On snow days and industriousness as virtue.

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Snow day!

That today was the first one since leaving white-collar purgatory is a milestone of relatively little practical significance. (I mean, I could make a point of using this blog to highlight the changing of seasons, but something tells me there aren’t many who have this site bookmarked as their primary weather resource.) There was a certain symbolic significance, though, to the fact that an errand I ran this morning had me traveling in the direction opposite to the morning rush.

On the morning of last year’s first snow day, I was among the expressionless drivers stuck in the bumper-to-bumper crawl – all looking as though the only thing keeping them from a state of active rage over present circumstances is that such state requires far too much energy expenditure for that time of day. Today, headed the other way, I took the opportunity to reflect on my surroundings, slushy roads and all. I felt none of the usual pressure to somehow find an irregularity in the time-space continuum – to instantaneously get me to my destination. Cool feeling, but I’m sure that’s obvious so I won’t bore you with repetitive beating of my freedom drum/horse.

The connection between my surroundings and my ensuing thought process is nebulous at best*, but I think it must have had something to do with my reflection on commute-related symbolism extending into the realm of ‘traffic as metaphor for conventional wisdom’, and beliefs held in opposition thereof. (Oh right, as if what you think about while driving is somehow way cooler?…)

(*I bet I’m not the only one who knows the feeling of thinking about – I dunno – wiper blades one minute, then – a set of lights later – being lost in contemplation of, say, what animals feel when people dress them up in human clothing. Anger? Terror? Does the answer depend on the garment’s thread count?)

I find the immeasurable volume of conventional wisdom that we’re all routinely exposed to, to be really interesting food for thought – because my travels of late can be viewed, quite simply, in terms of my changing propensity to question many…well…widely unquestioned impressions. Like the impression that more money unequivocally equals more satisfaction (it doesn’t). Like the impression that selflessness is at odds with personal gratification (it’s not). And like the particular impression that I want to briefly expand on in this post. (Any of these widely held beliefs, by the way, could be the subject of a lengthy discussion. My editor, of course, has demanded that I pick just one for today. Killjoy.)

The particular impression I’d like to highlight here is the idea of industriousness as virtue. Or, more accurately, its flip side: the implication that a person who doesn’t work hard is lazy or negligent or otherwise worthy of condemnation…This is something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit, lately.

On the surface, it seems intuitively obvious that to be ‘hard-working’ is a good thing: no self-respecting person wants to be seen as the alternative, particularly in the context of paid employment. (And not just because of the paycheck, either. Sure, securing one’s income is important, but I would bet that basic self esteem or ego is an equally important motivator in the universe of things people do to try to seem like they work harder than they do.) That sense of personal pride explains why, throughout my career, any time I’ve had an unproductive day at work, I’ve left feeling some measure of unhappiness with myself. It would seem, at least in my experience, that there’s no pride in “getting away with” doing less than could or should have been done.

And already, just in my admitting the fact that I’ve had many such days in my working life, you’re probably formulating an impression about my propensity to work hard. But here’s the thing: having bad days is not something I’ve ever aspired to do. They just sort of…happen, particularly in the sorts of jobs that require cerebral engagement. You get distracted; you daydream; you stare blankly at the blinking cursor on your screen, email/memo/report refusing to write itself. At least, that’s what happens to me, but nobody talks openly about this stuff so…maybe I’m the only one?

(Note: in case you picked up on the fact that I just implied something about the world of manual labor, let me be clear that I didn’t mean to suggest that such work is somehow easier or less admirable (if anything, quite the opposite). I’m simply proposing that the more manual the job, the less its performance is hindered by a wandering mind.)

My reflection on this stuff took a turn when I had a very simple realization: there have always been plenty of tasks outside the context of work in which I’m routinely able to get totally absorbed, swiftly morphing into a beast of productivity. Cooking, reading, writing, exercising, playing sports – all things that it might be tempting to dismiss as unimportant, but the reason I bring them up is that they’re no less indicative of one’s basic ability to focus on a task… In this light, then, is someone who has the tendency to daydream at work inherently lazy or negligent?

