Thursday, May 3, 2018


            I recently heard a cynical definition of work: what you are doing when you are not doing what you want to be doing. That definition does not work for me because I have always enjoyed the work I have done – camp counselor, high school English teacher, Starbucks barista, and freelance writer and editor. I agree, however, with the definition’s emphasis on “doing.”

            I remember from my high school physics class that “work” is defined – I’m paraphrasing here – as moving shit. You measure how much work is being done – how much shit is moved – in terms of something called the “joule.” This has nothing to do with being paid for doing work by being given precious stones. I do think that some work should be compensated as “jewels for joules” – but I digress.

            Moving shit. I’ve experienced several different post-retirement versions of this kind of work: Ten years ago I was mowing the weeds and grass on a hilly lot we had purchased. It was hot, I was tired, and the property had been on the market for over a year. I was not being paid for this work unless you see mowing as a way to increase the apparent value of the property. I was not a happy man, until I somehow managed to flip the moment by realizing, “I am 65 years old, and I can still do this.” This has also occurred to me when shoveling snow or carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs. What I was doing was work – “moving shit” – but it also became a form of play, a competition: How long can I do this without dying in my tracks? If “work” has negative connotations, then find a different word for what you are doing. Workout? (“Job” has similar negative connotations, except when it's the second half of a compound word . . ..)

            My son once complained to me about his job. My smart-ass response: “That’s why they pay you to do it.” True, he does not have a great job. For Christmas one year I got him a book with a title something like 100 Jobs that are Worse Than Yours– you know, things like porno movie projectionist or septic tank cleaner. My son’s job, telephone tech support for a cable company – was one of the 100. Pay would not make up for that. And there are days when I left my classroom thinking, “That was a blast – I can’t believe they pay me to do it!” It’s not about the money.

            My response to my son was unsatisfactory because I neglected what I had learned from my own experience and from working with my brother, Bob, on his books dealing with organizational psychology. Bob suggested I read Edward Deci, whose analysis shows, among other things, that extrinsic motivation, whether in the form of marshmallows or dollars, actually decreasesintrinsic motivation, along with performance. 

            And, of course, the sources of intrinsic motivation vary from person to person. Bob’s writing typically used the research of Harvard researcher David McClelland, who identified three primary sources of motivation, or “needs”:
·     the Need for Affiliation
·     the Need for Achievement
·     the Need for Power

Each of the three has a set of circumstances, or culture, that arouses action in individuals with that need. This works for business: Create a culture that activates different people’s needs so they do what benefits the business. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, believe me. Bob has written several books about it.)

            I wonder, though, about an additional need – the Need for Meaning. How can you make work “meaningful”? What does that slippery word – uhm – mean?

            It may have to do with helping others, whether it’s your team or family, or humankind as a whole. Doing “meaningful work” doesn’t feel like work. At its best, it’s a calling.

            A zen perspective: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." I take this to mean that the way a person does one thing is the way they do everything, and if you are fully present and aware, your labor is no longer a burden. It becomes meaningful. I learned to mow a lawn or wash dishes that way.

            I also think that work also sheds its negative connotations when you are good at it. Some people just know when they are good, some require acknowledgment from others – I don’t think it matters. A writer, whose name I forget, when asked why she writes, answered, “Because I’m good at it.” And Mike Rowe, host of television’s Dirty Jobs, was told by a security guard that he loves his job. He went on to explain,“But I’m not good at it because I love it. I love it because I’m good at it.”

            Chop wood, carry water.

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