Rethinking Work

My favorite 21 year old is graduating college this May and “launching” shortly thereafter. A college friend, a 56 year old retired SoCal fire fighter, was just accepted to a Physician’s Assistant program. This is for them. And everyone in between.

Our work tends to be the result of our personal interests; compensation considerations; and though we may not want to admit it, the relative prestige or social status associated with our chosen occupations.

More specifically, we choose among possible jobs not just because they pay the bills, but also because of the particular activities associated with them-we become teachers instead of accountants because we enjoy interacting with young people in classrooms more than we like crunching numbers in cubicles. A person attends seminary rather than law school because they want to make a tangible difference in their community without any pressure to maximize their billable hours. A person becomes a landscape architect rather than a golf club professional because they like plants and the outdoors more than they do beginning golfers.

Additionally, my fire fighter friend, if he’s typical of other fire fighters, probably partly chose his first career because of the unique work-life balance it afforded with a positive mix of twenty-four hour shifts and more than normal days off each month. I’m sure the excellent salary and benefits, service-orientation, and built in station-based community probably factored in too. A pretty great job altogether, apart from the extreme occasional danger.

Here is what even my daughter’s very good, vocation-oriented career placement center probably won’t tell her when she inquires about different possible jobs. Think about more than pay and primary activities. Talk to people doing the work about the less visible and less obvious activities, and the culture of their workplace, meaning the nature of their relationships with all of the people they regularly interact with. For me, as a university professor/administrator, my relationships are with faculty colleagues in my department and across campus, students, and numerous staff and administrators. Don’t fixate on the relative appeal of any job’s primary activities, instead, carefully reflect on the personal qualities each particular work culture is likely to cultivate.

For example, people think of teaching almost exclusively as what goes on between a teacher and her students during the middle of the day within the four walls of an individual classroom. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Ignored are the hours spent planning daily lessons; the hours spent alone reading and responding to student work; the hours spent teaming with colleagues to plan, problem solve, and respond to student work; the time spent continuing one’s teacher education; the time spent being a part of the school’s extracurricular activities. Conventional wisdom about teaching might account for about a third of a teacher’s weekly activities.

Every job comes with a distinct work culture, some work cultures cultivate more socially redeeming personal qualities than others. Working at Chicago’s Newberry Library is probably similar, but not the same as working at Northwestern University’s Main Library. So it’s a two-fold learning process, learning about library culture generally, and a particular library’s variation on “what’s typical” more specifically. How to do that? Talk to people at the library about the culture, what’s rewarding, what’s most exasperating, why. When, at the end of your interview, you’re asked if you have any questions, ask about the work culture, what do employees say when asked what’s the best part of working at x, what are some commonalities that prove most challenging.

Most people think about work in terms of how they’ll benefit/change the people they work with, giving little to no thought about how their work will change them. Every job you do for very long will change you, for better or worse, probably more than you’ll change anyone at work. Ask people doing the work you’re considering, “How has being a landscape architect, nanny, teacher, engineer, nurse, journalist, changed you as a person?” What personal qualities does the work cultivate? In what ways, if at all, are you a better human being as a result of doing this work?”

If they can’t answer that question positively, cross it off your list. Be bold. Don’t obsess about the obvious activities, the pay, the benefits, the perceived prestige; instead think about work as a context for self understanding and self improvement. Don’t think about work as an end in itself, meaning don’t fret about how your job or career compares to your peers; instead think about work as a means to becoming a better human being.

I’m fortunate that my work culture values good, open-ended questions, but my comfort with ambiguity can exasperate more concrete sequential, literal-minded people. And I’m fortunate to work with people, teachers-to-be, who are more altruistic and socially conscious than average. Their idealism and service orientation is a nice counterbalance to my cynicism and selfishness. I’m a better person because of their optimism and vitality. When it comes to the other two-thirds of my work, it’s mostly about conflict management, which provides daily opportunities to become a better human being. More specifically, I’m convinced my success resolving workplace conflicts depends almost entirely upon my ability to carefully, actively, and sensitively listen to others.

It’s cool that being a decent husband, father, friend, and citizen depends almost entirely upon the same thing. And for that reason, I’m fortunate to get to do the work I do.

