The Problem with Work in the West
I was scared about moving back to the US recently because of how I thought it was going to affect my attitude toward work.
In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi cites a study that across the board, knowledge workers report being happier and more often in a flow state at work. They were more likely to be dissatisfied and bored when they’re alone or during leisure time.
However, they also across the board wish they had more leisure time. That is, they were asking for more time to spend in a lower state of being. I think most everyone that’s a knowledge worker (applying that term liberally) enjoys working on challenging problems a lot more than watching TV.
But that’s the cultural ethos that exists in America and the West around work. People are “punching the clock.” I catch myself falling into that mindset sometimes and it scares the shit out of me.
That’s part of what’s so awesome about living in a very insular community like the entrepreneurial community in Saigon, Vietnam or Chiang Mai, Thailand. All the people that had bad attitudes only speak Vietnamese or Thai. And I don’t speak any Vietnamese or Thai, so it was easy to separate from those people and that mindset.
Everyone that spoke English was way more engaged and motivated so I was surrounded by people doing interesting, exciting work which made it easy to keep the mindset that work was pleasurable. It’s a good reason to change your location.
And I would define work broadly and not necessarily something that results in a paycheck. People that work on interesting and challenging problems in general are likely to do the same when they’re “on the clock.”
I always feel awkward when people ask me how work is going. There’s a choice between giving them the honest answer or the one they want.
What they want, and what I usually give people, is “good, thanks.”
But often times, the truth is usually something more like, “It’s awesome. I had this super interesting conversation with our software developer in Vietnam. We’re figuring out how to best display the team login page for the new iOS software app we’re working on so that site managers at valet locations can easily check their guys in and out and get accurate reports. Oh, and I got to learn photoshop so now I can do basic mockups myself.”
What’s interesting though, is that this is almost entirely an attitude problem and has surprisingly little to do with the actual work itself.
If I’m tired and worn out and felt like I didn’t get anything done that day, the same enthusiastic conversation with our developer could be described as, “fine.”
I think what Csikszentmihalyi says is true:
A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness. We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.
I noticed this working on a project this week. I spent a day working on what objectively is a mind-numbing task. I’m trying to figure out with a bunch of the different players in the credit card processing chain how we fit into the scheme so we can start accepting credit cards.
There’s nothing pleasurable in the moment about trying to figure out how credit card processing works. It’s an incredibly opaque system and no one is really incentivized to make it clear. However there’s a lot of upside to being the guy that understands how mobile apps can integrate credit card processing.
You can see this looking at other people in similar fields.
Edmund John from Flag Theory has read more about foreign incorporation and tax law than anyone I’ve ever met. That’s not something that seems explicitly pleasurable. But the result of that is there are a lot of really smart, interesting people that want to talk to Edmund.
Same with David McKeegan of Greenback Tax Services and Expat tax law. When I met David, he was running a very successful company with his wife from their villa in Bali.
It might be worth reading some tax law.
As Cal Newport says – “Society, it turns out, doesn’t care what you do for a living. It cares more about how well you do what you do.”
In my experience, Cal is right. All the boring reading on SEO I did 2 years ago in between teaching English classes in Brazil got me a job at a marketing agency in Memphis.
Turning Work into Flow
So how do you make work a flow experience? There seem to be 2 major components:
1. It should align with your long term goals.
Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, an effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence. So even though the momentary on-the-job experience may be positive, they tend to discount it, because it does not contribute to their own long-range goals.
This to an extent is an attitude issue, like in the case of Edmund or David McKeegan. They took the attitude that learning about foreign incorporation and tax law would allow them leverage to achieve things that were meaningful to them.
However, some work does just suck and is meaningless. If you spend all day filling out TPS reports, the answer might be to quit your job.
2. You should structure it properly:
The more a job inherently resembles a game—with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback—the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.
One of the best ways I’ve found to structure it is to use the Pomodoro Technique which essentially forces you to work on clearly defined tasks with clearly defined outcomes for set periods of time.
Leveraging Flow to Build Businesses
In Drucker’s Collected Works on Management, he points out is that it’s no longer enough for a company just to offer a salary and benefits to attract the best employees. They want to know what the mission of the company is. What it’s striving for. The universe it wants to inhabit and help create.
What’s exciting about this on a societal level is that more and more businesses are in a position to offer that. In fact, the market is demanding it. Not just employees demanding it from their corporations, but consumers are demanding it.
As technology increases transparency, it’s increasingly important to consumers that they’re doing business with people and companies that share their values.
Personally, I’m willing (and have) taken less money to work on projects and visions that are meaningful to me or that let me live more in congruence with my values. And I’ve paid more for products that have compelling stories.
I think some companies try to get cute with this kind of stuff by putting ping pong tables in the break room or having big comfy chairs in the break room. I like ping pong tables and big comfy chairs, but that’s not what’s going to drive the economy past it’s limit.
What’s going to power businesses that succeed in the coming economy is attracting and engaging people that think of work not as something they do from 9-5, M-F. But as a major source of purpose in their lives.