As a type-A overachieving personality, I find it disturbingly easy to fall into the self-perpetuating trap of small accomplishments. What’s wrong with a feeling of accomplishment? Nothing. Really.
When that feeling of satisfaction at a job well done is used as a substitute for enjoying the work and making meaningful contributions to life.
I am lucky to have the gift of being fairly good at a lot of things I put my mind to. And I like being good at things. It’s a nice feeling.
But just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you enjoy it. A job well done is not necessarily a job enjoyed. We are taught that practice makes perfect, and we are taught to strive to be our best, encouraged to do the things we’re good at, and often the things we are good at are the things we have practiced the most. We get recognition for them. And if we’ve spent so much of our time becoming good at something we must enjoy it. We’ve spent so much time doing it. Maybe we convince ourselves. Of course. We’re invested. And, after all, being good at something is a nice feeling. Being praised for work well done is also nice. But is being good at something the only key to fulfillment?
Maybe there’s another side to the fulfillment coin: the why.
I love a challenge. Conquering a challenge inspires me. I will dive into any job or project, big or small, with determination…endure frustrations and tediousness but keep on slogging through and doing my best in order to achieve that rush of self-satisfaction of a job well done. I accomplished something. I made something happen. Yep, I can do that. The congratulatory endorphins are set loose upon my brain and for a while I forget the unpleasantness, forget to consider the meaning of the job…
Which is not to say that a job well done isn’t valuable on its own. We should feel good when we accomplish something, big or small. Maybe the age-old Theater cliche fits here: There are no small jobs, only small workers. Pride in work is something to strive for. The problem is when we start placating ourselves that we are doing something meaningful when what we are really doing is something that we need to do, and making the best of it, in order to pay for the things we want to do. We know this already, it’s the Monday morning and Friday afternoon refrain of every cubicle-dweller.
When you repeatedly make the best of your work situation, if those accomplishment-endorphins set you on a roller-coaster between dissatisfaction and pride and back again, if you find yourself relying on the recognition of colleagues or superiors to validate your work… maybe you’re choosing money over meaning. In this economy it’s very hard not to. I am satisfied when I finish a task well, even more so if I am praised for it, but am I really fulfilled?
Maybe this sounds like naive dreaming, privileged whining…but I don’t think so. Not totally. After all, it’s a uniquely human trait - a drive toward meaning in everything we do. Why suppress it? Why not encourage it?
As economist Umair Haque says in a recent article
“You and I face the difficult choice of trading meaning for money; we weigh the searing moments of real human accomplishment against the soul-sucking “work” of earning the next car payment by polishing up another meaningless PowerPoint deck packed with tactics to win games whose net result is the creation of little of real value for much of anyone who’s not a sociopath. This is the deepest kind of theft; not merely prosperity having been looted from societies, but significance having been stolen from human lives.”
Real Human Accomplishment.
I don’t think Microsoft sells that in its Office suite.