Last night I participated in a "Jefferson Dinner" that a friend hosted in which ten people were brought together to eat and hold an orderly, respectful, and deep conversation. The host pitched a thought-provoking question and we participants could only speak one at a time, in order around the circle, so that we were forced to actively listen to the responses of everyone else.
The subject of the event was The Future of Work and The Paradigm of Full Time. Our conceptions of "work", where the job economy is headed, statistics about freelancing and entrepreneurship, and how to continue focusing on personal fulfillment and career satisfaction were discussed.
The three total questions that we covered throughout the evening reflected on our past, present, and future ideas of work in our society. Even though our answers were all so unique and they started very differently about our pasts and how we entered the workforce, common themes emerged by the end when we discussed the future of work that we hope will be possible.
To optimize survival, human beings seek both certainty and uncertainty.
The certainty we crave is familiarity. Reliable patterns of things that we can respond to with efficiency and fluidity because it becomes practiced. The uncertainty we crave is novelty. We all still want something new. Our brains need novel stimulation. Even though I resist the routined life of a 9-5 job and so lack a lot of the certainty that is common in the working world, I still have a lot of certainty on which I can rely, examples of which include shelter, electricity, and a support system. With regard to work, certainty is often interpreted as the security of a paycheck or the environmental security of an office in which work is undertaken. These certainties provide a foundation on top of which you can navigate your enjoyment of the work.
If things became too certain and predictable and efficient, though, humans would become bored. If machines automated my life and I rarely had to put effort in, I would not know what to do with myself because I would crave some kind of novelty to evolve. Novelty for a lot of people means materialistic possession, like buying the newest phone that comes out or the newest car. Novelty in work, however, can be found on a wide wide spectrum and is different for everyone.
Novelty is newness that implies opportunity. Opportunity implies choice. Choice implies freedom and agency. And finally, agency offers empowerment.
Once you are able to recognize choices within your work and the personal agency you have to make work what you want it to be, you have the opportunity for your work to be fulfilling. Even though I just described this so eloquently and simply, it is not often that simple in practice. Many variables affect your choices as well as your emotions around those choices. This is why walking the uphill path to fulfillment consists of stubbing your toe, someone tripping you, getting one foot stuck in quicksand, someone pulling your arm one way, and a strong wind gusting against you in some form every day.
So what do we do about it? How do we even think about fulfillment in our work when there are so many variables involved?
Let us start by taking stock of your unique work situation right now.
Security, Agency, and Fulfillment were the three themes that arose from the discussion last night, so let us use these as the frames through which we reflect on our work:
- Security: what in your work provides you with a sense of security, reliability, and certainty right now?
- Agency: what about your work affects your independent agency? Do you have the freedom of choice in your role? Are you micromanaged? Are you asked for your input? What role does choice have in your job?
- Fulfillment: what do you hope for, deep down? What do you wish was different in your current work? What do you fantasize about related to work?
Please answer these honestly as they pertain to you. Do not say that money provides you with security just because you think that should be the answer. Use the above questionnaire as a scorecard to shed light on your current mindset about work. After you answer those three, look at your answers and ask:
- What sticks out to you?
- Which question was hardest to answer?
- Which answer feels heaviest to you?
You may find that one theme feels more stressful than the others. Highlight that one and reflect on why. That will be the starting point from which you begin working towards fulfillment. If you are fulfilled in your work, great! I want to know how you got there. What was the process for you?
If anything arose as the most important concept at dinner last night, it was that we humans are still seeking fulfillment, so why not work on it together?