Work doesn't need to be "fun" in order to be meaningful

Friday , February 17, 2017 - 4:30 AM

ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group

CHICAGO — My students know I care deeply about them. They know I love to joke around and keep things interesting as we investigate topics they might find dry. But they also know I am waging a one-woman crusade against "fun."

It's not that I don't like to have fun, it's just that young people moving from high school to college and, ultimately, into adult life have to understand that achievement — be it academic or career-related — is hard work. And hard work is many things, like character-building, but rarely is it giggles-all-day fun.

All year I've been going on about how, despite the so-called information economy's promise of fun workplaces that ensconce computer scientists and coders in the Silicon Valley ethos of foosball tables and beer on tap in the company kitchenette, most jobs are just work.

I have to reinforce this idea because, contrary to what you'll read in the business press, it's not all drone piloting, start-up IPO-ing and app development.

Snagging a decent paying job as an accountant, lawyer, engineer, doctor or any sort of analyst takes an awful lot of time and intellectual effort, none of which could accurately be described as "fun."

Yet we, as a society, keep pushing this idea of enjoyment as the be-all, end-all of both education and work.

Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, recently wrote in The New York Times: "To identify a satisfying job, people should be thinking about office morale and doing work that is interesting and fun. ... Add present benefits to your working hours. Listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities. Do whatever makes you happy at work; you can stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment."

We have got to get over this idea that work must be entertaining in order for it to have meaning.

As author and computer scientist Cal Newport writes in his book "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," the winners in our new knowledge economy will be the workers who can learn complex systems quickly and then make smart decisions as those systems change rapidly.

The winners will be those who can perform professional activities in a state of sustained, distraction-free concentration that pushes cognitive capabilities to their limit, creating new value that is hard to replicate.

And yet, Newport says that in an age of "network tools" (which he describes as a broad category that includes email, texts, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit), "knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative — constantly sending and receiving email messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. ... It's as if our species has evolved into one that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness."

Newport notes that society has sold us on the flawed idea that what matters most for career satisfaction is the specifics of the jobs we choose. "In this way of thinking, there are some rarified jobs that can be a source of satisfaction — perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company — while all others are soulless and bland."

But, he concludes, treating even non-rarified work as an exercise of craftsmanship can yield a sense of accomplishment and personal and professional satisfaction. "Whether you're a writer, marketer, consultant or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life."

To extract such meaning from what would otherwise be drudgery, however, you need the ability to do hard things consistently — which calls for sacrifice, focus and determination.

The challenge here, really, is not to make the sustained effort somehow palatable with beanbag chairs, free snacks and high-speed Wi-Fi, but rather to find joy in accomplishing something.

"A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it's not a philosophical statement — it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done," Newport concludes. "Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester."

You can call that satisfying, rewarding or fulfilling. Just don't call it "fun."

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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