Finding Purpose Outside of Work

From Derek Thompson’s short article on the ten fastest-growing jobs and the odds that robots and software eat them:

1) Personal care aides: 74%
2) Registered nurses: 0.9%
3) Retail salespersons: 92%
4) Combined food prep & serving workers: 92%
5) Home health aides: 39%
6) Physician assistant: 9%
7) Secretaries and admin assistants: 96%
8) Customer service representatives: 55%
9) Janitors and cleaners: 66%
10) Construction workers: 71%

So if you want dependable employment, become a registered nurse or physician’s assistant. Demographics will be on your side too with the “graying of America”, but most significantly to me, helping others live as healthily as possible is especially purposeful work.

Once one’s basic needs are met, creating lasting and meaningful purpose in life is people’s single greatest challenge. Those who fail to create purpose don’t contribute much to other people’s lives, they just piece together daily routines that enable them to mindlessly pass time. Ask them how they’re doing and the honest reply would be “existing”.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but Thompson’s list makes me think that jobs of the future may be less meaningful and more monotonous, creating a fork in the road between people’s paychecks and purpose. People will find purpose within their families, their outside-of-work interests, and their civic associations. They’ll come home from work and care for others in and around their own homes; they’ll be photographers, bloggers, and others types of artists; they’ll coach youth sports and volunteer at non-profits to improve their communities; they’ll grow and cook healthy food; and they’ll travel to do similar things further away.

 

The Art of Living

The hippy title of my first year writing seminar at Pacific Lutheran University.

I just read my 32 students’ initial essays in which they summarize what they think they know about the theme and then describe their writing process, strengths, and weaknesses.

Most of them hope the class and I will help them figure out what to study and do upon graduating. That’s not terribly realistic, but I suspect they will spend more time thinking and writing about how they want to live their lives during our seminar than throughout kindergarten through twelfth grade combined.

First Born, starting her last year in college, is also thinking with more urgency about what to do for work after graduating. She’s a religion major without any interest in seminary or much in teaching. Everyone tells me she’ll land on her feet and I think they’re right.

The GalPal and I took her out for pizza recently in her Minnesota college town where she spent the summer working full-time in the college’s library. I was happy she got the library gig because given her passion for books, I’ve thought she might end up a librarian. Over pizza she explained that she liked her job, but doesn’t want to be a librarian, because “It’s not creative enough.”

I was impressed with her self understanding. She doesn’t know what jobs to apply for yet, but she has a pretty good feel for what type of work she’d most enjoy—creative work that is sometimes team-based, sometimes solo.

Recently it was reported that 70% of US workers “are not particularly excited” about their jobs or “are actively disengaged” and “roam the halls spreading discontent”. If we use world history as our frame of reference, I’m guessing that number would be well north of 90%. Most of the world’s people most of the time do monotonous work to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves.

So when my students write that they want to enjoy their work and First Born says she wants creative work, they’re planting a distinct, 21st century, privileged stake in the ground. Normally, the concept of “privilege” has negative connections since it’s associated with preferential treatment and a sense of entitlement; however, in the case of my students and First Born, their preference for meaningful work is undeniably positive.

They want to earn enough money “not to have to worry about it all the time,” but beyond that, they want to be like me and 30% of US citizens for whom work is creative, engaging, and meaningful. Every young person should embrace that form of privilege.

Continuous Improvement

A bullshit workplace notion. Midway into artistic or athletic activities, jobs, careers, relationships, life, we plateau. Shortly thereafter, energy ebbs, and our performance erodes.

We improve for a bit, we plateau, we decline.

I observed a good second year math teacher today at the independent middle school. Then we conferenced. After listening to him reflect on the pre-algebra lesson, I listed his many strengths. Then I made a few suggestions. Call on Ben as soon as he puts his head on his desk. Give Robin your marker, take her seat, and have her teach everyone her prime factorization method by illustrating it on the board. Have two more students explain and illustrate their methods and then ask, “Which is most efficient and why?” Let the kite string out a bit and “guide from the side” for awhile. Remember, the educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.

