Good things happen when people work. Honest effort lifts the soul, like medicine for the body, making a vocation much more than a paycheck.
Work produces income, which covers rent and keeps families fed. But at a more fundamental level, work produces feelings of worth. Goal setters in pursuit of happiness for the New Year and beyond cannot overlook the link.
The influence of work on a persons psyche is one reason that forced labor is so abhorrent. Most people recognize the immorality of slavery in all its forms. Covid-19 has uncovered the harm that comes from the opposite: Forced closure of a business or forced unemployment.
Telling individuals they cannot work is just as dehumanizing as telling them they must work. More than just their survival is at stake when this happens. Their meaning is at stake. Nutritionists say, You are what you eat. But a more accurate slogan would be: You are what you do.
Normally no one stands in the way of a persons right to decide when, where and how to work. But the pandemic has shaken things up. For the sake of public safety, government officials have divided work into two categories: Essential and nonessential.
Some people have received permission to continue working while others have received fines or even arrest. Putting first responders and medical workers in a special category makes sense during a health emergency, but other exemptions have been more dubious.
Examples include executive orders favoring Big Box retail over mom-and-pop shops, strip clubs over churches and daycares over schools. California officials even authorized an outdoor catered film shoot while shutting down outdoor restaurant dining in the same parking lot.
Regardless of the justifications, telling anyone that their lifes work does not matter or ranks below someone elses vocation can lead to despair. Television host Mike Rowe, famous for his Dirty Jobs series on the Discovery Channel, describes the risks in a recent Facebook post. Predictably, mental health cases have spiked along with Covid-19 cases.
Even before the pandemic, society has elevated some pursuits over others based on arbitrary or misguided distinctions. People assume, for example, that the noblest and most rewarding work prioritizes others over self, family over career, and corporate social responsibility over core business activity. As I explain in previous columns on selfishness, work-life balance and philanthropy, all of these dichotomies are false.
Another damaging dichotomy is the forced choice between making a social contribution or making money. People who buy into this construct see a necessary tradeoff between doing good and doing well. In their minds a person can have purpose without profit or profit without purposebut not bothas if more of one means less of the other.
My late mentor, Philadelphia Flyers founder Ed Snider, rejected this idea. He saw purpose and profit working together. Money should be the reward, but not the reason, he said, talking about his motivation to stay active. You do it because you enjoy it. You enjoy creating things, building things, and making things better. And the money follows as a reward.
Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham agrees. Business critics sometimes think the only way to become a billionaire is to exploit others, but Grahams experience as a venture capitalist has taught him the opposite. Entrepreneurs have the greatest likelihood to shake up an industry when they identify novel solutions to problems that are personally meaningful.
True success requires purpose and profit. People can track their progress in these areas on independent, parallel axes. But the interplay between the two dimensions is easier to visualize in a grid with intersecting lines. The upper-right quadrant, where purpose and profit meet, is the sweet spot for happiness. As philosopher Ayn Rand explains, happiness is the state of consciousness resulting from the achievement of ones values. This is where Snider found himself when he hoisted the Stanley Cup with his championship National Hockey League franchise.
Zappos founder Tony Tsieh went the other direction after achieving financial success, descending to the lower-left quadrant of the grid prior to his fire-related death in November 2020. Paying his Park City Crew to follow him from Las Vegas to the Utah ski resort town, Tsieh indulged in a hedonist lifestyle with no purpose or profitusing previously earned money to bankroll excessive and endless parties. Without honest work, the mantra to be happy became whim-worship, fueling paranoia and depression in a drug-induced mindlessness that ultimately resulted in self-destruction.
People stuck in the lower-right quadrant at least produce value. They are not criminals or parasites who live at the expense of others. They earn their place in society and receive compensation. But they fail to serve their own values, perhaps never having defined them in the first place. In many cases they mistakenly pursue profit as the end goal. They fail to understand that money is a tool to serve ones values, but it cannot substitute for them. Wealth and status in other peoples eyes cannot fill the emptiness that such people perceive when looking in a mirror.
People in the upper-left quadrant make the opposite mistake. They see profit as exploitative or mistakenly assume that self-interest is immoral. Either way, they follow their values without regard to practical concerns like payroll and rent. They may achieve their purpose to some extent, but they fall short of their full potential because they fail to understand the trader principle. To scale up innovation and make it sustainable, people must leverage the power of enterprise and markets. This requires profit, the currency that brings people together to collaborate.
Goal setters looking for happiness in 2021 must work to maximize purpose and profit. The following four principles provide guidance.
Work Is Essential
Nothing worthwhile comes without work. Nature demands it, not only to provide daily sustenance, but also to feed the soul. Some physical comforts seem automatic in free societies, where innovation, specialization and trade enhance productivity. But no one can escape the basic law of economics: Before goods and services can be consumed, they must be produced.
Even if someone inherits wealth or depends on others for food and shelter, they cannot escape the necessity of work for mental well-being. Meaningful work allows people to combine their abilities and aspirations for true success, so they can say: I love what I do and I am good at it. Honest effort in any environment leads to fulfillment.
Work Is Personal
Simply deciding to stay productive is not enough. People must choose among many options to find a vocation that is personally meaningful. As a first-order principle, they must work at identifying their purpose and the accompanying hierarchy of values that comes with it.
What work is essential cannot be left for others to dictate. The crowd is never satisfied anyway. Some critics demand wealth and status as signs of worth, while others demand self-sacrifice and poverty as signs of nobility. Each individual must tune out the voices and think independently. The correct answer might involve working at an orphanage, on Wall Street or at home.
Likewise, each individual must make personal choices about profit, spending it to promote their values. They cannot let others dictate how they earn income or spend it. Both actions are expressions of self.
Work Is Challenging
Staying the course to achieve purpose and profit requires careful goal setting. Research from U.S. psychologist Edwin Locke shows that the best way to feel motivated is to push yourself to do things that you are not certain you can achieve.
Simply identifying stretch goals and making plans to execute them takes effort. Success often requires investment in developing new skills and competencies, which requires pacing and sequencing of tasks. Success also requires anticipation of tradeoffs. Once implementation begins, people must take care to not give up higher values for lower values.
The entire process takes effort. Work is hard, and so is thinking about work. Rather than diving in like a daredevil, people who find purpose and profit usually take a scientific approach. They reflect, plan and then act.
Work is Win-Win
Despite the need for self-reflection, meaningful work does not have to be a lonely endeavor. Once individuals define their personal values, they can embark on a quest to find kindred spiritscolleagues who complement their abilities and match their values to work toward common goals. Win-win relationships result.
The benefits multiply when allies are kind instead of nice. Rather than worrying about hurt feelings, they speak hard truths and keep each other honest. The feedback helps individuals identify holes in their value hierarchy, fostering growth and development. This helps the journey become the destination.
Happiness is hard work, and those who achieve it earn their just rewards. Instead of picking purpose or profit, they choose both. Ultimately, they make no apologies for their success because in their own eyes, they know they are worth it.
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