A new question

On February 2, 2015 ‘Workthoughts’ joined the blogosphere with a question, Why work?

“As children we are open to any work possibility. We haven’t learned the value society places on work and workers. Our exploration of the world of work begins with the folks who keep us safe. We imagine ourselves as those fictional superheroes, donning capes and masks, scaling buildings to save the city or the planet from threat.

Throughout our years of formal education we gain additional information about work and workplace options. By the time we are in high school, our academic performance and test scores have segmented the class into college bound and not.

As we progress through education we acquire the biases of our community and culture, strongly influencing our choice of work.

We begin our careers as interns; apprentices excited about an opportunity to finally realize a long held dream. Along the way we translate that experience into a full time job and begin our careers acquiring skills and learning the culture of the organizations we join.

We become engaged in our communities, raise families and continue our education.

At some point the momentum of our career trajectory outruns our initial dreams and values, and it’s important to ask, why work?”

Other questions emerged over the past three years, but all seemed subsets of the original. This one, posed by writer Meghan Daum, captured the uncertainty of our current workplace moment: “How do we measure fulfillment in work and where do we find it when the traditional channels have given way to a round-the-clock hustle?”

This may be the defining ‘future of work’ career question.

To respond, we need new definitions of success, more inclusive portraits of achievement; focus on the work itself, not the consequences. There are new constructs, locations, timelines and contracts. Relationships and expectations @work are more fluid. Everything is changing.

“We get surprised in real life because we can’t know everything there is to know. For one thing, we’re stuck in our own heads, in a single point of view.” Jincy Willett

As we begin year four, @workthoughts will continue to share the surprises and examine life@work through the lens of current reporting, research, poetry and ‘The Saturday Read’.






It’s not just millennials – we all want to learn and grow @work

“How Do Employers Retain Job-Hopping Millennial Employees?” That was the question posed on Quora.com earlier this week. After reading the response from millennial entrepreneur, Elijah Medge, posted on Slate.com, I realized that what we want from work is not a generational issue, we all have similar expectations @work: to learn, grow and be challenged in an “awesome work environment”.

The American worker is tired of hearing about the ‘outrageous expectations’ of the millennial generation.

Instead, let’s step back and thank the millennials for their workplace vision that demands a voice in decision making, requires meaning @work, invites a diverse set of views and creates a bit of fun on the way to productivity.

There will always be a clash between employer and employee expectations when the process lacks honesty. Employers are scrambling to create ‘band aids’ to attract new hires. Job candidates, anxious to please a potential employer, play the game to get the offer, only to depart in a few months when promise and reality don’t match.

Media reports are full of stories of companies trying a variety of experiments to entice millennials to sign on the dotted line. There is no considered approach, just a bunch of ideas being thrown at the wall to see if any stick. The most recently publicized, ‘unlimited vacation time’.

Mr. Medge’s suggestions remind us that a fundamental tenet of management is ‘keep it simple’:

“Facilitate team bonding outside of the office.”

“Mix it up and have a little fun.”

“Take the time to coach, train, and develop successful mentalities.”

“Offer awesome incentives.”

“Encourage learning and mistakes.”

“Don’t micromanage.”

“Consistently recognize top performers.”

“Talk to your people about their goals.”

Do you see anything here that’s generation specific?

When corporate contracts with workers began to disintegrate in the late ’70s, members of the greatest generation and baby boomers were forced to rethink their relationship with the workplace. The disruption of downsizing signaled the end of ‘job stability’.

The level of workplace disruption came as a shock. Those generations were new at this and slow to respond. They had families and mortgages and the risks were too high to challenge the status quo, even thought the status quo had been shattered. The economy was changing and maintaining a standard of living required two incomes.

In contrast, today’s new workers, although saddled with debt, have few other ties. They are the ‘free agents’ of the contemporary workplace and they have watched previous generations, their parents and grandparents, and concluded there is a better way to work.

