How many of our weekends end on a miserable note? Partly because some of us still donate time to cheering for the Buffalo Bills, but mainly because of what’s waiting for us on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon slowly becomes Sunday evening and the dread of starting another workweek settles in.
Instead of enjoying our time with our families, we become a little more withdrawn. Thoughts turn from enjoying our present to worrying about the inevitable start of another week in a place that, if we’re honest with ourselves, isn’t somewhere we want to be.
We live in a world where we’re defined by our jobs (why do people always ask what we do?) yet most of us are in jobs that we don’t enjoy.
I hope this isn’t you. I hope you look forward to Monday and are excited about the challenges ahead. But the data doesn’t put the odds in your favor. With Gallup currently showing that 67% of the American workforce is either disengaged or apathetic, 2 out of every 3 people in the U.S. don’t enjoy their jobs. Even more shocking, worldwide this number increases to 85%.
But, We’re Not Supposed to Be Happy at Work. Right?
“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task.” – Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life
Somewhere along the way we started to believe that we’re not supposed to be happy at work. Question someone on whether they enjoy their job and they may give the old adage, “well, that’s why they call it work.” Or you might hear “no one really likes their job, that’s why they pay us to be here.”
Talk with someone about problems at work and they might say they’re “just happy to have a job.”
Different words for different people. Different versions of the same excuse for inaction. It’s okay that we don’t enjoy our jobs. We’re not supposed to. So you can’t blame us for not doing anything about it.
These excuses work well. They’re convenient. They’re believable. And we love to think that it’s okay. It’s not our fault. We’re not supposed to enjoy our jobs.
But if this was true, then everyone would be miserable (they’re not). And we would have been disengaged since day one (we weren’t).
Every year my company hires about 100 new employees. Engineers, business professionals, analysts, programmers, whatever. With all the differences, there’s usually three constants.
- New grads look younger every year.
- MBAs are underprepared for an actual job.
- People are excited to start a new challenge.
When people start their jobs, they’re usually excited. Nervous as well, but excited about the future possibilities.
Workplace disengagement is not some predestined outcome. It’s not a condition of employment. It’s just one possible path. And if we want to find a better path, we just need to understand how to recognize it.
Recognize Your Options
We know that people don’t start their careers disengaged. And we know that many people now are. So when does this change happen?
What happens to people to transform them from an energetic employee looking to make a difference to a disgruntled slug only looking to collect that day’s paycheck? Is it the result of one major disappointment or is it a slow decline over many years? Do they recognize the warning signs or does it take a life-crisis epiphany to see it?
I didn’t know. So I asked people.
I asked them about their careers. How they progressed. What led to their current views at work. I asked people at my company. I asked peers and counterparts at other companies. I asked relatives, friends, Quorans, and people at the grocery store.
And through all of the conversations, I learned three main things.
- People don’t really enjoy talking about this subject.
- There’s many colorful ways to say, “get lost” and “mind your own damn business.”
- People largely had a variation of three main stories.
Most people became disengaged over a gradual period. Seemingly minor disappointments and issues compounded over time until people found themselves in a job that they no longer enjoyed. And while we all tend to think of ourselves as unique, in this regard people basically repeated the same couple stories, falling into three main categories.
- The Disillusioned – Suffering from a belief that the company’s purpose is no longer something worth pursuing.
- The Unappreciated – Suffering from a lack of recognition for their efforts.
- The Plateaued – Suffering from a lack of challenge having (seemingly) mastered every skill they need to be effective.
Whether they felt that they were no longer doing work that mattered, or weren’t appreciated in their role, or didn’t have any growth opportunities, the end result was the same. People no longer felt compelled to actively engage with their work.
Three main stories. Many different variations. One overarching theme. Can you see it?
It’s all based on external drivers. And therein lies our problem.
We’re tying our happiness at work to things that are outside our locus of control. And this is unsustainable in the long run.
Cutting Stone or Building a Cathedral?
