How To Enjoy The Job You Have Until You Have The Job You Want
Posted by Renita on Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Visit a bookstore and you can find any number of books telling you how to find your dream job (a “dream job” search on Amazon returns 513 results), from using the Internet to using the rules of dating. Clearly, there is a large number of people who do not have their dream job and want help finding it. For most of them, however, the transition will not happen overnight, and what those books don’t share is how to enjoy the job you have in the meantime.
If there’s no escaping the call of work, why not find a way to make the most of it. Any activity, no matter how tedious or unchallenging, can be restructured to create flow conditions.
Here are three strategies I’ve come up with and put to the ultimate test: a temping gig at a Japanese bank where my one and only task was to process requests from corporate clients for balance transfers to be sent to their auditors.
Make It A Game!
Even the most repetitive action becomes more stimulating with the addition of a competitive element, such as a self-imposed time constraint or performance measure. At the bank, for example, I would say to myself, “Okay, I’m going to finish 15 applications by lunchtime,” and then reorder the various steps of the process (signature checks, printing out the statement, calling the client for confirmation, etc.) to minimize delays. My motivation was to completely overwhelm the department where the completed applications were delivered for final processing, and create a backlog on their end. As a result of my efficiency, I was able to negotiate a four-day workweek!
Unless you’re a night-time security guard in a nuclear plant, your work environment inevitably involves interaction with people. While working in (too) close proximity with other people is not ideal for concentration, it can be an excellent opportunity to observe and study human nature in action.
Why not take a step back, pretend you’re Jane Goodall and objectively observe the interactive dynamics of those fascinating creatures, your colleagues: Who’s all talk, no action; who’s quiet but commands real influence; who performs better under stress, who loses it; what are their hot buttons?
Get curious — don’t assume you know why they behave as they do (maybe your boss’s constant posturing is not arrogance but a sense of insecurity?). As a self-anointed behavioral scientist, you should learn very quickly that people act differently than you might under the same circumstances. By making an effort to understand where they’re coming from, you can use this information to smooth and enhance your own interactions with them.
Make It A Consulting Gig!
Do you feel sometimes that you’re working in a Dilbert cartoon? Rather than simmer in helpless frustration, why not put on a consultant’s hat and brainstorm concrete ways the company could improve its operations. (Even if you can’t actually voice the suggestions, it’s still a valuable exercise.)
What would you do if you were put in charge? Ben Zander, in his book The Art of Possibility, relates the story of Eugene Lehner, a long-time violist in the Boston Symphony. Lehner tells how, one day at rehearsal early in his career, the conductor Koussevitsky called on his friend and great composer, Nadia Boulanger, who happened to be in the audience listening, to take over the rehearsal when he was having difficulty getting the results he wanted. In the 43 years since then, Lehner says he hasn’t had a dull moment in rehearsal as he sits wondering what he would say to the orchestra if the conductor suddenly called to him: “Lehner, you come up here and conduct. I want to go to the back of the hall and hear how it sounds.”
What about the things you actually could change? There’s no company that can’t benefit from improved organization – are there any tracking systems or processes, for example, you can create to increase efficiency? At the Japanese bank, I took it upon myself to redesign the application cover sheet to make it more consistent and easy to fill out. It was just a lowly cover sheet for internal use but the break from autopilot mode was ridiculously satisfying. (And they’re still using it!) More importantly, the ability to identify how things could be done better is a valuable skill, and one that you can apply wherever you go.
In his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, former University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tells the story of Joe, a welder who had worked for 30 years on a loud, dirty assembly line manufacturing railroad cars in South Chicago. Joe had achieved the seemingly impossible, transforming the work experience into an enjoyable one through his fascination of discovery. He voluntarily – and with no ulterior motive in being promoted – took it upon himself to master every job in the plant, earning unanimous acknowledgement as the most valuable employee. His disarming explanation of how, since childhood, he had been drawn to things that didn’t work epitomizes the unself-conscious nature of flow: “If I were that toaster and I didn’t work, what would be wrong with me?”
The Secret To Happiness
Performing surgery, because it involves numerous components of flow (clear goals, opportunity to concentrate, direct and immediate feedback, balance between ability level and challenge) is considered a quintessential flow activity. And yet, there are surgeons who find their work boring. Then you have assembly workers like Joe who are enthralled with theirs. It’s encouraging proof that the key to quality of life — and ultimately, happiness — lies not in the external conditions themselves, but how we choose to experience them.