How to Love What You Do

If you are interested in this topic, chances are you are a person commonly identified as a ‘Millennial’, born from the 1980s onward. This
is relevant because the idea of ‘loving what you do’ is different to how those born before you thought about work.

If your idea of a good job is the ability to pay off the house in the suburbs by the time you retire, with enough saved up to live
modestly and perhaps travel a little, you’re probably currently retired, or planning for retirement. You wouldn’t be reading this article at all because you’re more likely to be on Facebook where you keep in touch with your grandkids.

Or if you entered the workforce around the time when manufacturing went off-shore, your idea of a good job is one that enables status aspirations. You learned that there was no loyalty at work, only advantage as employers promised you a career one minute, but could make you redundant the next. Your job achievement was no longer measured by years with your employer, but the trappings of the consumer lifestyle – the symbol of your realised ambitions.

If your goals for your job have a lot less to do with security and acquisition, you care about difference.

Except, almost all the advice available about finding the work you love, comes from those who worked in the time before you. Then, work was designed so you advanced by pleasing your boss. It doesn’t mean that people didn’t choose work that mattered; only that it wasn’t so
important then. People were happy enough with the job-for-life, and when that wasn’t part of the deal anymore, they found satisfaction in job status. Having a conscience or being socially-minded had little to do with work.

It wasn’t just because people had different priorities in the past. Organisations were deliberately designed to encourage people to leave
their personal thoughts and opinions outside of work. The reasons for this were quite practical. If people had to think, you had to pay them more. The more  jobs you could turn into repetitive and scripted tasks, the more people you could hire at a lower wage.

Separating work into individual units also made it easier to hire and fire people. It turned people into ‘factors of production’ managed not
as people, but by output. If you have ever experienced a situation where fewer people were expected to do the same amount of work as they used to do with more people, you will have experienced one of the goals work was designed for: productivity.

There was another important reason for organisations to compartmentalise people. Corporations had become multinational behemoths. Their complex systems needed people to follow instructions without question. Breaking work down so that people only focused on one part was not just about efficiency. It stopped people from thinking too hard about the collective impact of their work. By the time you were in a senior enough position to have a complete view of what your company’s activities were doing to communities, the environment, health, and so on, your position and remuneration required you to maintain any lies, smoke and mirrors or wilful blindness.

Early 20th century advances in psychology worked out that people could be conditioned to behave in particular ways through merely the
possibility of rewards and punishment. If you have ever been given KPIs to achieve, you have experienced the ‘behaviour modification’ which has become a normal management practice. It exploits the human survival instinct to be accepted by the group, and the natural ‘fight or flight response’. People will go to great lengths to avoid even the suggestion of a threat.

How does this affect you in your desire to love the work you do? Well, aside from the obvious: that your job wasn’t actually designed to
meet such contemporary desires for personal fulfilment (do you really think we would have corporations equal in economic power to whole countries if workers’ feelings were part of the plan?), the people who are telling how it can be achieved are part of that system where it was never a consideration.

From the 1980s, after the job-for-life was well and truly killed off by organisation restructures that favoured flexibility over stability, employers had to keep workers happy so that they would stay with them until they were no longer required. They couldn’t have people leaving whenever they felt they had had enough.

The way they went about it was not by engaging more of the whole person at work, such as caring about your ideas or giving you more say in your workplace. Instead they upped the ante. They started making jobs even more structured and restrictive. They made people feel they were special, a selected group of high achievers. They made more sophisticated selection tools to weed out the ‘weaknesses’ and used words like ‘human capital’ and ‘talent’ to promote the sense of exclusivity. Universities helped by matching master degrees to these jobs. Employers began expecting higher degrees even for jobs that didn’t require any qualification.

Of course, people aren’t fools. They know that word games don’t actually change the work. Stressful, unrewarding, pointless or badly organised work isn’t eliminated just by changing the label. So what did happen?     

By sleight of hand, the cause of happiness or unhappiness was shifted to the individual. If you didn’t love your work, or doing what mattered to you, it was your fault. You weren’t motivated enough. Or you hadn’t found your ‘passion’. Or you weren’t playing to your strengths. Or you didn’t know your purpose. Or you didn’t have clear goals.

All of these ’causes’ for your ‘failing’ have just enough truth to be believable. Each of them is problematic in many ways, as described here, here and here. People are too complex to boil down to such simple reasons. Contexts and the environment play too significant a role to be left out of the picture. Consider the different perspectives of the lowly job of dishwasher. A volunteer, say at a soup kitchen, is in all likelihood happier in this job for no pay, than a paid employee who works without appreciation or guarantee of hours.