In The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker tells the story of three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing:
“The first replied: ‘I am making a living.’ The second kept on hammering while he said: ‘I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.’ The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said: ‘I am building a cathedral.'”
Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues furthered the ideas put forth by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart to show that we experience work through one of three distinct ways: a job, a career, or a calling.
Through their research, Wrzesniewski describes a job as a way to pay the bills. It’s a means for people to gain the resources they need to enjoy their time away from work.
A career is a path toward continued advancement. People mark their achievements through promotions and raises, increased authority and higher social standing. All of which brings increased self esteem and acts as additional future motivation.
People who consider their jobs to be a calling consider their work to be a vital part of their identity. They work not for financial gain or advancement, but for the fulfillment that the work brings. They strive for excellence because the work they’re doing is inherently meaningful and they cherish the opportunity to make such a difference.
The first stonecutter has a job. He’s there because he has to be. And he’ll provide the minimum level of service that’s needed to collect his daily wage. While we all need to pay our bills and provide for our families, seeing our work as a job wears on us. We drift through our days, fantasizing about doing something else or winning the lottery. It’s an unfortunate way to spend half our waking hours.
The second stonecutter has a career. He’s motivated by advancement. He’s doing good work and he’s no doubt of value to the team. But he’s still driven by external rewards. If he realizes that he’s never going to be the best stonecutter in the county, will he still bring the same motivation to his craft? Or, if he realizes his goal will he still be driven to perform at the same level? When our primary focus is on external recognition, we’re always chasing some new goal. Eventually the satisfaction of these advancements wears off, each one becoming less fulfilling.
The third stonecutter has a calling. He’s driven by something larger than himself. In this pursuit, he’ll likely still make a living. And he’ll continue to improve his craft, perhaps becoming the best in the county as well. But these gains are only side effects to pursuing a mission that’s larger than him.
It’s interesting to remember that at the time of these stonecutters, cathedrals weren’t built over months or years, but spanning centuries. The third stonecutter will likely never see the cathedral finished. But he knows that his work will be a contribution towards a purpose that’s far larger than himself. And he’s fulfilled by the opportunity to influence such a noble pursuit.
Three stonecutters. All doing the same job. Which one do you think is most engaged? Which one would you want to be?
Companies Hire the Second Stonecutter
Most new employees are the second stonecutter. They’re energetic and engaged, looking to make an impact. They want to prove themselves, demonstrate their worth, and advance themselves within the company. All good things.
Most of us started pursuing our careers in the same manner. We were driven by recognition from our coworkers and opportunities to grow. We used titles, promotions, and feedback to measure our value. And we grew and progressed as a result.
This works well at most companies. When people first start a job, everything’s new. College doesn’t really prepare us for actual careers so there’s a steep learning curve once we’re in the door. And promotions and raises are often front-loaded towards less experience. Companies know this group is more likely to leave so they work harder to retain them.
We start with a career. We’re driven by external motivators. And companies are happy to oblige.
Except eventually things change.
External Rewards Don’t Last Forever
We can’t fall into the trap of believing that simply because a practice has happened until now, it will continue in perpetuity. Nassim Taleb describes this concern well in his book on randomness and uncertainty, The Black Swan,
“Consider a turkey that is fed everyday. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed everyday by friendly members of the human race ‘looking out for its best interests,’ as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.”
External recognition doesn’t last forever. Eventually the frequency of promotions reduce and the challenges become less interesting. The accolades either dry up or stop holding the same meaning.
Pursuing a career where our engagement is dependent on external recognition becomes unsustainable for the large majority of workers. At this point, we need to either elevate ourselves to a calling or we’ll sink into a job.
From the looks of things, 67% of people seem to have sunk into jobs.
Choose a Calling. Build a Cathedral.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pioneer of international postal flight and author of Le Petit Prince
Steve Jobs’ career, complete with both struggles and triumphs, has become a Rorschach test for each of us. We can be enamored of his vision, shake our heads over his confrontational style, or applaud his uncompromising standards. It all depends on our own values. For me, I’m always impressed with his passion. Steve Jobs was a man who was aware of his values and he structured his life and his work to demonstrate them.
