In Praise of Work

It is all very well and good for someone like me to write about work.

I have never really wanted for anything. My father had a good job. He spent his entire career as an engineer with the Dow Chemical Company. My mother was a homemaker. We were square in the squarest middle of the American middle class. Me personally? I was even more fortunate. I was a kid with good test scores from a poor, rural high school that no one had heard of, so I got to hop in the short line to get the Team Elite stamp on my passport. I’m a terrible person to lecture you about how you should think about your relationship to your work.

Hear me anyway: Your work is holy.

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  1. very inspiring, Rusty.

  2. “there is no substitute for spending time in what others consider to be an elite segment of your profession, preferably at an elite institution, and probably in a big city”

    Oh, easy! They let anyone work there, right? Should I tell them in advance that I’m coming or should I just assume they are expecting me? : )

  3. Just pretend to have an appointment! But all kidding aside, it’s a stupid and unfortunate reality.

  4. Thanks, DR!

  5. One of my greatest joys as a supervisor is connecting the employees and volunteers I supervise with the value and meaning of their work. Oftentimes they don’t have the perspective to see how the small actual work products they produce fit within the big picture. Often what seems of little significance is in fact very significant. One of the things I’ve noticed with millennials in particular is they want to jump straight to doing the big thing, often not recognizing the value and importance of the the little things.

  6. A further point on the abstraction of work: The ability to tell if one has done “good work” based on an objective result. Like a carpenter seeing whether the door jamb is plumb or not. Or a surgeon seeing if his patient got better or not. These are objective measures of success.

    The abstracted work of the knowledge economy is judged by the fickle opinion of others. The 360 job review. The page views. The retweets.
    “Other people’s heads are too wretched a place for true happiness to have its seat.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer,

    This phenomenon was well described in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.

    I am not sure if it’s OK to post links, but this is the book:

  7. Bravo! It seems that ‘workism’ is a narrative abstraction of one’s own work - where one’s task is not to accomplish some worthy goal, but to try to become their own mini-missionary in an attempt to weave and control their own office narrative, totally abstracted from the real work, to convince those above you to check the right boxes and move you up.

    This piece immediately brought to mind Victor Frankl: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task,”

    “the self-tracendence of human experience denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself - be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself,”

  8. Excellent post. Every white collar professional should probably read this, but especially those still at the early stages of careers. No pdf version of this available?

  9. It started as a brief and got longer! We’ll get a PDF together (will probably send by email on Tues and post to website over the weekend).

  10. Totally fine to post links. And yes, I think that the subjectivity of feedback to workism-sensitive roles is a very good point. I hadn’t really considered it.

  11. Yes, I think you’re absolutely right that having more perspective on how your contributions fit into the whole of real work is a worthwhile and productive aim. Would definitely be an item I’d add to the Clear Eyes section.

  12. Why has workism spread so much in the last quarter century? One suggestion from my management consulting career, which started in 1976. Pay in these elite fields inflated much faster than any possible explanation based on demand or value added. Consulting had always paid better than other MBA based opportunities, but driven by Bain and BCG, they used higher and higher pay as a (very effective) marketing tool to convince outsiders that consultants were far more exceptional than anyone else. In the 70s and 80s consulting practices were narrowly industry focused and subject to the cyclical swings of those industries and the economy. But a high percentage of consulting projects addressed messy tangible problems faced by the EVP of Marketing and Operations, and consultants were much better at tackling many of the problems than company staff limited by day-to-day issues and internal politics. But the $300,000 project of 1985 was a $3,000,000 project in 1995. The only people willing to pay those fees were CEOs and major investors. Whose compensation had seen similarly outrageous inflation, but saw their higher pay as justified by the same self-serving narrative about extraordinary elite skills the consultants used to justify their pay. Hiring a major consultant was hiring someone from the same extraordinary club that you were a member of. In 1985 the consultants might have bridged modest cultural and communication gaps between the Board, senior executives and general staff. In 1995 those consultant fees could only be justified by defending the power of the C-suite against the general staff who would never be part of that extraordinary club. The (always somewhat problematic) gap between consulting fees and true contribution to corporate efficiency and quality became a chasm. Consultants were now being paid to provide the cover as investors raped and pillaged corporate assets, exported jobs and destroyed institutional resilience. You’ve moved to the world where the work only exists to create the appearance of doing that kind of work that had actually been done in 1985.
    Notice that causation begins with the narratives used to justify huge pay increases for self-dealing insiders, and to completely delink them from actual value added or any other legitimate “market” forces. Once you’ve convinced yourself that your outrageous pay and status is totally justified, you need to find revenue sources to cover those costs. I’m sure you’ve seen much worse examples in Finance, but these consulting (and exec compensation) changes were the forerunners