I’ll spare you the titillation of a series of rhetorical questions and just tell you what I think. For starters, on the topic of virtue: absolutely, if you can will yourself to work hard 100% of the time, that’s commendable. And yes, I agree that it’s the responsibility of the gainfully employed to combat these bouts of daydreaming, while on the clock. BUT – this is where my take may diverge from what’s implied by prevailing sentiment – I don’t think there’s any shame or culpability in having these struggles with unproductivity in the first place. In fact, I think they can be a very natural, involuntary consequence of being faced with tasks that aren’t inherently stimulating.

I should acknowledge that nothing could be more millennial than what I seemingly just said: if I can’t apply myself to a task, that’s the task’s fault – not mine… But that’s actually not what I mean. I’m simply saying that not all jobs are entirely captivating all of the time (newsflash), and that it’s unreasonable to expect that the mind won’t occasionally wander under such circumstances. By extension, then, I think that the person who has a bad day is not necessarily lazy or negligent. Maybe they just…had a bad day. (The response to that bad day is probably more telling of one’s character, but that’s beyond what I want to get into here).

Point of clarification: I’m also not suggesting that it’s impossible to get lost in work that is not inherently meaningful to you. Thank goodness for that. People (myself included) have the capacity to get wrapped up in all sorts of tasks, including those that are only really being done out of necessity. But I do think it’s fair to say that the likelihood of a wandering mind and common ‘tire-spinning’ is lower where the work does indeed hold meaning to the person doing it. Case in point: here I am, now devoting my days to a pursuit that I categorically give a shit about. And guess what? No more painfully unproductive days. Heck, most times I wish the clock would slow down a bit.

Of course, there are lots of reasons – other than a lack of passion – for which a person might not be able to stay consistently absorbed in their work. These are usually environmental, I’d say – where, for instance, the person feels threatened by their environment, or their supervisor is unbearable enough to impede productivity, for spite or otherwise (you’d better believe this happens).

On the other hand – perhaps also counter to conventional wisdom – here’s something that I don’t think is necessarily linked to a person’s capacity to become absorbed in a task: money.

Without a doubt, money and all of its baggage is an inescapable part of overall job satisfaction, but that’s an evaluation that happens (or can, at least) outside the context of the actual execution of the task. Because if an employee likes her work, her work environment and her boss, I’d suggest that she is likely to only raise concern about her salary as an apologetic sidebar – rather than wallowing in it while not getting anything done. The inverse is even more true: no amount of income will make a person sustainably apply himself to work he doesn’t like, among people he doesn’t get along with.

Why does this matter? Because if more people were to be honest (with themselves, at a minimum) about what I’m describing, I think it would inform the way in which we all approach our careers, and the way in which leaders engage their staff. No more throwing money at problems of deeper underlying dissatisfaction. No more questioning why the ‘slacker’ doing boring work in a toxic environment is unable to be really devoted to his job… Instead, frank evaluation of how the job could be tweaked (even modestly) to be more stimulating, or – even more important – what environmental factors could be altered to improve the reasonable, well-meaning employee’s experience. I suspect that even the most menial of bureaucratic jobs could either be tolerable or totally unbearable, depending on whether or not – for instance – it falls under out-of-touch management who are continually mystified by the fact that their authoritarian tactics don’t inspire the rank-&-file.

So, go ahead and allow for the possibility that slackers exist, because they do. But for every person who likes their job and actively looks for ways to do less anyway, I’d bet there are dozens of underachievers who are being hampered – rightly or wrongly – by something other than an inherent laziness. And while the basic employer-employee contract dictates that the worker bee is supposed to apply themselves no matter what, I think many an employer is disappointed by the result of relying on that (technically correct) sentiment alone. Whether you’re an employee, a boss, or a baffled patron at an establishment where nobody seems to take any pride in their work, see what you can learn by conducting an honest evaluation of the nature of the work and the environment in which it’s being performed.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I should get back to building a company to house this soapbox I’m standing on. It’s cold out.

*****

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