The most important thing that I have in this world is my life.
One reason my life is important has to do with what I can do with it—the wonderful things I can accomplish when I make the most of it—both for myself and for others. We all have an opportunity to make something truly extraordinary out of our lives. But at the same time, this opportunity is constrained by the limited time that we have been given to realize it.
We spend a lot of our limited time working. We work because we have to, to make money, to give ourselves and those who need us a place to live and a measure of material comfort. But there are more life-changing opportunities to be realized through our work than what it can buy for us.
Work can be an opportunity to learn how to use our talents to become more productive. It can be an opportunity to test our capabilities and, by doing so, gain an increasing sense of personal power: to discover the difference we can make when we’re firing on all cylinders. It can be an opportunity to fill the shoes we were born with.
Work is also an opportunity to join our productivity with that of our co-workers to make something of value. What our work produces can have value in the marketplace, namely, the goods and services we have come to either need or want in our consumer-driven society. But our work can also produce value at a deeper level. Our work can help to make the world the kind of better place that we want it to be.
Many of us expect little more from our work than a paycheck, some pleasant interaction with our co-workers, and a vague sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We don’t expect our work to give us a higher sense of self-regard because of how capable we are becoming by doing it. We don’t expect our work to further objectives we care about or to help change things for the better.
Given the limited time we are given to realize the opportunity in our lives—and the huge amount of our time that we spend working—we should all be expecting more from our work. And when our work isn’t meeting our expectations, we should start thinking about creating the right kind of work for ourselves.
This blog is committed to thinking about what we should expect from our work, what we need to do to clarify those expectations in our lives, and how to create for ourselves the kind of work that meets those expectations when we can’t find it elsewhere.
On September 22, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing that one in three young people, ages 20 to 29, were unemployed. With a national unemployment rate hovering around 9%, the actual number of Americans who want to work but can’t find jobs may be closer to 20% of the workforce (or roughly 60 million Americans!). The lost opportunity is simply staggering.
I am writing this from Philadelphia, which now enjoys the unfortunate distinction of being the Poorest Big City in the United States. According to the same Census figures, 27 percent of Philadelphia’s residents, and more than one third of its children, are living below the federal poverty level. In some of our neighborhoods, the unemployment rate approaches 50 percent. Philadelphia also has the lowest percentage of college graduates. With only one in ten of those students who entered our public high schools in 1999 completing college, there are far too few low level jobs available for the rest. It is like waters building behind a dam.
A discussion I had a few years back made these statistics more personal. I wanted to write to City gas utility customers about a plan I had for lowering their gas costs for things like cooking and heating. As the discussion went on, my thinking changed rapidly from what to say to how.
While I knew that a third of Philadelphia’s residents cannot read at all, I learned that even more have such minimal skills that they can read little more than the labels on products in the grocery or drug store: Heinz ketchup, Tide detergent. In other words, as many as two thirds of our residents may be unable to comprehend two straightforward paragraphs. So much for sending the utility’s 500,000+ customers my carefully reasoned attempt at communication.
At this point, my mind wandered to political campaigns in India, where the principal communication with millions of its poor and illiterate voters involves little more than the display of recognizable symbols, like a clock (the National Congress Party), a hand (the Indian National Party), or a lotus flower (the Baharatiya Janata Party). I realized that if India’s economy is “emerging” from this primitive state, our’s may be “slipping back.” In what would have been a first for Philadelphia’s natural gas utility, it occurred to me that I could have used a stove with dollar bills jumping out of it to get our customers’ attention, but where I would have gone from there with them remains a mystery.
Shockingly widespread poverty and low literacy disable Americans from becoming productive. For a nation preoccupied with worker productivity and gross national “product,” the lost opportunity this represents (and its associated costs) are unacceptable to me and likely to many others who are reading this. But poverty and illiteracy, that is, particular social problems, are not the aim of this conversation. The aim here is to care about, and then do something about whatever realities you find unacceptable in the world today as an integral part of your work.
Many seeking jobs here in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) are not in the pool of permanent unemployment occupied by people who are unlikely to find or keep a job in America’s economy today. These are unemployed Americans who read and hold high school diplomas and college degrees, and already have valuable skills and job experience.
This waste of our working potential is a further crime, but unfortunately we are far from being out of the woods. Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, recently said: “The labor market has shown absolutely no recovery. There’s no scenario in which the labor market doesn’t continue to need help three to four years from now.”
Beyond what I have already said about the priority of realizing the promise in our lives through our work, today’s employment market may provide an additional argument for those of you who still need convincing. Its harsh realities may provide the final catalyst for you to start thinking about the nature and quality of your work in a whole new way.
If you cannot find any work with established employers—let alone fulfilling work—then it may be time to start thinking seriously about creating the right kind of job for yourself. (Necessity is the mother of invention. And we are, after all, a nation of entrepreneurs.)
