Consistently over the years, assorted research has shown that job dissatisfaction is a problem for about two-thirds of the people in America.
This “disengagement” has wide-ranging effects. Gallup tells us that this job irritant issue has cost as much as $350 billion a year in “lost productivity.”
(It can also suck a soul dry, and turn your life into a desert, but nobody scientific ever mentions that.)
It is caused, the guys in the lab coats say, by well-documented reasons. Among these are:
- a worker’s perceived lack of recognition and acknowledgement for work well-done,
- unsatisfactory working conditions that are not necessarily dangerous or particularly life-threatening, but decidedly upsetting — like an unfair or nasty boss or fellow workers who are not allies,
- work that does not match or stretch and grow the skills a worker brings to the job,
- a worker’s feeling of being trapped in the situation by circumstances he or she feels powerless to change.
Employers are often admonished to be on the lookout for the deadly dudliness induced by dissatisfied minions and apathetic anti-team players.
Leaders and head-dudes get handy-dandy hacks, techniques, and tips at meetings, seminars and workshops that attempt to stem the tide of this unproductive discontent.
As youngsters, we regular sorts may have been subjected (at one time or another) to warnings, admonitions and advice about this particular way of walking from parents and other authority figures.
The Greek chorus continued as we grew older and morphed into employees, minions and plain old serfs who often spend a bunch of time trying to figure out how we ended up on some dead-end cul-de-sac or stuck in some hell-realm or other.
Assorted “human resource” people, career coaches and counselors and other self-improvement experts in all of our known universes took up the cause of “fixing” our discontent as a part of their own missions.
Mostly, these advisors tend to tell us, it’s all about attitude. Ours.
These fine folks tell us our attitude sucks and that’s why we’re experiencing all this angst, aggravation, and agita. And, really, if we just did things using their tried-and-true methods, we would be just FINE.
SORRY, DUDES. THAT ONE DOESN’T WORK FOR ME.
It did occur to me, at some point, that it really did take a good long while for me to “get” the thing about how your “job” and where you work is supposed to define who and what you are.
It’s apparently a deeply ingrained Industrial Revolutionary sort of thing, I guess.
Somewhere along the way to greater efficiency and more and better productivity, humans were supposed to figure out how they could become the best cogs and gears in the big old machine-world of industry and commerce and all that.
I confess that I was not so great at being a good little cog. I have a strong objection to being interchangeable and eminently replaceable, I think.
I was at a party one time and the hostess, an old friend, introduced me to a bunch of new people with these words: “This is Netta,” she said, and after a bit of a pause, “She does Netta-things.”
I had to laugh. That was just perfect, I thought.
But, I do have to admit that, for many years as I made my way through the world, I was never quite sure what I was supposed to put on my durned business cards.
Trying to design one of those things always felt to me like I was trying to mount a dead butterfly with pins on some stupid piece of foam core board. ACK!
I got to thinking about it all one day and sort of figured out that, probably, at least some of this seemingly ubiquitous general sense of uneasiness and malaise surrounding jobs or careers or whatever we call our work might be the result of a misguided (maybe cultural) attempt to shape a for-real, alive person to fit into some ill-fitting little box.
Stuffing yourself into a teeny-weeny box that is designed to meet somebody else’s specifications is bound to get a lot crampy and not happy-making, it seems to me.
MAYBE I’M JUST WEIRD?
I have to admit that I probably had a peculiar upbringing. The Industrial Revolution sort of missed Molokai.
Those of us who grew up there did end up with all the modern conveniences (or reasonable facsimiles), but our lives were shaped by agriculture, big and small.
We didn’t have any factories or mines or things like that on the island — just pineapple plantations, ranches, farms and some ancient ocean-side fishponds that still worked.
It seems to me that throughout my younger days I was surrounded by people who took it for granted that they were supposed to be able to turn their hands and their minds to a multiplicity of things.
