Everybody Rotate One Job to the Left

I saw a great bumper sticker the other day.  It said:

Teachers: We’re Focused on Outcomes, Not Incomes!

This leads me into my soliloquy for the day.

When you pull back and look at today’s world of work from high altitude, and contemplate the way in which our careers intersect with our lives, you could make a convincing case (as I would) that jobs really only do one key thing.  They are prisms.  They have no value in their own right.  They serve the singular purpose of transforming TIME into STUFF.

Think about it.  Each day, millions of Americans go to work and channel the exact same inputs into their job: time and energy.  Sure, some people may work a few hours more than others, but in general pretty much any serious professional today — be they janitors, teachers, attorneys, petrochemical engineers, or career coaches — is spending around 50-60 hours a week doing whatever they do for a living.  That’s the common denominator, and as human beings, none of us really has that much more of this “resource” to plug into our jobs than anybody else.  You could easily make the case that a Starbucks barista works every bit as hard, for example, as the average financial analyst or chief marketing officer.  Have you watched one of these people juggle 14 complex, multi-syllabic latte orders lately?

So when it comes to the job market, the “inputs” are pretty boring to talk about.  They’re largely the same, for all of us.  Where it gets much more interesting, however, is the “outputs” side of the equation.  As stated above, we don’t all go to work simply for the sake of it or because we don’t have anything else we could possibly do with our time.  We go because we want and need things — and are willing to trade our time and energy to get them.

In reality, it wasn’t all that long ago, historically speaking, when people didn’t even have “jobs” so to speak.  They just lived.  And loved.  And played.  And survived.  But now in our more sophisticated civilization, that kind of lifestyle isn’t very practical.  As one of my favorite authors (Daniel Quinn) once remarked, most of us really have no choice BUT to go to school, get a job, and join the rat race  — because they lock up all the food, and if we don’t work, we don’t eat!

Trust me, though, I’m not one of those idealogues suggesting that modern civilization has no merits and that we return to some romanticized notion of primitive times.  I wouldn’t even suggest dialing the time machine back to medieval Europe, unless you could arrange to be born into royalty!  Like most of you, I’m sure, I’ve become pretty fond of the fact that I don’t have to grow my own food, sew my own clothes, or watch my loved ones pass away at an early age due to some mysterious plague.

My point though (finally) is that the key to being happy at work is to know what you want (or need) to get out of it.  Which work-driven outputs are important to you?  Which aren’t?  What tradeoffs are you willing to make?  What are the top things you’re seeking to get out of the next job you take?  And what work-related benefits used to be important to you, earlier in your career, that you could now pretty much care less about?

The fascinating part about all this is that everybody I’ve met, over the years, has a different set of priorities in this regard.  When you ask people why they work and what’s most important to them, there’s not nearly the consensus you might imagine.  Some people want to get rich.  Some aren’t the slightest bit motivated by money.  Some want to be famous and see their name in lights.  Others hate the limelight and want to work behind the scenes.  Some want to love what they do or feel their work makes a meaningful difference in the world, while others think such notions are crazy.  This camp maintains that “work is called work for a reason” and that notions of fun/enjoyment/meaning have nothing to do with it.

Seriously, the diversity of opinions on this subject is astonishing (although I’m sure a statistician could find SOME slightly common pattern and correlation among certain age groups or people who hail from similar socioeconomic backgtounds).  You’d be surprised, though.  I’ve got some clients who would consider “career heaven” to be doing a job for $40,000 that leverages their strengths, ignites their passions, and/or allows them to help others in some capacity.  And then I had another guy come in who laughed at even a six-figure salary and said “$100,000?  That’s ridiculous.  I wouldn’t even get out of bed for a measly $100,000.

A similar anecdote?  I taught a workshop once where a guy spoke up and said “I’m a successful corporate executive, but if I had my dream, I’d love to do something much more exciting, follow my passion in music, and be a rock star.”  Then the guy next to him spoke up, out of the blue, and said “Wow, that’s interesting.  I’ve been in a rock band for the last 15 years and would kill to have a corporate job like yours where I could settle down, spend more time with my family, have decent health benefits, and enjoy a predictable income.

Tradeoffs, my friends.  It’s all about tradeoffs.  So I encourage those of you in a creative transition phase of your career to try and gain a clear perspective of what outputs are ultimately most important to YOU in a job or career relationship.  At the end of the day, you may have to make some tough choices around these issues, as discussed in a blog article of mine from a few years back you’ll find here if interested.

To me, the bumper sticker I cited at the start of this article pretty much says it all.  While I reckon most of us would love to see teachers paid a lot more, in a perfect world, we don’t (sigh) live in a perfect world.  And while we all tend to funnel the same amount of input into our jobs, in terms of time and energy, we all clearly recognize that the outputs of various career avenues are grossly unequal.