There are so many other flaws with such bad advice. For instance, it doesn’t take into account that people change. You may have been able to think about little else but the opposite sex and going out for many of your younger years. That doesn’t mean you should have turned it into your job. Just because you love something, doesn’t mean you want to to it for work. Love doesn’t equal skill. Your love of something doesn’t make you good enough at it to earn a living. In fact trying to do so, is more likely going to turn something you love into a burden.

Unfortunately, this bad advice just won’t go away. People have heard it so often, and stories of success are so easily revised to fit the narrative that the untruth or half-truth just keeps being perpetuated.

So, if loving your work doesn’t come from your motivation, passion, purpose or any other thing that has the ring of a slogan to it, then where does it come from?

Quite simply, from the value you create.

By ‘creating value’ we mean taking action in favour of something that is important to you. Conceptually, it’s pretty straightforward. Contributing to something you care about makes you happier; being prevented from doing so, and you are less happy.

Typical examples of creating value include entertaining others, improving social well-being, making things that are useful, teaching something to someone, learning something, solving problems, using a natural aptitude, furthering a particular cause. When you decided which job path you would pursue, your decisions would have revolved around something that ticked as many of these criteria as possible.

Life, of course, is not so simple. It consists of unknowns, trade-offs and other people. Where the logic falls apart is it considers your satisfaction as a cause-and-effect process: the more you do things that creates value, the more you should love what you do.

Instead, loving what you do comes from a cumulative effect, meaning a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. Loving what you
do comes from creating value, measured by the impact you make.

What constitutes ‘impact’ comes down to the person. One person might think a jobs that pays enough to have some extra to send home all
the satisfaction they need. Another person might perform a dull, mind-numbing job but their manager’s continuous show of gratitude lets them know they are making a difference. Yet another person may care less about their manager’s appreciation or lack thereof because they know they make a valued contribution to their team or service to grateful customers.

This sounds very easy to achieve: make sure you are making a positive impact on someone, and you’ll start loving your job. And yet, global
surveys repeatedly show that most people hate their job.

If this describes you, maybe you are not a ‘value creator’ at all, but a ‘value user’ – or worse, a ‘value destroyer’. A value destroyer is easily explained as someone whose net impact is negative. For example, a person who works for a not-for-profit dedicated to an important cause, but the toxic work culture means any good work is overridden by unhealthy behaviours like bullying, sniping or organisational tribalism.

A value user is less obvious. In fact, it usually sits in people’s blind spots. It refers to work that doesn’t create value but, using the resources available, takes value. We commonly see it in the service industry, where workers for whatever reason make their customers feel like an interruption, stupid or a piece of meat. The customer may well have achieved their transactional objective, but instead of creating value – such as goodwill – value was sucked out of the system for the worker’s petty gratification. (It’s possible that the server is a victim of a value user in an employer that underpays and under-appreciates the people who work for them.)

Value users may very well be ‘good performers’ and show the external signs of ‘success’, like good performance ratings and promotions, but
these are extrinsic rewards and are short-lived. Like an addict that needs a  continuous ‘hit’, the value user is primarily motivated by their desire for validation, attention or sense of triumph.

Doing work that you love, then comes down to the totality of your impact. Do something worthwhile that comes at the expense of your personal relationships, for instance, may soon take the shine off the job itself. The ultimate would be a job that challenges you to find ways to continuously make all the things you care about better. You won’t love every minute of it but even that adds to your satisfaction as it means you grow and become stronger as you overcome difficulties.

It is this combination of learning, achieving, growing and overcoming that creates passion. In other words, to find your ‘passion’, you
have to first do.

As you develop expertise, you will find that your work becomes more purposeful. Instead of theoretical possibles, your capacity to take actionable steps towards a desired outcome increases. ‘Purpose’ is not so much one big goal, but progressive targets that head in one – or more – important direction.

Employers take note.

Millennials in particular, do not separate loving their job from the impact they want to make. To them, doing something that matters forms
part of their personal values. To maximise your relationship with your Millennial workers, your organisational processes should unite their desire expend their efforts with your objectives. They want to understand what your organisation stands for so they understand where and how they can be most impactful.

All organisations thrive by creating value. If you can align your resources with workers whose idea of happiness comes from creating value,
you can’t help but to succeed.

How do you love what you do?

Start not with the job you think will make you happy, but by understanding the impacts you want to make, then look for the organisations
that have similar goals or sub-goals. Don’t set you sights on ‘the job’. Chances are the job will change, whether because of technology, industry forces or your emerging abilities.

In fact, start anywhere. You can – and should always be prepared to – change when you know the time has come. There are many paths to
fulfilment. The only one that won’t get you there is the one you don’t start with.

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