What If Good Work Was The Norm?
One of the common pieces of conversation prompted by the pandemic has been that “after this is over, everything is going to be different.” It sounds uplifting... though I’m not sure what people are imagining will have changed. While a crisis (personal or collective) can cause reflection, more often than not, when it’s over, things merely revert to being much the way they were before it happened.
Much of the world right now feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern. And yet, I’d like to suggest that we have the power to get going right now. To begin making that better world we all want.
We may not be able to personally change the whole world this week. But we can alter what we do when we go to work.
Bad work: a long-term problem
One place to start would be by trying to end what Wendell Berry, writing while we were in our last big national crisis in 2009, called “bad work.” While the pandemic and politics have the headlines, bad work is as big (or maybe bigger) of a long-term problem.
“The industrialization... ,” Berry writes, “has filled the world with ‘jobs’ that are meaningless, demeaning and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is an argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination.”
Bad work is like strip mining for the soul.
As I wrote in the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: Bad work is almost always exhausting. People finish it feeling physically and emotionally drained, doing less bad work is only slightly less exhausting than doing more.
Bad work, to use a technical term, just plain sucks. I don’t want to do it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to do it either.
Bad work is about people being treated as if they have nothing insightful to offer, as if they know next to nothing, or are “too stupid to understand upper-level activity.”
Bad work is about people being regularly managed in ways that are at best disrespectful and, at worst, downright abusive. It’s about people going to work every day in settings that aren’t in sync with their values—going “into the closet” when you go to work is a hard way to go.
On a scale of 0 to 10, bad work is a 6 or below. We tolerate it because we have bills to pay and families to feed, but not too many people would recommend it.
Bad work has long been accepted as the norm. And yet, I would argue, as business writer Gary Hamel said, “None of this is OK, not by a long shot.”
How do we do make the shift?
Ultimately, it’s my strong belief that when we work in harmony with nature—in this case, human nature, as outlined in the “Natural Laws of Business”—we move meaningfully towards good work. In doing so we can create workplaces that honor the unique capabilities and creativity of every single person we hire.
When we embrace that the healthiest ecosystems in nature are the most diverse, and do our best to replicate the natural diversity in what we do and who we do it with every day; when we bring beauty into every single action; when we make dignity and grace into the ways we work every day, then we have the chance to take things to the next level. When we do that, we create good work. And when we make good work, we can change the world.
There's a section about good work I read to audiences fairly regularly when I teach:
Good work is life altering, fulfilling, and fun. Good work is about learning, laughing, growing, all the while earning enough money to make your dreams come true. It’s about collaborating with people you care about and who share your values, contributing something positive to the people and the community around you.
It’s fun, not something you flee from. It’s a place you want to be, even if you rightfully have other places you want to go. Good work is about positive energy—both feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in, work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you. It’s endlessly sustainable, not energy-sapping.
While people might certainly, on any given day, go home tired after doing good work, they’re rarely spiritually exhausted. When we’re into what we’re doing, giving it everything we’ve got, learning and laughing even under duress, the experience is likely to be energizing, even if, in the moment, physically tiring.
At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in.
I can hardly read this without tearing up. Hearing the words, even silently in my head, my own energy and passion are lifted. It almost always gets very positive response. It’s what I want from my work.
Whether the “work” is in a business, an academic or religious institution, a not-for-profit, or a school system, I think it’s likely what every human being would like. People can argue about politics, but I don’t think anyone is actively looking for bad work.
Good work is what most people want at home, and it’s what we want from our personal and professional relationships. It's true for professors and parents, prep cooks, pipefitters, and poets alike.
But what can I do?
Ultimately, good work happens when we have made what we do every day into our art. Artists who believe in their work are more grounded. Their energy is more engaged. They focus more on their own creative design, rather than raking others over the communal coals.
Because as the poet Amiri Baraka once said, “The artist's role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely.”
Even in a pandemic we have the power to make the changes right here, right now.
In his preface to E. F. Schumacher’s Good Work, his colleague George McRobie writes: "Schumacher would invariably get asked by someone, often overwhelmed, in the audience, “But what can I do?”
His simple answer was “Do three things, one after the other, one leading into the other... Start where you are. But start. Don’t wait for the perfect situation."
Each time we put effort into enhancing and advancing good work, bringing beauty into the workplace, dedicating ourselves to dignity and bringing out the artist in everyone we know, good things are sure to have come of it.
Love, kindness, and creativity can become the order of the day.
As John O’Donohue said: “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”