People are talking about "fun work", but are those words even remotely compatible, or is the juxtaposition perverse by definition?
Is it possible to make the third of your life you invest in the industry enjoyable without fundamentally undermining your personality, or is it just hype to get people to produce more?
First, I should say that I am genetic anomaly: I actually enjoy almost any kind of work. In my time I have worked high above the ground and far below it, in -22 degrees Fahrenheit one day and 86 degrees sun the next, often for 12 to 18 hour stretches and in a variety of industries. I've laid bricks, taken care of the mentally ill and cleaned up big oily machines with lots of warning signs attached to them.
Except for one occasion I always enjoyed myself. I've only said no to a task once in my life, and that was after cleaning out this huge ghastly chicken farm, which had been closed down due to salmonella. We were a team of guys moving for 12 hours through corridors as black as endless space, surrounded by cages several storeys high and up to our knees in chicken shit mixed with water mixed with feathers and carcasses. We were each equipped with high pressure water guns, which could easily take off your finger, and a work lamp.
After working at the factory once I realized the protection was insufficient, as I broke out in rashes. When the boss called me after six hours of sleep and asked me if I was ready to return, I told him "no." Why not, he wanted to know.
"I got a rash. The protection suit you gave us is leaky."
"What? You never said no to a job before."
"Well, I do now."
"Come on. You can't work because of a little rash? Only chicken get salmonella."
That conversation ended abruptly.
These days I do a lot of strange things at work. I am self-employed, and journalism is only about 25 % of what I do. Other than that I produce newsletters, speeches, business profiles and solve other copy writing challenges. It's a little creative, and it pays better than freelance journalism, which requires a lot of research and a lot of pitching for measly wages.
Also, I run information campaigns, plan strategies and manage implementation projects related to communication technology. It gets complicated. Most of what I do is very technical, very complicated, sometimes tied up to complex political issues and mixed with psychological and social and financial conflicts between sectors, classes of workers and various organizations and subcontractors.
Often people have ended up nervous wrecks doing what I do. Some have died suddenly, and I suspect stress was a huge factor.
Still, I smile every day. I can remember when I had a bad day at work, but it is fuzzy in my memory. It has taken me years to get here, and there was a time when I thought, like many workers, "What is the point?"
Fortunately, I am blessed with the ability to disregard such metaphysical questions in favor of enjoying the moment and introducing incremental improvements. You could call it selective indifference.
These days, if I had more fun working, I would be a sexual deviant. I really enjoy it. I often stop and say like the Joker in The Dark Knight:
"I like this job. I really do."
I don't figure I can make any really boring job exciting, introduce radical changes in the general work environment or even solve motivational problems of individual workers. All I can do is tell how I did it. I call it the 5M system:
M for Mythology
I mythologize my work. I know I may just be writing some article for a magazine, but in my mind I am contributing to increased performance and professionalism of a high quality outlet. When I started my own company I structured my business plan according to a strategy game. This makes it enjoyable for me to monitor all the parameters of success.
The best illustration of how mythology can influence your motivation is an advertisement I once saw.
A traveler once passed by a huge construction site and stopped to ask a worker what he was doing. The worker said:
"I am carving this stone."
The traveler went to another worker, who was performing the exact same task, and he asked:
"What are you doing?
"I am building a magnificent cathedral", the second worker replied.
One of the things that spoil the fun of working is if you get stuck in annoying details. A grand scope can help you feel better about what you.
M for Management
I began managing, when I was an assistant pastor for a small congregation. Those were my religious days. It taught me to run a campaign, to manage elaborate projects and to handle large groups of people. I had a routine in which I would pray for every single member, partner and contact, one hour a day. The practical benefit of it was that I would become increasingly aware of the psychological reality of every person involved in the organization.
Later I was the editor of a lifestyle magazine. I sort of translated the religious discipline into meditating about employees and business associates, taking into account their interests, challenges and aspirations.
I figure one of the things that really spoil the fun of working for a great many people is unreasonable, indifferent or incompetent managers. These tendencies often rub off on the entire organization, making work a constant frustration. When I realized this, I began managing my bosses.
How do you do that? Well, you got to be subtle. You don't want to give the appearance you are trying to undermine their authority. One thing I have done is to offer suggestions in a way that would allow them to take credit for improvements and achievements. I figured: Okay, I don't get the credit, but things are improved. If I wanted the credit, that might become an obstacle to change. So, I let bosses think they got the idea, or at least that they managed to cleverly steal it and present it as their own. It's a way of exercising influence, and it can be fun too, if you can keep your sense of humor about it.
These days I try to raise clients. What I mean by raising them is to offer them hints to how they can make their organization run smoother, just to save myself from annoying impracticalities. I do this by blogging and sometimes by offering hints in my bills, such as:
"Bundle your orders and make more of your money".
So, it is also a business philosophy. I offer some advantages or discounts, if people organize their efforts. It is much easier for me to perform, making a steady stream of successes more likely, and it saves me time and money and worries. I'll pay a bit for that.
M for Mastery
Work, like sports or games, is more fun if you win. To some "to win" is to advance their career, to some it is merely increasing their income, and to some winning has to do with accomplishment or recognition.
I basically run my company and my career as a game. Every three months I write a list of realistic short term goals, and as I check them I produce diagrams in Excel to visualize how well I do. This is a lot of help. Usually I have far more success than I expected, which is probably a side-effect of both improved focus and projecting will. It is also fun… to me.
