Among the most diabolical torture techniques ever conceived is one in which a victim is repeatedly forced to carry rocks up a hill, only to roll them back down. It’s been applied in different forms and at different times throughout the millennia, and always with the sole intention of destroying morale. There’s something unspeakably painful about subjecting a human being to toil at an act he or she believes has no value. But far too many of us are filling our time with things of a similarly Sisyphean nature.
Last week I was in Chicago having lunch with a friend who runs a successful design firm. Over the course of our time together we touched on what it means to do things of higher value. As we got deeper into our conversation we began to consider, even as leaders in our organizations, just how much of what we do each day is mindless, process-driven activity, pursuits that have all the creativity of steering a train straight along a single track. For some in positions of leadership, minimizing mental exertion might seem like a blessing —at least on the surface. After all, who doesn’t want to work less hard? But what researchers have found is that people are happiest when their work involves a degree of struggle. How one conceives of struggle is important. Too much, and you’re suffering —obviously that’s not ideal. But here’s the interesting thing; too little struggle and you’re suffering as well.
Just as my friend and I were about to say our goodbyes he told me about data he’d collected on his employee’s overall job satisfaction, the implications of which were of great interest to him and somewhat surprising as well. His firm had been doing especially well over the past five years. Salaries were up nearly forty percent on average. But still, in blind surveys, he’d found sentiments like “malaise”, “disengagement”, “boredom”, and “dissatisfaction”. What he learned supports what researchers (and smart people who aren’t researchers) have been saying all along: Satisfaction doesn’t come from salary hikes; it comes most often from involvement in purpose-driven activities that promote the growth of others. One more thing my friend learned from his survey was that his people felt they had “no time.”
Time, and in particular, the scarcity of time, is a central theme with so many of us. But what does it really mean when someone says, “I don’t have enough time?” If you examine the statement it’s nonsensical. Everyone has time. We all have exactly the same amount; no one has more or less than 24 hours in a day. But for those who are stuck in roles that preclude them from reaching for what they consider things of higher value, time does indeed feel scarce. When our skills and acumen are underutilized we can often feel that our jobs are too mechanical, too short on purpose, and altogether too easy. But wait; don’t we all strive to make our work easier? Isn’t that what we’ve been trained to do, to make things more efficient, more streamlined?
Yes perhaps, but the moment our jobs become easy is the moment we lose touch with our creativity —and when we lose that, we lose a sense of fulfillment. Ease alone isn’t what we want to fill our days with. What we truly want is for time to push against us, to pressure us, to create a tension that leaves us cognizant of the fleeting nature of time itself —and then to do something of a higher value with our time. What we crave most are those moments when we are lost in the midst of purposeful engagement. Lost is the operative word. Getting lost means that we have placed ourselves in unfamiliar territory, that we are breaking new ground, and that we are finding our way with our senses engaged, rather than acting on autopilot.
What is that thing of higher value in your life, what is it you do that brings you and the people around you the greatest degree of fulfillment? Are you able to get lost in the work you do, and more importantly, are these ideas deeply embedded in your organization’s culture? People who are engaged in things of higher value will typically find themselves endeavoring to improve someone’s life. Whether you’re working in a laboratory to create a new drug, or working one on one with a child to teach her to read, acting for the betterment of an individual or an important cause has the single greatest influence on generating a sense of personal fulfillment.
Yes, it’s true, getting to a place where more people are accomplishing things they find important, is aspirational, especially given that the vast majority of employees don’t have the opportunity to evince this kind of work in their current roles. But as leaders, we need to bring these opportunities to as many people as possible. We need to understand that being involved in things of higher value and helping others to get to there is not only a moral imperative, it’s about unlocking the very solutions that can prevent the disruption of our organizations.
The way forward is an exploration rather than a recitation, it is finding our way as opposed to knowing our way. What we need to rethink is: How many of the things we do each day fit in the box of: ‘I’ve got this job down to a science,’ and how many of them fit in the box of: ‘this is new terrain, ambiguous territory, with answers that are not well defined and edges that are not yet clear?’ It’s only in the latter that we find engagement, fulfillment, and purpose.
For too many of us, money is still the thing we reflexively equate with value. Don’t get me wrong, money is important, vitally so, but its greatest significance becomes apparent only when it buys us and those around us, time to work on things of higher value.
Origianlly published in Forbes