When work doesn’t feel like work

For years, I’ve heard platitudes about people who love what they do. How it doesn’t feel like work. How they would pay to do it. “How annoying,” I would think to myself.

During most of my career, we used the expression “combat pay” to capture our feeling that we earned our money because we were so often stressed and unhappy. I figured a job wasn’t meant to be fun or enjoyable, and that’s why they paid you. That’s why they call it work. 

This week, though, I saw for myself how - and why - work could feel like something else entirely.

Whistling while I work

Channeling my inner Snow White

I was on a plane heading for holiday in Japan with plenty of options for passing the time: books, movies, sleep. But instead I worked on presenter notes for slides. Even more unusual is that the notes weren’t for me, but for people I’ve never met.

It took me several hours, and as I was working on it I felt happy.

A few days later, my wife and kids were visiting friends and I was on my own for the day. I could have taken a train and visited any of a number of spots in Japan that I love.

Instead, I worked in various Kobe cafes for 6 hours, updating peer support guides. This was harder than working on presenter notes as it involved more thought and creativity, as well as uncertainty about whether the outcome would be worth it. It wasn’t fun. Yet at the end of the day, after making good progress on the guides, I felt fulfilled. Later today, I’ll be on high-speed train and I’m looking forward to working on them again.

It’s remarkable even to me. Why am I happy to spend precious holiday time doing these things?

5 reasons 

Some of the reasons will be clear to anyone who has studied motivation or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

As I was working on the notes and the guides, I was tapping into these intrinsic motivators and more:

Autonomy: I was self-directed, without a boss, process, or system controlling me.

Mastery: I was actively researching and learning while trying to improve my work.

Purpose: I knew why I was doing my work - to help other people access a better career and life - and that higher purpose ennobles even mundane work.

Connectedness: Though I was working by myself, I was interacting before and afterwards with people around the world who were giving me feedback and expressing thanks.

Compassion: At first I labelled this generosity, but it feels like more than that. We may or not be wired for generosity beyond our inner social circle, but there’s plenty of evidence that compassion, or living with an other-centric viewpoint, is a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.

The $$$ question

My sense is that anyone who has donated their time to a good cause can relate to my experience this week.

A question for me is how money would change things. More precisely, if there was an extrinsic motivator involved - Every WOL circle pays $10! The client is demanding it on Monday! - would it rob me of my feelings of fulfillment? Would it feel like work again?

It seems obvious that the answer is yes. But perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps you could give away most of the work and figure out ways to monetize a portion of it. Then you might be able to retain most of the feeling of joy and fulfillment, of flow, knowing that the paid portion makes all the rest possible.

What do you think? Have you seen people do this well? Are there role models to emulate?

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