The willingness to try was paramount. It worked better if you were competent as well, but your lack of expertise wasn’t held against you.
It came down, I think, to being able to kokua, to help the people around you get things done and make things happen, and to have some fun along the way. Service was just the standard operating procedure for the lot of us.
In my growing-up world, people helped each other. When they, in turn, needed help then they could expect the ones around them to lend them a hand as well.
(If a person consistently needed help but never helped anyone else, eventually there wouldn’t be a helping hand available for them, but that’s another story.)
It made sense that the more things that you were willing to attempt and the more things you knew how to do well (after trying to get it right time and time again), the more valued you would become.
Who wouldn’t want to hang around with someone who can do cool stuff? Who wouldn’t want to BE that person?
When I was growing up, I don’t think there was much of a division between “work” and “play” among my heart-people. The things they did were just things they could do – different sets of skills that might come in handy at some point or other to get a project done.
Maybe there wasn’t such a big deal made back then about your “work” being a big part of your self-definition. You were not a brand. You were just a person — somebody who could maybe do or help with something.
My uncle Alfred, for instance, drove a huge tractor trailer truck transporting large crates of harvested pineapples to the dock at Kaunakakai town from a plantation in the Maunaloa hill country as his day job. It was not the world’s best-paying job.
He had a lot of kids so he was also a master gardener who grew cabbages bigger than your head, prize tomatoes, and pumpkins. He shared his produce with all the neighbors who, in turn, shared their harvests with him.
There was always at least one pig in a pen (getting fattened up for the inevitable sometime-lū’au, party) and a flock of chickens as well.
As a weekend off-shore fisherman, he was the one who always came back with his hand-built sampan full of fish, which he also shared or traded. As a hunter, he was not a great tracker and he was a lousy shot, but he was good at packing out the meat.
He was also pretty good at playing his banjo and guitar and ukulele, and, boy, could he dance!
Uncle Alfred was just his own self. There were many others who were as skilled in as wide a variety of other things.
I had relatives, neighbors and family friends who were master mechanics, professional people of assorted stripes, builders and maintenance people, artists, cooks of all sorts, seamstresses and needle-workers, hula and other fancy dancers, organizers of family celebrations and community events, salespeople, musicians, gardeners and gatherers, fishermen and hunters, sports coaches and players, and on and on.
They all did more than just one thing. Some of them did many things well as a matter of course. Others had a well-developed specialty or two and pretty much sucked at the other stuff.
Then there were the ones who were mediocre at everything but could be counted on to show up to help with needed grunt work. They were always welcomed too.
What was work? What was play? Sometimes the lines blurred and it all sort of ran together, but you did know who to call when you needed help or just wanted to have fun.
Somebody in that bunch would either know what to do or know who else to tap. The important thing was connection and doing for each other.
That way of doing things was what we called “the real old-style.” I liked it.
After I left that little world, it seemed to me that everybody around me kept urging me (and each other) to find the one “mission,” the thing that would make our lives meaningful and worthy and all that good stuff.
Apparently, somebody or other told us there was this paramount need to specialize, focus on, and emphasize just one facet of our naturally multiplicitous selves and learn more and more about less and less.
It made me sad, that.
I never did think it made much sense.
POST-MODERN MULTIPLICITY AND THE ECHOES OF OLD-STYLE
Recently, I stumbled over this 2015 Brendon Burchard You Tube video, “Finding Your Life’s Mission.” It resonated with me.
Burchard is one of the most followed personal development trainers in the world. Some say he’s the best there is.
His top tip in the video for finding your “life mission” (after you’ve explored all the possibilities that spark your interest and still haven’t found your “calling”) is this:
Look around and ask yourself, “How can I help?” Then go do that.
That one takes me right back to the real old-style and to kokua and appreciating the value of being able to help one another get things done. (I still like it.)
Burchard’s video did get me thinking that maybe we are in a transition time again.
We’ve gone past the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and have made it through the dawn of the Information Age and beyond.