He told me he likes it when I observe because he’s reminded of effective teaching methods that he has let slip. He’s a good second year teacher who has started to plateau because he’s rarely observed, and rarely gets to observe other, more accomplished teachers.

A small number of the very best teachers, artists, athletes, and people continue improving considerably longer than their peers by seeking out expert, critical feedback; by investing progressively more time and energy; and by surrounding themselves by other positive, hardworking people, who are trending upwards.

And the wisest teachers, artists, athletes, and people have a sixth sense for both when they’ve plateaued and when their performance has begun to decline. And then the wisest, most selfless, most financially secure of them, step aside to provide the next generation opportunities to improve, plateau, and decline.

What Work Will The Next Generation Do?

First and last sentences from an article in today’s WSJ titled “Even-In-A-Recovery-Some-Jobs-Won’t-Return”.

Even when the U.S. labor market finally starts adding more workers than it loses, many of the unemployed will find that the types of jobs they once had simply don’t exist anymore.

. . . Harvard’s Mr. Katz warns that past experience suggests. . . conjecture is likely fruitless. “One thing we’ve learned is that when we attempt to forecast jobs 10 or 15 years out, we don’t even get the categories right,” he says.

In other words, the economy is so fluid, it’s illogical to plan on having any particular job.

So what are young people to do?

I have lots of thoughts on the subject, but I’m curious about what you think?

Cultivating Passion

From The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.

“Michael Jung. . . believes that ‘there are only three reasons why people work or learn. There’s push, which is a need, threat or risk, but this is now a less plausible or credible motivating force [in the industrialized countries] than it has been, even for the disadvantaged. There’s transfer of habits—habits shaped by social norms and traditional routines. But this, too, is becoming weaker now, because of the erosion of traditional authority and social values. That leaves only pull—interest, desire, passion.’ I understand Jung to be talking about three kinds of human motivation. Physiological need is one—the need for food and shelter and so on. But he suggests that with high rates of employment and government safety nets, this is less of a motivational force in many young people’s lives than it once was. The desire to adhere to social norms is another human motivation that is weaker than it used to be, because traditional sources of authority, religion and family, have less influence on young people today. Jung believes that it is the third motivational force—interest, desire, and passion—that increasing numbers of young people are seeking and responding to in school and at the workplace.”

We tend to be products of our environments so I wouldn’t describe the transfer of habits/adherence to social norms argument quite like Jung and Wagner. The influence of significant others, for better or worse, is still there. My clearest childhood memories of my dad are of him pacing the house as he memorized his sales presentations.  Five or six at the time, the impact was indelible. Every family has momentum, whether positive or negative. Because of my parents, ours was positive which is not synonymous with perfect. If a critical mass of adults in a young person’s life aren’t working and planning for a better future, we can’t expect that young person to care much about school work, continuing their education, or making a positive difference in the world.

If we agree that young people are mostly motivated by interest, desire, and passion, as I’m inclinded to do, we need to rethink teaching, coaching, and parenting. In his book, Wagner tells Kate’s story, a senior in high school. “Kate suffered from too much of the wrong kind of adult authority,” Wagner writes. “She was overmanaged for success—success being narrowly defined as getting into a college her parents and teachers considered to be top-notch and having a high paying job.”

What good are high standardized test scores and good grades if a student lacks specific interests, desires, and passion? What if they learn to “do school” but fail to become passionate about anything?

The seventeen and eighteen year-olds that I know are striving to get into the best colleges possible. But what makes one college better than another? US News and Report offers pseudo-empirical answers based upon numbers colleges get good at manipulating, but there’s more art to educational excellence than science. Maybe the best college is the one where faculty and staff help students discover their interests and desires. They advise and teach passionately; consequently, students become more passionate about writing, or a language, a culture, an environmental challenge, a historical period, a social movement, global politics, law, or medicine. I’d like to see USN&R measure staff and faculty passion for advising and teaching.

If I did a focus group with my daughter and her twelfth grade friends, I suspect all of them could identify things they like, but only a few could explain in any detail what they are most passionate about and why. And surely those few that are ahead of the curve need guidance on how to turn their passions into purposeful vocations. My wish for my daughter and her friends is that over the next four or five years they become more passionate and begin translating their passions into meaningful, rewarding work.