I spend a significant amount of time figuring out how to make work more pleasant to me. It's an active project, where I try to shave off percentages of factors that reduce my work satisfaction. I've just completed a project to eradicate tedious repetitive tasks by way of macros, preconfigured tables and basic Excel. At this point it's interesting to me to raise the stakes of my operation without injuring the cash-flow. I want to get deeper into multi-media communication, so I set aside some time for research and some funds for software leases, and then I write the project description. I keep a log as I move along, and every new encoding option mastered is like a small victory, a new capacity I can offer clients and customers.
The important thing is to have a mythology, a grand narrative, which raises your investment above simply making more money for yourself or working for "the man". I think you call it a vision and a mission.
The basic point of vision and mission statements is to make your work about more than just keeping the wheels spinning and to have other criteria for success than merely financial data.
It is also about moving from "I give 8 hours to this place to make a living and have fun in the weekends and on vacations" to "I take 8 hours of fun adjusting cogs and moving abstract values in this corporate machine, and in return they pay me, so I can have more fun."
M for Motivation
It all boils down to Motivation. Motivation is what makes anything fun, not just work. The opposite of motivation is, in terms of behavioral science, depression. Depression is a product of inability to dominate the territory found in mammals, characterized by reduced activity, muscle tension and hormonal changes.
If you are not motivated, you are depressed, basically. Your genes are trying to wipe out your body, to put it brutally. Your immunity defense goes down. You get cortisone deficiency. You reek of gloom.
When depression is not caused by incarceration, starvation or other harsh circumstances, it is often a product of existential fear.
No amount of measures can make work enjoyable under such conditions. Humans, however, have the ability to drastically alter their circumstances. They can pick a lock, and they can produce nutrition from improbable sources… they can even change their own perspective on life and the perception of other human beings.
We have an amazing capacity to take control of our own fate.
Unfortunately, in a state of even relative depression, we tend to become blind to opportunities and focus on obstacles. Depression is self-perpetuating.
Reading the biological definition of depression really helped me get my motivation back at a time where I was profoundly depressed. I realized that my mood was only serving my "enemies", whether actual or abstract.
In strategy games you usually have three categories: Allies, neutrals and enemies. It is kind of the same in business. If people are not allies or neutral, they are competition, and sometimes competitors will act like true enemies and with surprising levels of hostility. They too have been run over by life, suffered loss and humiliation, experienced fear of obliteration or bit their lip, as they were passed over. They got things at stake. Nobody's going to rob them of opportunities.
If you can view the social competition with a grain of humor, you have an advantage.
M for Mainstreaming
In my wardrobe I have a brand new overall and work jacket, right next to the suits. The blue collar outfit is there to remind me it's all just a game. It tells me where I came from, and where I may end up if I blow it, or if time and chance works against me. I can accept that. It's part of who I am.
On the other hand I usually have more ambitious goals than the next guy. I own pretty much the same gadgets to demonstrate my capacity to dominate the turf, and I will strut just to make a point now and then. I pay for stuff, knowingly and in a calculated manner, because it improves my position and the professional respect about my services.
To a lot of people that stuff is depressing. It feels like an invasion of privacy, a corporate demand to exchange your personality or ideology in favor of a mainstreaming. It feels like selling out.
To me it's just fun and games. It's not my identity. It's just something I do, because it is the game that presents itself to me. I take an assignment as seriously as any professional, and I take pride in my work. But I am not hung up about the prospect of defeat. Life is like that. Nobody can win every time, and if we look at history, at people around us and at the news, it all tells us one thing: There's a strong element of tragedy to any life, and fate has a blow hard enough to humble anyone.
There's no way of securing yourself against that.
When I put on the uniform and go to work I don't feel I am exchanging my values for revenue. It's just a requirement for the game.
I am not just talking about the suit and tie signaling reliability and servility. I am also talking about the temporary attitude.
A lot of people I know are really poised against mainstream. Mainstream is bad. Music is, per definition, bad, if it has been played on MTV. Hollywood movies are usually bad, except one or two independent productions licensed by one of the major production companies.
Some of these people – friends, really – tend to perceive me as warped. They tell me, affectionately but also with a lot of skepticism, I am good at compartmentalizing, or they hint that I have less quality of life or less political integrity than they do.
But the thing is: I am constantly involved in charitable projects. I blog every week about clean energy, human rights, anti-racism and social justice – even to the point of receiving death threats. I use my relative success to try to make a small difference.
At the same time a lot of people I know who are very morally outraged by a lot of things do nothing and barely ever speak out in public, and when they do, it is without taking any risks. Then, as they prepare to go to work Monday morning, they are miserable, because work… is just not any fun.
My defense: I get up every morning eager to get going. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep, because ideas are rushing through my mind, but when I do sleep, I sleep like a baby.
And I am not particularly mainstreamed. My apartment looks really weird as in eclectic, which I believe is what you call it when you have no style to brag about. When I am off duty I dress very casually, making good citizens send me disapproving looks and bad girls… well, the opposite.
At home I am just an ordinary guy. But that gets boring too in the long run. So, I look forward to my next assignment or big project or whatever, particularly if it seems virtually impossible to accomplish. I like a challenge, and I appreciate being asked to do a job I only have a vague idea about how to round up.
It's like a really difficult strategy game.
Work can be fun.
Next up: How to find the Red Button and the Green Button - your own or for your employee