Now our stiffest competition for employment and money-making opportunities are the super-smart machines all around us who are really, really good at doing just the one, stuck-in-the-little-box thing.
Maybe continuing to try to be linear and singularly focused on one vocation might not be the best strategy for fashioning meaningful life-work for a human.
Trying to be ever-more machine-like pretty much guarantees that the striving human is eventually going to be beaten out of a job by a machine who just does it better, it seems to me.
A PORTFOLIO LIFE
One alternative to trying to shape yourself into a good little cog is to get back to being a full-blown human who can turn your hands to many things. Perhaps then you will be better able to fashion your life around the skills and interests you enjoy best.
Maybe, like every other creative Maker, you can start building yourself your own portfolio that you can share with other folks.
Business guru Charles Handy, the Irish author, philosopher and educator, injected deep and elegant thoughts into the world of the guys who study organizational behavior and business strategy during his long career.
He has been rated among the Thinkers 50, a prestigious, private list of the most influential living management thinkers.
Among his many seminal theories and ideas, Handy coined the phrase “portfolio life” in 1989.
The concept was taken up by American writer, blogger and idea guy Jeff Goins. (Among other things, Goins wrote one of my favorite books, REAL ARTISTS DON’T STARVE: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age).
As he gnawed on the thing and shared his findings with other folks, living the portfolio life has come to mean pursuing “a portfolio of activities – some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure and some for a cause.”
When you live the portfolio life, the results you create and the impact you make grow out of how you’re choosing to live your human life. That one feels good to my na’au, my gut.
The following TEDx Talk was published in 2017. It features marketing consultant, public speaker, author and educator Dorie Clark talking about “How to Future-Proof Your Career” at the TEDx Lugano event.
To illustrate her points in the video, Clark tells stories of how other entrepreneurs, employees and creatives were able to take control of their professional lives and build their own portfolio careers:
- TAKE THE INITIATIVE. It is a given, Clark points out, that you will need to be self-motivated and self-reliant if you are going to go for the portfolio life. It’ll be up to you to explore your areas of interest and see where those interests take you.
- APPLY WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED. You’ll make mistakes – sometimes big ones – and you’ll learn about your strengths and weaknesses when you do the portfolio life. You can leverage this knowledge into successfully building another component of your portfolio that produces results you like.
- ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT. You need to be able to envision where you want your life to go. It’s the only way you can ask for the keys to the gate you need to get through to get there.
- FOCUS ON THE SMALL WINS. Even when a project is huge and overwhelming, focusing on the small wins and appreciating them helps you to persevere until you get through to the other side of all the challenges.
- RETHINK THE IMPOSSIBLE. Sometimes you only need to change or reframe and make one or two adjustments to your basic premises and assumptions to erase the “im-” from that word.
It’s noteworthy that Clark is also rated among the Thinkers 50.
The portfolio life is probably not for everybody. It isn’t straightforward. You will blow yourself up if you try to do it all in one go rather than doing one thing and making it work good before trying another add-on and fitting it in.
Until you figure out your own particular style of synergy and fitting together all of those moving parts, you will have to develop a certain nimbleness and adaptability. You have to pay attention and know when to duck.
The people around you – those who love you and those who don’t care – probably won’t understand what you’re doing sometimes.
Still, building a portfolio life might be a better fit for at least some of the disengaged ones who are trying to get around the Triple-A threats to their own peace of mind – aggravation, angst, and agita.
Here’s a poem:
There are as many whys
As there are stars in the skies.
It isn’t worth the work
Asking why that one’s a jerk.
The best you can do
Is take a look at you:
How you move and how you prance
That makes it all some goofy dance.
The seasons turn and turn.
You’d think that you would learn:
It’s not some god above
Who grows you into love.
Your job on earth is to see
The best that it could be
And your god depends on you
To make that best come true.
By Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Turning On” by Iwtt93 via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
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