How Important Is It To Enjoy Your Work?

This is a question that has long intrigued me. It comes up more frequently, too, as individual workers find it harder to find work at all, much less work that they enjoy. But even in a difficult economy, employees regularly switch jobs to work in a more satisfying environment.

They are told repeatedly to "follow your heart…and the money will come." Even aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to take that path to fulfill a dream, chase their hopes, and attempt to "build it," hoping they will come.

I happen to enjoy my work, consulting, speaking, and writing for firms like yours since early 1994. I also love it when I talk to someone who enjoys their work. We should be quite grateful if we do, indeed, enjoy our work.

But that's different than having a right to enjoy it. Not only do I strongly disagree with the sentiment, I think believing it has twisted our expectations and those of our employees. It's not all that different, in fact, from commenting on someone's gruesome death that "at least she died doing what she loved."

What the hell? The combination of living through a civil war and teaching motorcycle racing has created situations where at least a dozen people have died right in front of me. The last one occurred at Barber Race Track outside Birmingham, where the fellow I was just getting ready to pass ran into a wall and died instantly. Yes, he was doing what he loved, but only until he went off the track and ran head-first into a wall. At that point he was certainly NOT doing what he loved, and I seriously doubt there was any consolation for him in that final split second when he knew it was over. People don't die "doing what they love" unless they love dying.

Similarly, you won't ever hear me quip that "at least he was following his heart" when his business went under. This is not a little issue to me, and it's because the phrase itself is incredibly bad advice. Here's why.

First, a lot of people who are "following their heart" are starving. It's just true. Even pseudo-entrepreneurs who follow a system via a franchise are failing in droves--in some, there's a 60% failure rate.

Second, just because you are good at something and even enjoy it doesn't mean that you are good at making money doing it. Say you love riding bicycles and spend much of your leisure time doing it or talking about it. What's the relationship between that and starting a bicycle shop? The only relationship between the two is that you'll be knowledgeable in ordering inventory and in speaking to customers. But it says nothing about your knowledge of handling money, maintaining a steady marketing presence, managing people, etc. Besides, it's possible that you may no longer have time to ride bicycles.

Third, it discounts the luck (lack of providence?) that steers a business one way or another. I've been successful because I'm smart, disciplined, and very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, and I'll never discount that portion of my success. I'm incredibly grateful for it and I know that without it I'd be somewhere else in life. All of us are a few stupid mistakes away from financial ruin.

Fourth and finally, it disenfranchises 84.6% of the world's population (those not living in developed nations, according to the World Bank) who have no choice but to work in jobs, usually, where enjoying them is not a realistic part of the equation. Are we so selfish, short-sighted, and US-centric that we turn an amazing benefit into a demand? This is something I'd like us to think more about.

Why does this matter? Primarily it matters because of our expectations and source of fulfillment. More specifically your business exists for three reasons, in this order: to make money, to move the needle on behalf of clients, and to create a culture where people can thrive. If you can add a fourth criteria--to enjoy your work--more power to you. But be deeply grateful and not demanding about it.

You might spread this news to your employees and children, too! Finally, let me end with the final part of an interview that Scott London did with Chris Hillman, who died last year:

London: You mentioned Goethe earlier. He remarked that our greatest happiness lies in practicing a talent that we were meant to use. Are we so miserable, as a culture, because we’re dissociated from our inborn talents, our soul’s code.

Hillman: I think we’re miserable partly because we have only one god, and that’s economics. Economics is a slave-driver. No one has free time; no one has any leisure. The whole culture is under terrible pressure and fraught with worry. It’s hard to get out of that box. That’s the dominant situation all over the world.

Also, I see happiness as a by-product, not something you pursue directly. I don’t think you can pursue happiness. I think that phrase is one of the very few mistakes the Founding Fathers made. Maybe they meant something a little different from what we mean today — happiness as one’s well-being on earth.

London: It’s hard to pursue happiness. It seems to creep up on you.

Hillman: Ikkyu, the crazy Japanese monk, has a poem:

You do this, you do that
You argue left, you argue right
You come down, you go up
This person says no, you say yes
Back and forth
You are happy
You are really happy

What he is saying is: Stop all that nonsense. You’re really happy. Just stop for a minute and you’ll realize you’re happy just being. I think it’s the pursuit that screws up happiness. If we drop the pursuit, it’s right here.

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