Let’s engage all workers in conversation about work culture that incorporates Mr. Medge’s common sense components.

The question of employee retention crosses all generations @work: the leaders, the mentors and the newbies. Calibrate the expectations of all members of the workplace community, align with the organization’s culture and restore credibility into the recruitment and retention process.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Where do the remnants of your childhood dreams reside? In the back of a closet? In a pile of boxes in a storage locker? In the memory of a childhood hero? Or, is there a kernel of that imagined life germinating in your days @work?

When we get stuck in our careers it makes sense to step back and imagine our work in the eyes of a five year old. Most of us are probably not dressed in the costumes of our earliest aspirations, but taking a look back at a photo of our pre-school self might provide the starting point for redirecting our career GPS.

We spend a lot of time in our lives fulfilling the expectations of others. In school we excel to please teachers and parents, we compete to attend the ‘right’ college to impress our peers, and we contend with other candidates to land the ‘best’ job offer. The process can become an end in itself, and one day we are sitting at our desk wondering how we arrived.

Rewind. What did you want to be when you grew up? Is there an element of that wish that links to the career decision maker you are today?

Maybe the opportunity to be the prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet is no longer an option, but could your dream of the dance connect with an alternative artistic career choice?

Start with small steps. Talk to people who actually are @work in your imagined dream job. What’s the reality? Could you test your interest with an internship or volunteer experience before you abandon your current source of revenue?

When we are young our career fantasies are limitless. We haven’t encountered any opposition to our imagination. That picture of our five year old self is a ‘screen shot’ of us before brick walls. Adults didn’t take our plans too seriously and encouraged our wildest dreams.

Now, you are the adult, looking at the photo of yourself BBW (before brick walls). What has happened over time between that image and today’s selfie? Maybe it’s time for the two of you to have a conversation about what’s next.

Why experience is better than perfection or how to avoid “permanent curvature of the spirit”

You know that question they ask in celebrity profiles: If you could invite anyone to dinner who would it be? I would invite Randy Pausch and Anna Quindlen. At the end of the meal I would be so clear on my goals, brimming with self-confidence and ready to break though any obstacles in my way.

Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who delivered the ‘Last Lecture’ to faculty and students in September 2007. The title of his lecture was ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’. Anna Quindlan is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist who delivered the 2009 commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke which was later published as a small book, ‘Being Perfect’.

Randy’s lecture takes us on a journey fulfilling his childhood dreams. No matter how out of reach each goal seemed, he figured out a way to achieve it. And then there were the times he encountered ‘brick walls’, which were usually people, not buildings. And he learned: “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

Not get what he wanted? Only at first. And that’s when the learning took place.“Brick walls are there for a reason…not to keep us out…to give us a chance to show how badly we want something…the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop other people…”

Anna’s essay frames her story within the pressure to be perfect. Arriving as a freshman at Barnard College in 1970 she had a plan for perfection that was disrupted by her reality. “Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules kept changing…it was harder to become perfect because I realized at Barnard, a place populated largely by terrifyingly well read women who all seemed to be elevating intellectual perfection to a high art, that I was not the smartest girl in the world. And eventually being perfect became like carrying a backpack filled with bricks every single day. And oh, how I wanted to lay my burden down.”

She continues with one of the most striking visuals to illustrate her point: “So if this sounds in any way familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect, too, then perhaps today is the day to put down that backpack before you develop permanent curvature of the spirit. Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But on one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy. Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or requires. Those requirements shape-shift, sure, but when you are clever you can read them and come up with the imitation necessary.”

At my imaginary dinner, I can hear Randy respond with a quote from his lecture: “When you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up…Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.

Critics are good. They remind you that perfection is irrelevant. Learning is what’s important.

Both Randy and Anna were smart enough, early in their careers to realize what matters is not the external influences but the strength of individual spirit and conviction. And in their respective stories we find an alternative model for success. It’s not about meeting the expectations of others, it’s about living up to your own.

Anna concludes: “… nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”