Why am I doing this?

Anybody that’s been following my Twitter feed knows I’ve been working long hours recently. I’m actually working harder now than I was last year when I was working full time while finishing my master’s degree at Columbia. This would come as a surprise to, well, pretty much anybody that’s ever worked with me, given my tendency to do just enough to get by and no more. So what’s different about working at Google for me? My current answer to that question requires a detour through some other things I’ve been thinking about.

I really liked Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life? when I first read it (his original Fast Company article is a nice introduction). Trying to find a place for myself in the professional world has been an ongoing struggle, as while I have the capability to do anything, I have often found myself in situations where I was stuck doing the “wrong things”. Bronson recently published an update article with his perspective since publishing the book, and a couple quotes from that resonated with me:

“All jobs have things you hate about them. But real people feel fulfilled by the overall purpose of their organization that the shitty parts are worth putting up with. It’s not what you do, it’s what you’re working towards. …you know the feeling you desire — fulfillment, connection, responsibility, and some excitement.”

I think these last four characteristics he describes are absolutely key for me. I don’t define myself by the specific work tasks that I have to do, as I have the flexibility to do any number of tasks. I aspire to define myself with the meta-work of being a generalist. I want to feel that I am getting to use my unique potential and abilities in the course of doing my job. I need to find some sort of meaning in what I’m doing, or at least be working towards both personal and company goals.

As Bronson observes, there are annoying parts of every job – the question is whether the goal towards which one is working is worth the annoying parts. To put in a larger sense, it is important to know the answer to the question of “Why am I doing this?” In a similar vein, when I have friends considering grad school, I argue strenuously against it and try to dissuade them from going. This is not because I don’t value education – it’s because grad school is really hard, and the only way to get through it is to know exactly why you are going. My arguing against grad school is a way for me to get them to articulate their core reason for going to grad school.

To get back to my original question of what makes my job at Google different than other jobs I’ve had in the past is that I can see how I am contributing to making the company work better. I do genuinely believe that Google is making the world a better place, all things considered, as it provides us all with tools that are astonishing in their ability to put information at our fingertips. I can see a future for myself where I get to use all of my skills and talents in that goal. The only obstacle between me and that future is myself – I have the opportunity, the skills, the support to get there.

So while the long hours are irksome, they are not morale-destroying – we were joking this week about who in our group would be the first to snap, and I was surprised to realize that I wasn’t anywhere near snapping. I have hit my limits before and know what that feels like. But in this case, while I am tired and occasionally cranky, I feel like the work I am doing is recognized as meaningful, both to the company and to my future, and that’s far more sustainable for me than working even half the hours on dead-end tasks like technical support.

This has tremendous implications for managers. In a free agent world, getting the top people is no longer about paying them the most (beyond a certain point, I don’t think it makes a difference) or showering them with perks – it’s about giving them challenging, meaningful, interesting work. Managers need to find ways to engage their employees by framing the work that needs to be done in a narrative that propels the employee forward into a desired future. Getting back to Bronson, managers need to work with their employees to answer the question of “Why am I doing this?” And the answer doesn’t have to be existential – it can be as simple as earning the money to support one’s family. But there needs to be an answer, because without that answer in place, the annoying parts of the job will wear anybody down.

Anyway. We’ll see how I feel in another month if things don’t slow down, but for now, it was interesting to think about how this job has given me the belief that I can finally stretch myself in the directions I want to go with my career and life, in terms of building on my interests in interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s not a Great Cause ™, but the belief that I have found a good fit for my skills and talents is exciting enough to me to keep me going through the long hours. That being said, it sure is nice to take a weekend off and actually have time to write down some of my thoughts 🙂

4 thoughts on “Why am I doing this?

  1. Hi Eric,
    I am in kind of the same situation as you are, but in an earlier stage as it seems. I always knew that I am a generalist, but only during last year really was able to value it (thanks to your blog that had some part in the process.

    Right now I experience the “backside” of what you describe in this article – working for a company that does not make me feel contributing to a thing thats worth it.

    Interestingly, I found myself to work even harder in order to compensate for the lack of ehthusiasm – to some degree this helps, but in the long run there has to be something to “connect” to…

    greetings from good old europe

    j.w.

  2. Glad its working out.

    But you’ll need a break eventually. Good firms also make sure there is a good rhythmn and people don’t get “bush-happy”.

    Still, as most people are bored witless at work, better this than not!

  3. Well, Eric, I’ve worked in South Korea where it is usual for white-collar and professional staff to work twice the hours of the hardest-working American. Yet an American will produce twice the output of a Korean manager. Why? Because there’s a Laffer-curve effect here — ie, after some point, total work output FALLS with increased hours. As a friend used to say, it is physically impossible to day a week’s work in more than 5 days, and physically impossible to do a year’s work in more than 48 weeks. Without knowing anything about you, I would bet a year’s salary that your output would rise, and its quality improve, if you spent fewer hours at work.

  4. Peter, great point (and one I reflected on in a twitter a couple weeks ago). I do understand how inefficient I am getting at the moment, and am mostly managing it by allocating the mindless tasks that need to get done to the times when I will be mindless after too many hours.

    That being said, I’m starting to run myself down. Things are starting to get better, as part of the long hours has been automating those mindless tasks, so that I can then be more effective on the mindful work. Still don’t have the bandwidth to start blogging consistently again, but hopefully in a month or so.

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