  13. Absolutely. Everyone should read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and of course this blog.

  14. Instead of always trying to be right, we should understand the world as it is. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us. Those that lead us are blind, they are blind because they are true believers and they lack either the wit or compassion to imagine something different beyond more wealth extraction and violence of action of wasted opportunity.

    “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

  15. Thumbs up! (Every minute is exactly the same percent of one’s life. Some minutes are more equal than others.)

  16. Hubert, I think that this is very shrewd.

    It isn’t all that different, I think, from my former world of pension management. In the early days of relying on external managers and consultants to manage a portion of these funds, they really did serve a function. But what was served up was a little bit of value and a lot of narrative about how those external sources were far smarter, far more capable, etc. Over time, the little bit of value got eroded away but the narrative stayed. At this point the consultants and external managers largely became cover for executives who would never have been allowed to pay a fraction of the vendor fees they paid in staff compensation. Different reasons, but sitting in a pension manager’s seat, if you always had someone you could point at and fire who didn’t have a union rep or emotional connection, you could hold on to your power a lot longer than otherwise.

    Some reactions to this note have been incredulous at this idea on the surface - that executives would pay exorbitant sums for that kind of cover, as you correctly describe it - but it’s very obviously among the most valuable power preservation tools an executive has at his disposal. And now that’s taken root inside a lot of other kinds of organizations, too, I think.

  17. Thank you for this post! I’m reading this post at work, during lunch though, so it’s all good from an “optics” perspective!

    I’m in FP&A, and one of my business units is essentially a pet-project w/ big losses - from a nuts and bolts FP&A perspective, really bad for career; also it is radioactive, people leaving, poor revenue planning, no leadership, etc, etc, anyone who touches it, gets a rash. When I started, I spent a lot of time on it, was frustrating but I had the passion. Really screwed myself carrier wise though. Yet it’s promising and I would spend all my time on it if I could alas.

    I used to be in finance in another company where there was a lot of “process” and people complained about that. I didn’t know what the complaints were, at least with respect to the capital approval “process”, there was something tangible to learn and it was grounded in financial rigor; it was something that you could first get skilled at and then help refine, it was at least on the surface in service to making good decisions. It was clear on how to excel and do well. It was clearer what was politics and what wasn’t.

    You could plan your time accordingly too – we didn’t think that much about work-life balance, it was easy to adjust and understand and project how busy you’d be; it was a system and it worked well. There were politics like anywhere, decisions made on bad info or no data or against the data; YET, the separation of the process and the outcome allowed for skill-building, satisfaction etc. regardless of outcome at least at the junior level.

    You were able to focus on how to improve things because it was a system. I’ve found at other less organized places that what fills the void of lack of structure and process isn’t some angelic innovative, free spirit, I think it’s more often unenlightened self-interest, greed, unbridled politics and short-term thinking. Like people just wanting things to convince other people of things. I guess separating the outcome vs. the disciplined approach or the process helped me apply myself. I don’t mean bureaucracy necessarily but an approach to decision-making; it could be flawed but you in the end can learn from it and develop a voice because you can see how it differs from your approach or actually helps you develop your own approach.

  18. Not sure if two comments from the same person is bad form, but following up here after taking this note to heart and implementing. This note really changed my mentality, I appreciate that very, very much. Got my ass in gear at work. Have been better able to manage my frustration. Really prioritizing developing my voice. Less rigidity. Thank you!

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