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The Most Important Choice

No sooner did I post "The Art of Work" than Gallup came out with a study underscoring my statement that many if not most people feel some sort of void in their work. Take a look:

gallup

Case closed, or open to interpretation?

Hope on the Horizon

Every day, I work with the 30% that are highly engaged professionals. Lucky for me, but no matter what the metadata says, I know for a fact that there is good news in that fraction. 30% is a good start, and certainly enough to build on.

The question is, what can we learn from them?

I've detected within this group the spirit of the Renaissance. They tend to make more of their waking moments. Granted, there's a universally sad state of affairs: global unrest, a sleepy economy, and general disenchantment with business owing to the fall from grace of once highly regarded executives, vaunted institutions and respected professions.

Within the 30% exists the desire reclaim some level of joy in work, and thus life. They've moved beyond the socially accepted definition of “right livelihood” and career success, toward creative expression through meaningful work. There's a silent scream for more engagement and excellence, they're hungry to respond to their employers’ demands for more innovation and commitment, and eager to explore avenues enabling a higher quality of experience on a daily basis.

I sense that they are asking a fundamental question of themselves, “How can I bring more of who I am to my work?”

In other words, they view work as art. And it's refreshing as all get-out.

3 Views of Work

A quick glance at the Gallup chart reveals three levels of engagement. I believe they correlate nicely to what I've observed: there are indeed three kinds of people populating the workforce.

Allow me to loosely recategorize them based on how they choose to view their work. Interestingly, in nearly every occupation I've observed, and I've been exposed to many, I find the division to be almost equal (so, something different than the Gallup hierarchy.)

Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies. - Albert Camus

First are those who choose to view their work as a paycheck. They see their job as a laborious chore lacking interest and engagement. Ignoring their creative potential and resigning themselves to the dismal drudgery and stifling mediocrity of work without passion, they rationalize that deeper yearnings are best left home, that work cannot possibly be stimulating, that work is meant solely to provide sustenance, and that all work is menial and tedious.

Second are those who choose to view their work as a stepping-stone. They see their job as a career commodity – a means to gain reward, advancement and status. Seeing their position as something to trade up, they ravage their creative energy in the constant search for something more or better. While performance can reach the heights of professionalism and technical competence, the motivation is not intrinsic. Eventually, they question the meaning of life as the fruitless search for the perfect position becomes the disturbing realization that such a thing does not exist, that all work has some downside.

The fortunate third who choose to view work as art see their job as the ultimate reward and the end in itself. They perform a substantially different role for an entirely different reason. Whatever their position or function might be, they make their work a creative extension and expression of who they are. They would perform their work for free if their economic circumstances so permitted, for it does not feel like work.

The Alchemy of Choice

Something akin to alchemy takes place when you begin to view your work as art. When work is art, you operate in a zone of natural creativity and power, seeking to fully employ your talents. When work is art, you expand your role without giving it a second thought, defining the work differently, being far more resourceful and resilient, using constraints as creative fuel, and more easily seeing opportunities to improve and innovate that others in the same position (holding a view of their work to be something less than art) don’t.

When work is art, nothing seems impossible. When work is art, you intuitively seek perfection, and, perhaps most importantly, you feel connected to something larger than your immediate task.

It is your work in life that is your ultimate seduction. - Pablo Picasso

When your work is your art, there is nothing you’d rather be or do – you become an artist.

To a large degree, creative excellence is a personal choice. We have an enormous reserve of discretionary personal energy we bring to our work each day, and we can choose to invest none, some or all of it.

Withholding any of it directly reduces our creativity and artistry by that proportion.

Deciding to bring more of who we are to our work is perhaps the most important artistic choice we can make.

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2 Responses to "The Most Important Choice"

  • Tim Allen
    Saturday, June 29th, 2013 - 7:21 AM Reply

    Hi Matthew,
    I appreciate the article, and really enjoyed your book “the laws of subtraction”. For nearly a year now I’ve been putting this practice to work in both my home life and business, and am enjoying the results.
    As it relates to this post, it leaves me wondering if you have any tips for how to get employee’s more engaged? I think to some degree most business owners recognize that these different worker catagories exist, but we struggle to move the needle toward a more positive position and typicallly have limited results. I’d love to see your thoughts on creating a more engaging atmosphere, and perhaps methods of determining what may get a specific employee more engaged.

    • Matt
      Saturday, June 29th, 2013 - 7:58 AM Reply

      Thanks Tim! For this series I’m going to focus on what people can do for themselves to be more engaged. I’ve seen highly engaged people working in what appears to be an in attractive setting for seemingly bad bosses. So that’s where the power is in my view.

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