Thursday, March 12, 2009

WorkPlace 101: A Job Ain't Nuthin' But Work?!?

"Children Grow. Women Produce. Some Men Go Work. And Some Go Steal. Everyone's Got To Make A Living."

Fewer words of absolute truth have seldom been spoken. It's entirely true: everyone's got to make a living, one way or another.

Most of us have 9 to 5's. Even homeless people pickup cans and cash in bottles. Stay at home Moms have the toughest gig of all. Chicks on welfare in the hood do hair and sell crabs.[1] Folks in the mountains slang OxyContin. Even a lazy assed dude who mooches off women has to expend energy charming these young ladies into helping him stay cozy and unemployed.

It is emphatically true. Everyone's got to make a living.

But is your job just a way to get paid, or is something larger? Is your job something you really enjoy doing? Does it benefit society? Does your job fulfill some inner need? Is it more than just work, and if not, does it even need to be?

By observing the comments, I think most of AverageNation™ has some level of education beyond high school. I know we've got lawyers (deedee). We have engineers (like me & CJames). We have teachers (adinasi). We have community organizers (i.l.l.). We have PR folks (VLatte). We have folks working in the media (TheDad). We have IT geeks (spool). We have professional baby mamas (and you know who you are). One thing seemingly all of these people have in common is that they intentionally chose a certain career path, trained themselves, and pursued it. I'm also assuming most people choose their careers because it's something they're naturally interested in, and likely good at.

But the question I have for all of you is, is your career simply about the 1st and 15th, or is there some greater need being satisfied? Does your job need to be rewarding beyond the paycheck? And if so, what are the dangers of being emotionally invested in a career?

When I got my first (and to date, only) gig out of college, I was looking to be a career climber. I'd start out as a Junior Engineer, work my way up the ranks, and eventually become a Director level manager. The 10 year plan, with each necessary rung of the ladder was mapped out. I also took a huge amount of pride in the sort of work I did, because I'm just an inquisitive and analytical dude by nature. I think like a person who writes code for a living. Everything has logical meaning. Writing programs was a logical extension of myself, so the job came easily. I quickly excelled, and my ascent began.

When I became a manager a few years later, I had arrived. The money associated with the job was good. I was able to make calls on who I wanted to hire, and build my own staff of Jr. Engineers from the ground up. I mentored and molded these folks to embody the level of professionalism and technical expertise the job demanded. I got to travel and see the world on somebody else's dime. Life was great.

And then, just like a bolt a lightning, a massive re-org took place, and I found myself completely out of management, and back to essentially doing the same job my Junior Engineers were doing.

My job performance was great, and it had nothing to do with the change. The company decided to shake things up, and I was merely a victim of a numbers game way above my pay grade. All the time and effort I'd taken into building a successful team and practice were for naught. I was literally back to square one. And it sucked.

Contemplating my next career move, a friend recommended I read a book called "Fire Your Boss". Oddly, that friend was my boss at the time, as I'd been re-orged to report to him. The choice of book seemed odd, but I took his advice and grabbed the book from the library. It has literally changed my perspective on the meaning of work, and its place in my life.

Despite its title, the book is not really about entrepreneurship, but rather about how to pimp the Corporate game and make it more profitable and less agonizing. It more or less suggests that you not look for any level of personal fulfillment from your Day Job. The reasons for this are many, but the gist is that a job is all about getting paid, as most people wouldn't do what they do from 9-5 without some compensation. Thus, it recommended focusing on all the things you can do to maximize your earning potential, and save the personal needs for elsewhere, namely your personal life. I'll admit, I definitely didn't agree with everything the book said, but the overall point was undeniable. Things are so fluid, so often out of your control on a job, you'd be foolish to get emotionally invested. Get money, and come 5pm, get lost.

The book is largely common sense, but some of its principles are out of the box for me. It recommends making your boss look good as the number one requirement of any job. It asserts that nobody hires a stranger, and that networking on your job is just as important as building your skills. It surmises that jobs are better than careers, and explains the huge difference between the two. And finally, it suggests that you not look for any level of personal fulfillment or satisfaction from a job, not when it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.

While I've never been one to neglect my home life for work, I will admit to getting too emotionally tied up in the daily workplace comings and goings. And while I've always had relationships and activities outside of work that I looked to for fulfillment, I'll also admit to looking for perhaps too much of this on my 9-5. After reading the book, this too changed. If some of you think I put too much emotion into those kids I coach, perhaps you'll understand better now.

Basically, the book is about changing your perspective, rather than getting too emotionally spent on your situation. And in the time since, I've been able to successfully turn the corner in this regard. I work harder than ever before now, because I want to improve my skills, gain more experience, and beef up my resume so that I can continue to make more money for my growing family. I take even greater pride in my work, but certainly not more pride than I take in my job as a husband and dad. I work longer hours, but the minute I hit the elevator for the day, work is over, and home begins. I save my energy and verve for things (like family, friendships, and community) that matter. My job is truly nothing but work, but I've never done it better, nor been more successful at it. And yes, I became a manager again.

I guess I say all this to ask the following.

Question: Is a job just a means to some ends, or is there a greater personal goal? Is your current job personally fulfilling? Is it possible to be too emotionally invested in a job? Got any personal career-related stories you wanna share?

[1] Yeah, I have an extended family member with 11 kids on welfare who makes an awful good living selling soft shell crabs out her kitchen. Sad, but true.

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