When work doesn’t feel like work

For years, I’ve heard platitudes about people who love what they do. How it doesn’t feel like work. How they would pay to do it.

“How annoying,” I would think to myself.

During most of my career, we used the expression “combat pay” to capture our feeling that we earned our money because we were so often stressed and unhappy. I figured a job wasn’t meant to be fun or enjoyable, and that’s why they paid you. That’s why they call it work. 

This week, though, I saw for myself how – and why – work could feel like something else entirely.

Whistling while I work

Channeling my inner Snow White

I was on a plane heading for holiday in Japan with plenty of options for passing the time: books, movies, sleep. But instead I worked on presenter notes for slides. Even more unusual is that the notes weren’t for me, but for people I’ve never met.

It took me several hours, and as I was working on it I felt happy.

A few days later, my wife and kids were visiting friends and I was on my own for the day. I could have taken a train and visited any of a number of spots in Japan that I love.

Instead, I worked in various Kobe cafes for 6 hours, updating peer support guides. This was harder than working on presenter notes as it involved more thought and creativity, as well as uncertainty about whether the outcome would be worth it. It wasn’t fun. Yet at the end of the day, after making good progress on the guides, I felt fulfilled. Later today, I’ll be on high-speed train and I’m looking forward to working on them again.

It’s remarkable even to me. Why am I happy to spend precious holiday time doing these things?

5 reasons 

Some of the reasons will be clear to anyone who has studied motivation or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

As I was working on the notes and the guides, I was tapping into these intrinsic motivators and more:

Autonomy: I was self-directed, without a boss, process, or system controlling me.

Mastery: I was actively researching and learning while trying to improve my work.

Purpose: I knew why I was doing my work – to help other people access a better career and life – and that higher purpose ennobles even mundane work.

Connectedness: Though I was working by myself, I was interacting before and afterwards with people around the world who were giving me feedback and expressing thanks.

Compassion: At first I labelled this generosity, but it feels like more than that. We may or not be wired for generosity beyond our inner social circle, but there’s plenty of evidence that compassion, or living with an other-centric viewpoint, is a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.

The $$$ question

My sense is that anyone who has donated their time to a good cause can relate to my experience this week.

A question for me is how money would change things. More precisely, if there was an extrinsic motivator involved – Every WOL circle pays $10! The client is demanding it on Monday! – would it rob me of my feelings of fulfillment? Would it feel like work again?

It seems obvious that the answer is yes. But perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps you could give away most of the work and figure out ways to monetize a portion of it. Then you might be able to retain most of the feeling of joy and fulfillment, of flow, knowing that the paid portion makes all the rest possible.

What do you think? Have you seen people do this well? Are there role models to emulate?

photo (11)

Confessions of a not-so-busy person

I used to be busy. I also disliked what I did and accomplished less than I could have. Then some things changed.

I made three adjustments that made me happier and much more productive. Nothing as radical as a 4-Hour Workweek or Escape from Cubicle Nation. After all, I still have a job and I’m still at the same firm. My adjustments are about choices and small steps that may help you too.

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Photograph: Ewa Ahlin/Getty Images/Johner Images

Cognitive surplus

When I was busy, I remember thinking that I didn’t have any time. Yet I managed to watch 10-20 hours of television each week, usually sports. Other hobbies, like golf or gardening, could take up another 5 hours a week. And my daily commute took up another 12 or so.

I’ve since made different choices. Living in the city has shortened my commute to a 20-minute walk. Cutting cable reduced television altogether and I now have other hobbies I’m passionate about.

I’m not suggesting those choices are inherently good, or even possible, for everyone. It’s just remarkable to me that I had a cognitive surplus and didn’t know it. Even without any changes to my job, I’ve found 20-30 hours a week to sleep better, eat better, exercise, and participate in things I enjoy more.

Saying yes and saying no

When I was busy, I would fill my calendar with meetings and obsessively look at my Blackberry. I would travel a lot. It felt like work and consumed all of my time at the office and often at home.

But was it necessary? Some professions (ER doctors, for example) have no choice but to react to things as they come in. But I was a manager in a large IT department. There was no blood, no life and death. What was I doing?

In retrospect, I was avoiding the real work: learning, improving, innovating, creating. It was easier to be busy than to confront all that I didn’t know. It was less scary to react to things, to go from appointment to appointment and “manage,” than to focus for a prolonged time on trying to make a difference and to care so much about the outcome.

