Boundless #45: Meaningful Work Is A Terrible Goal
Are our expectations of work making us miserable?
March 30th, 2019: Greeting from Taipei!
Thank you to new patrons Nathalie, Noel & Simon 😎 If you’d like to come on this journey with me, consider becoming a patron of this newsletter by clicking “subscribe now” or joining the Chipotle tier on Patreon, If you’d rather send a tweet, I wrote up this fancy tweet for you.
I wanted to share a great quote from a reader to star this week:
“Try not to change the world. You will fail. Try to love the world. Lo, the world is changed. Changed forever.” -Sri Chinmoy
#1 Reader Question: “Are our expectations of work getting so high that it’s making us miserable?”
Earlier this year I talked to two separate people within a week who were working at amazing companies (based on the ‘best companies to work for’ lists) that had attended internal trainings for junior employees. These companies had revamped their training in the past few year to focus more on employee well-being, work-life balance and embracing things like yoga and mindfulness as tools for being more engaged at work.
In these trainings, people do exercises that in the past might have been more typical of retreats that operated on the fringes or completely outside of corporate culture. The type of exercises that push people to be vulnerable, ask tough questions and look at their lives in a holistic way.
When you push people to ponder questions like “what is most important to you?” many wind up not putting their current job at the top of their list. One person reflected to me that a retreat exercise made them painfully aware of how 80-hour workweeks and non-stop travel made their ranking of family as the most important thing to them look quite hypocritical.
Twelve years ago when I entered the working world, there wasn’t a collective sense that work should be a place to find meaning or passion. Work-life balance was the game and meaning was something to be found once you found that elusive balance. In 2007, google first landed in the best places to work ranking for the first time and in 2009, the Netflix Culture went viral. Company culture was the new hot topic of business culture.
This was amplified by the embrace of social media and for the first time, social media allowed us to “see” inside of companies both literally and figuratively.
What did offices look like? What were the ratings on Glassdoor? What did employees of X company go on to achieve on LinkedIn? How do companies share their story?
Google is perhaps the most obvious example of a company that embraced culture as a core competitive advantage and made it central to its story of success. It told its story through books like How Google Works and Work Rules!. Everyone wanted to work at a company like google.
However, most companies were not google and instead people found themselves questioning why their managers didn’t trust them with 20% time, let alone offering them free lunch and ping pong tables. Work was no longer a place to earn a living. It was a become a place for total and complete fulfillment. A recent survey found that 78% of workers now believe that “employers have a responsibility to keep employees mentally and physically well.” Think about that for a second. Placing responsibility for our mental and physical wellness on organizations that rarely are able to hire managers with the right skills.
Employers have taken responsibility for employee well-being, but early attempts have been based on the same stale approaches of the past. Business leaders have spent more time creating surveys to ask employees about their experience and translating human emotions into coded scoring rubrics than having actual conversations with them. HR leaders are more focused on making people feel good and fitting in with their HR peers by embracing the latest hot topic than realizing that meaning at work is “associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.”
From an average employee perspective, it looks like your company is giving a shit about you while at the same time, you actually feel more stressed, anxious and confused than ever. There are more more activities and initiatives you need to participate in that seem good on the surface, but don’t really solve any problems for you in terms of motivation, satisfaction or meaning.
So yes, I think the increased attention to culture, engagement, satisfaction has undermined itself. I think many organizations would be better suited at being brutally honest to their people about their true goals. I’ve always respected the finance industry for this - there is often a quite explicit expectation that you work long hours for big paychecks, employee wellness be damned. No one joins Citibank under any illusion that this is all fun and games.
Yet I remain optimistic.
Increased expectations have raised the stakes for organizations. Is the disconnect between these expectations and reality making people miserable at work right now? Probably. But its also kick-starting many conversations about our fundamental assumptions surrounding work. Does it really have to be crazy at work? Is a company of one enough? Can you hurry slowly? Are there better ways to bootstrap companies? Is there more to life than work?
Many of the conversations I’ve had with people over the last six months also reveal that people are waking up. They are realizing that its quite insane to place responsibility for their happiness or well-being in the hands of an organization.
I’d love to hear reader thoughts…how have your expectations of employers changed in the last ten years? E-Mail me
#2 Reimagine Work Podcast: A conversation with Martha Balaile - Fantasy Illustrator
I came across Martha’s work after she e-mailed me and I ended up hiring her to do the updated artwork for the podcast. I asked her if she wanted to come on the podcast to share more about her work.
We talk about:
What drove her to pursue an art career after growing up in Tanzania
What she wishes she learned in art school
What she looked from working with clients
How she switched from magic “standard” art to art she cared about
How she decided to take the leap to freelancing “early” in her career.
How she structures her day around her work
Who do you want me to interview? Hit reply and let me know!
#3 Reads, Listens & Quotes
📚 Weekly Boundless Reads #110
❤️️Passion: The New York times on two kinds of passion
Psychologists distinguish between these two sides of passion, what they call harmonious passion versus obsessive passion. In harmonious passion, you are absorbed in an activity because you love how the activity itself makes you feel. A harmoniously passionate writer writes because he or she loves the craft. In obsessive passion, you are hooked on an activity because of external rewards and recognition. An obsessively passionate writer writes because he or she wants to boast about published stories and attain best-seller status.
I think the word passion has basically ceased to have any meaning. I personally prefer “work I am drawn to.” Writing the above essay was a bit painful this week in terms of just staring at the screen and continuing to tweak. I don’t think it made me feel good per se, but it was definitely something I felt compelled to keep working on…
Freelancing: Charlotte Cowles shares her reflections on the inevitable financial insecurity of self-employment:
The upside of becoming aware of the time/money connection is that I got better at managing my finances and asking for bigger fees — a good thing, especially when compared to how lackadaisical I’d been in this department previously. But I was also stressed out. I started sleeping less, and I stopped hanging out with my friends as much as I wanted. And I would sometimes fall apart completely, frittering away a Saturday in bed and feeling horrible about it.
While becoming aware of the time-money connection can make people realize they can work less, many get trapped by the pressure to earn more. Even if you earn a lot for a couple months, the looming potential of never working again hangs over almost every freelancer I’ve ever talked to.
As she highlights, people end up trading time for money:
A 2016 study found that 63 percent of respondents valued money over time,
…and many end up not having any time to do what they want
In a recent survey of 2.5 million Americans across all socioeconomic strata, 80 percent of respondents said that they didn’t have enough time to do what they wanted every day
📚History of Work: I’ve been on a read-the-original-books-that-influenced-our-modern-understanding-of-work-kick. This passage from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic is fascinating:
And the same is true of the most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism. The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given. It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naive idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.
Or put more simply, greed is human and timeless, but the endless endless pursuit of more is a modern creation.
☕ Interested in Working with Paul?
🔨 Download the fear setting exercise, freelance target income calculator or career transition playbook for free or a gift
🏫 Want to learn the secrets of strategy consultants? Take my Think Like A Strategy Consultant Course. Enroll now for $199.
🎁 Want to become a supporter of this humble newsletter? Support on Patreon because you are amazing.
I want to make this newsletter an ongoing experiment and co-creation with the many members that read and follow along. What questions do you want me to write about? Anything you are working on that I can share? What quotes are inspiring you?