At least, that’s the line we get fed.
We get taught from an early age that work is something to be suffered through – a “rat race”, a “hamster wheel”, the “grind”. Music, movies, and TV all portray bosses as evil taskmasters and co-workers as incompetent (and don’t even get me started on the customers). The solution, we’re told, is to suffer through it. In the words of Homer Simpson: “If you don't like your job, you don't strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed – that's the American way.”
While slacking off, making as little effort as possible, and living for the weekends might be the easiest response, it’s still not much of a solution. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you realize just how tragic that tactic is. In the words of great American novelist Wendell Berry, “It’s sad that we live in a society that has the refrain ‘thank God it’s Friday’- that means you despise 5/7ths of your life.”
The majority of our lives is going to be spent working. Are we really going to just throw up our hands and resign ourselves to being miserable? Or are going to find a way to make work work for us?
Why Work Sucks
If we’re going to figure out how to make work something enjoyable and fulfilling, we first need to figure out why it is we dislike it so much. While there are always going to be tough bosses, needy customers, and days when everything goes wrong, a lot of the core issues with work can be traced back to a problem called “alienation”.
Largely developed by Marx (love him or hate him, the man had some unique perspectives) alienation refers to the ever-increasing separation of the worker, his work, and the fruits of his labor. There was a time when if you made a chair, you made a chair. You put your time and effort into creating something that reflected your skill and hard work. Your name was on the thing and you got 100% of the profit from it. But while the Industrial Revolution wound up ratcheting up productivity like never before, the very things that made modern life possible also took all the soul out of the work. Instead of making the whole product, you make part of it. You never see the finished work, and you only take a tiny portion of what the whole thing sells for.
Now granted, times have changed.
12-year-olds aren't working in dangerous, cramped, and filthy factories (not in this country, anyways) and union workers aren’t being beaten by gangs of strikebreakers. Still, the core principles remain the same. Our jobs, for the most part, involve us doing the same tasks over and over, with us unable to attach our names to the finished product or reap the full rewards of what we do. As a result we're frustrated, tired, and come home feeling that we haven’t actually accomplished anything.
How To Fix It
So what’s to be done?
Well, slacking off isn’t going to fill the gap and I'm not about to tell you to cast off the bonds of your oppressors in an anarchic Fight Club-esque uprising. Still, we need to be doing something to put the soul back into our jobs, and that means finding something that we (1) can work from start to finish, (2) can take ownership of, and (3) are challenged by.
Working To Completion
The ancient Roman poet and statesman Cicero argued that “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Throughout history, from Voltaire to Thoreau to Tolstoy, folks have had similar sentiments. Now that doesn’t mean leaving behind all your worldly possessions to whittle your days away farming, but it does mean being involved in the creation of something from start to finish.
Why? Well first and foremost, it gives you an actual sense of accomplishment – something that’s too often missing from our workplaces. Whether it’s soybeans or skyscrapers, there’s something to be said for being part of the whole process. Doing the planning, the prepping, watching it slowly but surely form until the completed whole is laid out in front of you, there’s simply no replacement for that. Heck, that’s the very reason folks will spend hours working on model trains or Minecraft cities; it gives us the ability to build something from start to finish.
It might sound counterintuitive – perhaps even ridiculous – but the more you can involve yourself in your work the more satisfying it’ll feel. We’re not talking about doing more of the same thing, mind you, but rather involving yourself in as much of the process as possible.
Hitting a button or pulling a lever over and over and over all day is going to be draining both physically and emotionally. But if you’re hitting that button then pulling that lever then winding that crank, then slowly but surely you’ll see the results of your actions. That might be, more tiring, sure, but easily twice as exhilarating.
How can you do that? Brainstorm all the steps in your company’s work, then find ways to expand your role across those steps. Volunteer for a hiring committee. Ask to sit in on marketing meetings. Offer to be a mentor to new employees. Join post-mortem or post-delivery accountability teams. None of these necessarily require a lot of added work, but your integration into the rest of the creation process will allow you to feel more involved and more attached to the end product. When your job only requires you to hit one monotonous button, it’s up to you to expand your responsibilities.
For a lot of folks out there, that means owning your own business. While there’s more to it than just a desire to be your own boss, the simple fact of the matter is plenty of people will put in twice the hours and take half the pay simply to have something they can call their own. As with the point above, you don’t necessarily have to do that. What you do need, however, is credit for your work.
Anytime we create something we’re putting a part of ourselves into it, and the end product should be a reflection of our own talent, skill, creativity, and honest effort. When we slave away at our jobs, putting blood, sweat, and tears into something that we don’t get any credit for, it’s easy to question the entire point. If this widget you’re making is just going to be one of another hundred thousand widgets, all sporting the company’s name, then why bother trying at all?
Again, we need to find something to make our own, or better yet, some way of making our work our own. Even if you’re just flipping burgers, flip ‘em so well that folks – even if it’s just your co-workers – will recognize them as being your product. If there’s some way to go further, to add your own personal signature flourish or style (signature being the key word here), then do it. Take pride in what you do and it will become something you can take pride in.
For those of us slaving away over spreadsheets and quarterly reports, we might question how much of a personal touch we can really instill. While the product might not be such a good place for that, there’s definitely room in the way we work, just look at any dancing traffic cop. Or you could, like many, try to turn work into a personal challenge, seeing how fast you can get X done. A friendly competition can make even the most menial task an achievement instead of just a chore. Making it a game doesn’t just make work fun; it makes it your game, with you re-establishing ownership through choosing how you want to approach it.
Growing With Our Craft
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to restore vitality to our work is to be challenged by it. Anybody can hit a button or pull a lever, but the things that we make should make us.
One of the sagest pieces of wisdom I ever heard was that a true craftsman will always be dissatisfied with his work. The reason for this is that in the act of making something his skill and knowledge increase. By the time he’s finished with his project he looks down on it and knows he can do better. If you’re a programmer you should always be evolving into a more sophisticated code monkey. If you’re a warehouse worker you should always be getting more and more talented at logistics. When our work stagnates we stagnate, but when it grows, we grow too – and not just in terms of our skill either. We also develop in terms of our patience, our discipline, our expectations, and even our ability to appreciate the work of others. The honest truth is that good work is good for you, and not just in terms of making you more marketable or more likely to advance (though hey- those are always added benefits). The money that’ll hopefully come along with it’s going to be nice, but it’s not the point. We should be getting better at what we do ultimately because we love doing it.
Unfortunately, what we love to do and how make our living aren’t always going to be the same thing. Fortunately, they don’t have to be.
It might not necessarily be how you support yourself, but you need to make something. That’s just our nature as human beings – we are what do. Even if it means taking on more work, we need to find some way to do what we take the most satisfaction in. For me, it’s writing. There’s nothing more fulfilling for me than to take a blank page, spill my thoughts all over it, and revise (over and over and over again) until I’ve got a finished product. For you, it might be homebrewing, or car restoration, or cooking. Or it could just as easily be something as abstract as public speaking (effective communication is just as much a “product” as a car engine and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).