Over time, I learned to craft my job, to shape it so it was more fulfilling and effective. That included saying no where I could, putting less emotional energy into meaningless but required tasks, and carving out blocks of time to attempt work that mattered.

Working out loud

The most important change I made was to change my job entirely. Working out loud made it possible to shape my reputation and build a network that led to new opportunities in the same firm.

Because of the other adjustments I made, I had time to learn and experiment. By making that work visible and framing it as a contribution that might help others (as opposed to promoting myself), I was able to find and connect with other people interested in what I was doing. Over time, that work became more valuable and I was in a role that never existed before.

That pattern continues and there’s largely no longer a boundary between what I do for work and what I do for fulfillment. By one measure, I don’t have a long workday at all. By another measure, I’m constantly working – researching, writing, engaging people, and building something that matters.

On Monday, I’ll speak to 350 people at my firm about something no one asked me to work on. They’ll each be holding a book no one asked me to write. On Friday, that book became available around the world. It’s work that’s good for me and good for the firm.

Working Out Loud on amazon.co.jp

Am I lucky? Absolutely. And by working out loud, I tilted the odds in my favor.

What about you?

I wrote this post because in the Q&A after one of my presentations, someone remarked on how busy I must be. She meant it as a compliment and yet I was worried it was a barrier for her. “I could never do what you do.”

I wanted to let her know I’m not busy. Though her own job, story, ambitions, and trade-offs will all be different from mine, I wanted to let her know that she has more choices and more control than she might have assumed. I wanted her to think about the possibilities. I wanted her to take a step toward making her own luck too.

How an undisciplined person was able to blog for 200 weeks in a row

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

That undisciplined person is me.

I’m someone whose list of things to do is scrawled on scraps of paper. I put off things I don’t enjoy doing, like taxes and even the smallest of administrative tasks. Occasionally <ahem> I’ll eat and drink too much.

Despite my lack of discipline in some areas, though, I’ve managed to write a blog post every week for 200 weeks. By sharing how I did it, maybe I can help others who want to write more too.

The beginning

It was about six years ago when I first started writing. Looking for some kind of creative outlet as I was changing roles at work, I began using a low-tech blogging platform that was available inside the company, and the early posts were therapeutic. I wrote about things I was interested in, and with each post I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I wrote only half a dozen times that year, but one post about trying to use Gmail at work attracted over a thousand comments. I was amazed at how a simple essay on a social platform could make it possible to connect people and build a movement. Something clicked. I saw that by making my ideas and work visible, I could shape my reputation and get access to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

I started to take writing more seriously. My friend Eric, an author and journalist, helped me by editing my work and offering support. I gradually started writing more, enjoying the feedback, and after 18 months or so I was posting something every week inside my firm.

The struggle

Writing did not come naturally. I would procrastinate. I would stare at a blank screen not knowing what to write. I would hate my early attempts at a post as I kept failing to make a concise point.

I was mindful too that I was often spoiling Saturday mornings with my brooding over a laptop, testing my wife’s patience. And for what?

I thought of stopping, but I remember reading Seth Godin’s daily blogs at the time, and they provided me with much-needed encouragement. Here’s one of them:

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe? …

If you think there’s a chance you can make a dent, GO. Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

And another:

“Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.”

I always thought I could make a dent, but I was increasingly aware that time was running out. I became more purposeful. At a low point in my career, I saw what it was like not to have many options, and I saw writing as a way to take some control over my learning and access to possibilities. I refused to give up.

In June 2011, after writing for a few years at work, I was going to give a talk at a conference and I wanted people there to be able to find my work online. So I bought a domain name, picked a WordPress theme, and anguished over my first public post.

I think only 16 people read it, and despite all that writing at work, I still hadn’t found my voice – what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But that is now 200 weeks ago. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Over time, a gradually growing audience would tell me how they came to expect my posts every Saturday morning. Not wanting to let them down motivated me to ship each week.

Making it a habit

As the weeks went on, I gradually got smarter. I kept a list of topics so I wouldn’t ever panic in front of a blank screen. I started drafting posts earlier in the week so my subconscious could work on the post for a few days. And I stuck to a schedule. Everything I had read about authors I admired said they treated writing like a job. You sit down and write, and you meet your deadline no matter what.