Muse on what’s most important to you — and go after it!


7 Responses to “Everybody Rotate One Job to the Left”

  1. Great feedback, everybody7. Thanks for weighing in. Just to be argumentative, however, I’d respond with the following quick thoughts to a few of the posts that came in:

    Jeff: No question about it — but I guess my whole point is that the concept of a “more meaningful life” tends to be vastly different from one person to the next. I don’t think that’s a specific enough compass heading for people to follow in terms of specifically choosing between one career path or the next. I think people have to dig deeper. And in terms of the “if you cherished your time, how would you use it?” question you raised, I’d personally probably spend every waking moment with my family — but that’s obviously not a practical way to go about things, unless you have a trust fund or win the lottery!

    HB: While you’re right, many people would characterize today’s 50-60 hour work schedules as “sad” in a sense, I think that depends on your worldview. I think most human beings throughout history would consider the current American way of life ridiculuously luxurious — and that many other people around the world would sign up for a 60-hour workweek, as well, if they got the kinds of salary and perks that tend to come with such an arrangement. Last but not least, let’s not forget that nobody is forcing anybody to work these kinds of hours. Any one of us could elect to pursue part-time or hourly-wage jobs that don’t require more than 30 or 40 hours per week. If one goes this route, however, they’d have to give up some of the “stuff” they’d typically get from working in a more demanding career field. So I understand where you’re coming from, but again, I just have a hard time characterizing the current state of affairs as terribly sad, dissapointing, or depressing — unless you’re only comparing it ONLY to the U.S. norm of the past few decades. My take, at least…

    Thanks again to everybody who chimed in. And as always, rebuttals welcome! 🙂

  2. A really sad day when we must “spend.. around 50-60 hours a week doing whatever they do for a living”. 50 hrs I get. But 60 hours a week working (not socializing, driving to the office, networking, making calls to arrange for services for your home, personal email, shopping online, watching the kiddie cam, perusing facebook and singles sites), but hard, focused, concentrated work, means you have no life and soon, no family. You are out of your home from 7:45am to 9pm at night, plus 5 hours on the weekend. If this is the reality for everyone today, it is time to form a guild at your office,and get the execs, most of whom don’t work that hard plus have lots of money to pay for all services and alimony, create a humane workplace to make life more worth living, even if you love what you do.

  3. Matt;

    My wife has been an elementary school teacher for many years. She has the experience and the Master’s degree to go into school administration, but has turned down opportunities to do so. Her reason: it takes her away from the kids. She would not get the thrill of helping children learn and grow.

    You are right, that in our professional lives, we are turning our time into stuff. But we must have the thrill as well. We must find the passion in our work. We must get excited about assisting our firms in increasing revenues, decreasing costs, and improving customer service. We must fine on-time and within budget delivery of projects, challenging. And we must find convincing ‘for profit’ companies to contribute to communities in meaningful ways, rewarding.

    If we don’t, then turning time into stuff gets pretty boring.

    My point is that those things that we find thrilling in our work, that we get passionate about, must also align with those items that make businesses successful.

    So look at the challenges your business faces, determine what is needed to succeed, and then get passionate about. Find your own thrill in your profession.


  4. the late mythographer, Joseph Campbell, exhorted us to “Follow your bliss”. but then, he had tenure….

  5. The thing about incomes relating to teachers is that it seems as though unions have organized them so there is really no direction other than to strive as if they are “Focused on Outcomes, Not Incomes!” Unlike the private sector, the pay for American teachers is not linked in any way to performance; teachers’ unions have consistently opposed any kind of merit pay. Pay is based upon exerpience and years of schooling, which apparently researchers have fund to be generally unrelated to performance in the classroom, a sort of adverse selection. I have two very dear friends who are teachers. They are bright, hardworking and “get” students and understand how different people learn. They do their jobs despite getting paid 1/3 as much as they’d command in companies I’ve worked for over the years. So, I do agree that the decision of what to do is “the thing”.

    My 2 cents…..

  6. “Muse on what’s most important to you — and go after it!” – Well said Matt. It is out there…..

    I saw it with my own eyes just last Monday. I met a guy (on a golf course), in his late 20’s, that is now an assistant scout for the Seahawks preparing for the draft day tomorrow. Not many of these jobs available in the entire world. He’d graduated in business from the U. of W. After a short time unfulfilled working for an insurance firm he began a mega-networking effort, on steroids, to see if he could become a scout with Seattle’s pro team. Said he touched a great number of people who knew someone who knew someone who knew some; on his way “in”.

    He said he works plenty of hours….and loves it.

  7. This blog unveils a whole new side of Matt. The only thing that was missing is that lifetime is a precious, limited commodity. If you cherished your time above all else, how would you use it? I am in the court of thinking that says the only reason we work is to pursue a more meaningful life.

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