Once you start looking to yourself for a job, why not give yourself a job that is both productive and fulfilling. There is lots of work that needs to be done to improve the world as you see it, and much of it will make you a happier and more fully realized person while doing it.
From this vantage point, the current employment challenges will involve some different mechanics than the usual job search: how to bring your energy, talent and imagination to the work that you create for yourself, and how to “make a living” while doing it.
Work That Makes You Feel Good About Doing It
Philosophers since Aristotle have committed a lot of words to describing the kinds of experiences that make us feel fulfilled in our lives and in our engagement with the world around us. They have generally concluded that we gain a sense of wellbeing when the way we live has both meaning and purpose.
Recent data is confirming their traditional wisdom. Industrial psychologists have begun to prove empirically that workers need to feel that their work has purpose and meaning for them to also find it satisfying. At the same time, professionals in a range of health-related fields are demonstrating the measurable benefits to both body and mind that result when the way that we work and live has these two components, making us feel productive and fulfilled. (We’ll be looking at several of these studies in a later post.) The first element that must be present for us to gain a sense of well-being from our work is dynamic in nature.
As suggested earlier, work has meaning and purpose when it involves your becoming someone who is smarter, more efficient or more energized, and as a result, more capable than you were before you started doing it. This kind of work likely produces something of value for the business you are in (and you get paid either a little or a lot for doing it), but it also adds to your self-confidence and skill. Accordingly, this kind of work tends to increase productivity in two directions: yielding not only higher returns for your workplace but also for you in terms of personal empowerment.
Work that has purpose and meaning also brings you closer to meeting important personal goals. While this includes financial independence and being able to provide for those who depend on you, it also involves accomplishing broader objectives that you care about. They can be internal to the workplace, like collaboration. Or they can extend beyond it, to external objectives: Protecting the environment. Maintaining a level playing field for all when it comes to opportunity. Providing access to safe housing, to adequate healthcare or nutrition. Mandating transparency in the political process or in the financial markets. Believing that everyone deserves a basic quality of life. These are the kinds of commitments that reflect your values: the principles that influence important decisions in your own life and in your engagement with the wider world.
Your work can vindicate your values, and make the world into what you believe will be a better place, in several ways. The nature of the work itself is one. What you’re making, or the service you’re providing, can have this sort of upside. In other words, those who buy your products or use your services may become smarter, healthier, able to communicate faster or travel more comfortably, have warmer houses or produce less pollution than they did before because of your product or service—and you may feel good about that.
Another way your work can further your values is how it’s being done. Does the place where you work improve the community where it’s based? Does it treat its employees, customers and suppliers fairly? Does it play a socially responsible role in its industry?
The value-charged goals we have as individuals are either met or disappointed in our workplaces today. We are either becoming more capable and more powerful as individuals when we do our jobs or we’re not. When you come to the realization that your work is making you feel neither productive nor fulfilled, it is time to think about creating the kind of work that will brings you returns in terms of job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. This kind of work is an opportunity that each of us has to make a living while living a life that is worth living.
Taking Everything Too Seriously (or Not)
Because our discussion here will often be about serious things like work and values, becoming happier and more productive, and even finding the so-called “meaning of life,” there will always be a risk that I will start taking myself too seriously (or one of you might find yourself unintentionally doing the same) while we’re in the middle of this conversation. After all, the stakes are high and time’s a-wasting.
While these are all things that matter and need to be talked about, I would also like for us to have this conversation without breast-beating, pontificating, I’m right/you’re wrong, I’m smarter than you are (or all of those people are over there)—that is, without the edge in the voice that tends to creep in whenever we leave the realm of small consequences for the realm of big ones.
How exactly can we do this?
There are several possible ways. You could leave this conversation to get a dose of balance, sanity and humor by taking your search engine to another page entirely. (I’ll recommend some interesting destinations from time to time.) You could also just close your screen and find some domestic source to restore both balance and perspective. But I’d rather that you take a moment to get a grip right here and quickly rejoin our conversation. For this purpose, I will always try to provide at least one place on this page (and eventually more) where you can go to get “Back in the Moment” and balance the seriousness and passion of our quest with a smile.
The animated Introduction “Connecting Your Values to Your Work” provides a slightly different angle for looking at what we’ll be discussing in these posts—as well as some basic information about why I wanted to have this conversation in the first place. It’s the same water, I think, but with some bubbles added to give it a lighter finish when it’s needed.
The words of Francois VI, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld and Prince de Marcillac—or just “La Rochefoucauld” as we have come to know him today—are also helpful in this regard. Among his Collected Maxims and Other Reflections (1678), La Rochefoucauld included the following:
Virtue would not go far if vanity did not keep her company.
When we are in touch with them, our principles do require some arrogance, along with more-than-a-little vain posturing and righteous indignation if they are to help us prevail and make a difference in the world. It is a way that you speak truth to power. But at least for purposes of our strategizing together in this discussion, there is a more productive balance to be struck. Thanks in advance for helping with that.