After perhaps 100 public posts the writing started to get easier or, more precisely, I didn’t worry about it as much. The regimen relieved me of much of the stress. The difficulty of writing a good first draft is now familiar and my anxiety quickly turns into recognition. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “it’s just part of the process.” I also know that each post is another small step towards getting better.

While I still don’t recognize myself as a disciplined person, I have become a disciplined writer, posting twice a week now and having just finished a book. Writing is now something I enjoy doing, and I can see applying that process, that discipline, to other parts of my life.

I’m looking forward to it.

What you learn when you spend 17 years in the same company

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.35.57 AMLinkedIn recently reminded me that I’ve been working at the same big firm for 17 years.

“Say happy work anniversary!” they said.

So I liked my own announcement, as did 76 other people. Their comments made me reflect on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and why I’m still working in the same place.

“Congrats! WOW has it really been that long?”

Most of the comments were a simple “Congratulations” and many expressed mild shock at how time flies, or how I survived for so long, or both.

My favorite was this one: “17 years and mostly glorious. Well done!”

Mostly glorious. I remember when I joined in 1998 and it felt like we were building a business. In those early years, I spent months in London in a small apartment in South Kensington, working with smart people and intimidating traders to implement new technology. Then we were off to Frankfurt to do it there. It was thrilling. Against most predictions (including my own), our business thrived. We all did.

I also remember laying people off and barely escaping that process myself. I remember fear and stress. I remember a string of bosses and the worst performance review I ever had.

17 years in a large organization means I’ve seen the best and the worst of people, of teams, and of the firm overall. It means I’ve failed many times, and learned about the vicissitudes of business and life. Much of what I see now at work is comprised of movies I have seen before.

“All the best for the next 17”

Working in a big organization, I’m increasingly conscious that my work there is not obviously ennobling. I’m not saving lives or saving the planet.

What keeps me working there are 3 Cs: craft, connections, and compensation. Large organizations provide unique opportunities for developing valuable skills, to do so with people around the world inside and outside the firm, and to get paid regularly while you’re learning and connecting.

The organization is a platform, one that I get value from while I deliver value of a different kind to the firm and the people in it. Late in my career, I’ve learned to spend much more time on my craft and my connections and less time focusing on the yearly bonus that’s largely out of my control.

The biggest surprise

The biggest surprise to me is that the recent years have been my best by far. Not the best-paid or best-titled but the most important and the most helpful to people. We’ve changed the culture, given people a voice, and enabled them to take greater control of their career and life.

Although almost all of the people I worked with when I started are long gone, and the people and management I work with now have no idea of my contributions in the past, it’s fine. There’s a more important legacy I’d like to leave.

As Maya Angelou has said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

One woman who left the firm said congratulated me “for making people’s work lives sunnier.” I liked that. Increasingly, I’m learning to mark my success by the number of people who say “Thank you for making this a better place.” That kind of feedback makes my work fulfilling and inspires me to do and be more.

Maybe working in a big company can be ennobling after all.

A shift in possibilities

This blog, and my life, are about to change.

Six years ago, I was told I had to look for a different job. While dealing with the uncertainty of finding a new role, I started writing at work. It began as therapy at the time but it eventually led to a new career, and it taught me the power of making my work visible.

Three years ago, I started writing this blog. That led to a network of thousands of people, a focus on helping others, a book, and more meaning and fulfillment in my work and life. It taught me the power of relationships.

Last week, workingoutloud.com launched amidst working out loud week, and there was a swell of interest and ideas and interaction. In India, for example, peer support groups (working out loud circles) formed during the week, adding to the ones in the US, UK, Spain, and Australia. I applied to deliver a TEDx talk.

Now what? I’m not sure.

Not all those who wander are lost

I do know that, starting this week, I’ll post articles related to working out loud on the new website. If you subscribe to workingoutloud.com, you’ll get an email every Wednesday morning with stories, techniques, and other resources related to building a better career and life.

That will change this blog. I’ll still write every Saturday morning because it’s too big a part of my life to stop. Having the new site frees me up to write about other things here, to explore, discover, and learn. The topics will be more personal and creative.

Your reading, supporting, and connecting has changed my life and helped me discover a purpose I now describe this way:

“To help people find meaning and fulfillment in their work and life.”

Thank you. That’s a purpose I could never have dreamed of until recently. The last six years have taught me that destiny isn’t something that awaits you, it’s something you create with the help and support of others.

Anyone can shift what’s possible for them. What about you?

What relationships will you build? 

What purpose will you discover? 

What destiny will you create?