What makes work work?

Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage mugOn the first day of my new job, I reached into an office cabinet to take out a coffee mug and, to my surprise and delight, emerged with one that carried the logo for Northampton’s annual Hot Chocolate Run for Safe Passage.

As regular readers know, I’d just left my beloved Northampton – a western Massachusetts college town where I’d hoped to put down roots – to take a job in Boston. I’d participated in the Hot Chocolate Run several times myself, and picking up this mug—on my very first day!—struck me as crazily serendipitous, you might even say, a sign.

Over time, however, I’ve come to see it as something else: A reflection of the fact that I’d landed in a simpatico workplace culture.

The coffee mug incident wasn’t the only clue. There was also the fact that, when I interviewed, the two future colleagues with whom I had lunch were both Buddhist meditators. The fact that my department head took time off from work to campaign for her (and my) candidate before November’s election. The fact that I love my colleagues’ distinctive scarves and ear rings. I could go on.

Much advice about career transitions focuses on the what—on figuring out what you want to do and then finding a place to do it. Do you want to take cases to trial? Do you want to write about food? Do you want to counsel women in crisis? Do you want to teach kids?

Yes, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to do—but I’ve found that it’s equally (or more) important to consider the where and the how.

I love to write. Whether I’m working on a Plan B Nation post (like this one) or a speech about health care, I tend to lose myself in the process of putting words together—to enter that state of absorption famously described as flow.

But that isn’t to say that I’d love any job that involves lots of writing—and speaking from experience, I can tell you that I would not. My current job isn’t the most prestigious I’ve ever had, and it’s not the most high-paying. It is, however, overall, one of the more satisfying.

So what accounts for job satisfaction? Over time, I’ve come to identify the qualities that matter most to me, which incidentally, can all be traced directly to workplace culture.  Here are three examples:

1. Autonomy

I’m far from alone here—lots of research suggests that autonomy is critical to on-the-job satisfaction. (One interesting recent study found that high-level leaders have less stress than those lower on the corporate food chain, with researchers hypothesizing that this counter-intuitive result stems from the fact that the higher-ups have more control over their lives.)

That said, I suspect autonomy is more important to some of us than others. For me, it’s really important, and my most difficult professional experiences have been in workplace cultures where this creates tension. (“I feel like I’ve spent the year trying to keep you in the box, and you’ve spent the year trying to get out,” one supervisor ruefully remarked many years ago.) I could be writing the coolest thing in the word, but if I’m being micro-managed, I’m not going to be happy.

2. Balance

I don’t care how much I like what I’m doing: I don’t want to do it 110 hours a week. For that reason alone, I was never going to be happy in the sort of firm where I spent my first two years after law school.

It’s no secret that in the post-Recession world, work has gotten more demanding, as layoffs and increased “efficiencies” create more work for those who remain. Still, while I roll my eyes at suggestions that employees simply need to do a better job setting limits, the issue of balance is a real one. If you’re unhappy at work, is it because of what you’re doing or is it because of how much? And if you’re lucky enough to have some choice: How much is it worth to you to have time to dedicate to other parts of your life? For me, it’s worth a lot.

3.  Mission

A shared sense of larger mission–such as the one that infuses my work at Harvard School of Public Health—is a through-line, enriching good days and giving meaning to the inevitable minor slumps. In my experience, it’s also more likely to lead to warm workplace friendships—which themselves have been found to correlate with job satisfaction and success.

Even Cal Newport—an outspoken critic of the “follow your passion” school of decision-making—discourages people from taking a job they think is useless or actively bad for the world. His reasoning is partly pragmatic: If you feel this way, you’re probably going to have a hard time sticking around long enough to build up the sort of career capital that you’ll need to move forward long-term.

* * *

In 2011, as the Great Recession ground onward, I found myself scratching my head over a New York Times article with the headline “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C.”  The piece recounted the stories of several people who traded steady jobs for entrepreneurial opportunities, launching businesses that included a Greek food stall, a wedding planning business, and an online ceramics store. As Newport might have predicted, it wasn’t long before they were overwhelmed. “I preach to my students to make time for themselves, to treat their bodies as vital instruments. Now I’m lucky if I get that a few times a month,” said a marketing professional turned Pilates instructor.

But here’s the curious thing: Only one of the people interviewed regretted their decisions. While the piece didn’t offer any explanation, I have an idea. Even harder than working for yourself is working in an alien culture. If that was their alternative, these choices make total sense.

What workplace culture qualities are important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job practicing law to write a novel. I had never written a novel before and had, what is in retrospect, a laughably (or rather frighteningly) small cushion of savings. A year later, I had a lucrative deal with a major publisher.  My first novel was a People magazine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of foreign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will follow. Along with being the title of a popular self-help book, it sums up a distinctive ethos of a distinctive time in American history—an Oprah-fied vision of possibilities where the only limits were the boundaries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Looking back, the Follow Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an economy in overdrive. The widespread failure to see this link was a significant if not surprising vestige of ways of thinking that have deep roots in western culture. It is the same point made by any number of characters in Jane Austen’s novels and stated with particular clarity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Margaret Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its existence.”

The danger of such forgetfulness is now apparent from any number of cautionary tales, most recently Elizabeth Wurtzel’s meltdown in the pages of New York magazine. “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years,” writes the bestselling author of Prozac Nation and graduate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this example not be sufficiently chilling, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebrities brought low by financial missteps. Most visible among these is Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the blockbuster Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After making a fortune proclaiming the joys of simple living, Breathnach went on a spending spree, with purchases including Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England and Marilyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with nothing. (While Simple Abundance spent years on bestseller lists, her December 2010 comeback effort—Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Way to Financial Serenity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after publishing two books and struggling with a third, I ultimately made my way back into the paid workforce—but looking back, I see a similar thread. I too had a tendency to see the present as prelude, to live as if success, once achieved, laid the groundwork for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my interest in a trend that I’ve taken to calling Follow Your Heart 2.0. In this iteration, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between idealism and practicality. Rather, the new model recognizes that contentment generally requires stability as well as passion. It’s Follow Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An especially clear formulation of what I’m talking about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha. The pair urge their readers to consider three interlocking pieces when making work-related decisions: Assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our talents, education, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two categories are pretty much what they sound like.

Significantly, the authors aren’t telling readers to forget about their dreams. Rather, they’re saying that dreams exist within a larger framework. Depending on your goals–and depending on your needs–context, including the market, may be critically important. “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that [her] passion is mobile payment systems,” Work Stew blogger Kate Gace Walton remarked dryly of one successful entrepreneur. All dreams are not created equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of education and social capital, the late 90s economy was forgiving and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The economy circa 2013 is a very different place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one literary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Recession began. Five years later, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m seeing Follow Your Heart 2.0 infuse the popular conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s apparent in Marci Alboher’s excellent new Encore Career Handbook, which acknowledges the critical role that finances play in making a transition to more meaningful work in the second half of life. It’s also central to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that passion most often follows hard work and success, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direction, and I struggle when circumstances channel my energies into other things. For many of us, work that feels meaningful is a big part of what makes life worthwhile, and there may be times when pursuing that is worth almost any sacrifice.  But today, the stakes are different, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy endings are harder to come by. Uncertainty is guaranteed.