In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, he challenged us to consider that if today was the last day of our lives, would we want to do what we’re doing? And if the answer is no for too many days in a row, to evaluate our life and make sure we’re living one that we would choose for ourselves.
This reminder of our own mortality is a reminder that our time is limited. And when we’re faced with the finality of our adventures, all those external sources of motivation begin to lose their appeal. We recognize that our time should be spent living a life based on our own values and dreams, not those of our company or our boss.
So if we’re choosing to pursue a calling, if we’re choosing to spend our time doing something that we’d be happy doing on the last day of our life, we need to be acting on our values. We need to be doing something that we consider to be meaningful.
As Annie McKee writes in How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship,
“To be happy at work, we need to make a difference. We need to be consciously attending to and enacting what we find to be inherently worthwhile – our values and our beliefs.”
We pursue a calling when we’re able to apply our values towards a purpose that we consider meaningful. When we can do this, we’re motivated to excel because we believe in the impact that we can make. We’re no longer motivated by external recognition because we’re driven by a much more powerful source.
When we can express our values towards a meaningful impact, we’re proud of our work and we’re happy to tell people about it. We become resilient in the face of obstacles, eager to take on challenges with the knowledge that each one makes us stronger and more resolute.
Find a Calling at Your Company
“Most companies, even the most flawed or market driven, have at their very core a noble purpose—a reason for existing that is useful to society.” – Annie McKee, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship
I recognize it’s easy to present an idealistic view of aligning all of your values with some mystical company that’s saving the world. And I also recognize that many people aren’t in a position to quit their jobs tomorrow and go out in search of some new, potential dream job.
Maybe you need the steady income and can’t afford to upend things. Maybe you don’t want to leave the people you currently work and have strong relationships with. Maybe you’re (justifiably) concerned with the future of health care in this country and a seeming desire by some policymakers to have anyone with cancer need to declare bankruptcy.
Whatever the reason, many people can’t afford to just leave their jobs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy at their current one.
Consider your company. What part of their mission can you identify with? How can you make a positive impact within the company’s purpose?
Returning to the research of Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, they found that callings weren’t limited to high end professionals like doctors and senior management. They found instances of hospital cleaners, nurses, engineers, hairdressers, IT professionals, and restaurant cooks who had modified their work responsibilities to pursue a calling. Wrzesniewski and Dutton christened this behavior “job crafting” based on people’s tendency to craft their job responsibilities and pursue a meaning that aligned with their values.
Hospital cleaners took steps to improve conditions for patients and their families. Nurses took on greater responsibility for patient advocacy, engaging with patients’ families to understand critical, but often overlooked details. And engineers expanded their responsibilities to develop and teach their knowledge to others.
In each of these instances, employees recognized how they could own a personal mission within their current role. They identified and understood the values that they wanted to express at work and found a means to live them while also pursuing something they found to be meaningful and intrinsically rewarding.
Once we understand our values, we’re better able to live by them. And we can leverage them to achieve something meaningful.
Take Action Today
“We all want a future that is bright, to believe that tomorrow will be better than today for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the people we work with.” – Annie McKee, How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship
We all deserve the opportunity to be happy at work. We all deserve the opportunity to pursue a calling instead of a job or career.
Taking that first step is difficult. It takes courage to pursue any change. But the alternative of settling and drifting through life is a much worse fate. So take that first step today. Because each step afterwards becomes a little less difficult.
Sticking with today’s theme of threes:
- Give yourself some time to define your values. What behaviors are vital to your identity?
- Then consider how you can express them in your work. In what ways can you work on demonstrating these behaviors every day?
- And finally, consider how these applications can align with something that you consider meaningful. How can you personalize the company’s mission to demonstrate your values and pursue a greater purpose?
As Steve Jobs would say, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Because everyone deserves to be happy at work.