or I’ll fall in disastrous ruin), we can’t push our goals to suddenly be achieved. We must put forward the continual effort to prepare for the moment we seek.

Truly Impressive

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

 

Ryan Holiday wrote this quote in his book Ego is the Enemy which I read a couple years back. I was thumbing through some of my highlights in the book last week and saw this quote and it has been in my head non-stop. In my own life, I have experienced numerous times where I have been motivated by recognition and I have wanted to get involved with something because I wanted to be seen actively engaging with what I thought looked impressive. Quite frequently I have made decisions that sounded good and sounded impressive even when I knew the thing I was choosing was not a good fit for me or not I wanted or would bring me the most value. For much of my life, I have tried to impress people, but I have not been willing to put in the work to be truly impressive.

 

I have been afraid to work really hard on something and either fail at that thing or to just not like where I end up. I have had great ideas of things I could do to make an impact, and then I have been afraid to get engaged and going with those things because I was afraid that the time commitment would be too much or that I would have to put in too much effort to try to convince other people that what I was doing was important.

 

In all of the examples above, I have been worried about my own ego and my first thought has often been, “how can I impress other people without having to try too hard and without having to put myself in a risky position?” What I should have been asking the entire time has nothing to do with other people’s perception of me or with being impressive at all. What I should have been asking is, “where is there a gap or a great need in our society, and is there something I can do to help make that better?” The focus here is not on identifying an area that needs improvement for the glory of being the one to step in and save everyone, but instead, the focus is on living purposefully and using our time, energy, good health, and other resources to make a positive impact on the world. In this way, being impressive is not a goal but an byproduct of doing meaningful work and engaging positively in society.

 

If we set out to be impressive, we will likely do less and feel more stressed about who we are and where we find ourselves. If instead we set out to help alleviate the pain, suffering, and shortcomings of our society, we will end up doing more impressive things and becoming a more impressive person overall. In the end, impressing others has nothing to do with becoming an impressive person or doing meaningful work. Impressing others is really about boosting our ego, and is short lived. To really be happy with oneself and to know that one is making a difference, one must set out to do meaningful things to help others rather than oneself.

Mindful Work

At work, I have often had times where I think past the duty or item in front of me to what I am going to do afterward and what other tasks I can complete or work on once the current task is over. I race through, counting the actions remaining until I have finished everything with the task in front of me. The problem is, I end up taking short-cuts, working quickly and making errors, and not taking the time to truly think through what I am doing. This prevents me from really learning from my work and opens me to distraction.

 

Our work habits are discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. In his book, Hanh looks at the importance of maintaining awareness of our thoughts and the importance of being mindful of our attention and focus. The more we can be connected to the present moment and the more we can be mindful of our actions and environment, the more we can truly live. This helps us avoid the feeling that we are being pulled in a million directions and helps us avoid the feeling that we cannot make the changes we want to make or accomplish what we desire in our life. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us be intentional with how we live and helps us find a mental balance and stability that can drive a meaningful life.

 

One of the suggestions in the book is, “Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” I know that my work is an area where the stories I tell myself about who I am, what I am doing, and who I think I should be interfere with my ability to do great work. My work is also an area where distraction and a lack of focus has lead to diminished quality and lessened efficiency while I try to complete meaningful items.

 

Mindfulness alone probably won’t solve all of my problems at work, but when I read through Hanh’s quote above, I am reminded that when I focus solely on my work and live in the present, my distractions will be reduced and my desire to simply fly through my work  to get to the next task will also diminish. This should create a space for me to produce higher quality work and hopefully work more efficiently and effectively. Improving my focus and being mindful of my work will give me more pride in doing a great job, and that will help my work be more meaningful, even if I think there are better things I could be doing. With a background of great work and a mindful approach to my day, I will also have a stronger foundation to stand on when speaking with my manager about what has been going well for me, about what I could improve, and about the direction I think my work should take for me to be more impactful and to do more meaningful work. Without mindfulness, my work certainly won’t be the strongest version of work that I can produce, and I also won’t have the awareness to recognize how my work and duties could be improved to make me more impactful to the organization as a whole.

Setting an Agenda, and Killing “Being Busy”

In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier talks about being busy, and how we sometimes use business as a way to show that we are important, hardworking, and have lots of meaningful things we are tasked with. He argues that being busy is really just a form of laziness stemming from a failure to prioritize the world in a way that makes the important work stand-out and shifts the busy-work to the background. Being busy is really about being over-committed and spread too thin to be effective.

 

Instead of being busy all the time, we can focus on what matters most and think through the key items that we can work on to make a difference. There are a million things we all could do each day at work, and we usually know, at least enough to make a useful estimate, which items are the most important and which items on our to-do list will make the biggest difference. Indiscriminately trying to do everything creates a sense of overwhelming busyness that we carry with us and complain about throughout  the day. It sounds good, like we are ambitiously taking on big important topics or as if we are being asked to complete an unreasonable set of demands by someone higher-up, but often times, it is just us not setting an agenda and working on the things that matter most.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “George Bernard Shaw was on to something years ago when one of his maxims for revolutionaries states, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” The people who use busyness as a way to look important are really just failing to adapt. Learning to adjust ones schedule, build a routine, and prioritize will help in becoming more effective and getting the key things done. We don’t have to run around from project to project trying to adjust things to what we want, instead we can build ourselves and our days in a way that manages the busy work for us and allows us to be effective.

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 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 suggesting 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 them and you will never inspire them to go above and beyond. 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 responsibilities that seem unnecessary or burdensome. 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. One approach is to help ensure everyone on your team and everyone you coach understands how their work contributes to the overall mission and goals of the firm. This does not simply mean that you hand everyone a nice slogan about why their position and duties are important, you must actually show how the company plans to move forward and how the department and the individual will contribute to the new direction. A recent challenge for myself that I have been thinking about is how you direct resources and attention to groups to also signal their importance. Without the leadership demonstrating how specific work contributes to overall goals and without time and attention appropriately directed to an individual or department, even important work can begin to feel meaningless or forgotten, and firms and societies will never benefit from the innovation and dedication of great work.

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.