Find work worth doing

By Philip Brewer on 27 April 2008 (Updated 9 February 2010) 18 comments

[Editor's note:  If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]

I worked at a non-profit--a local nature center--over the summer of 1979.  After we wrapped up our main task, those of us who wanted to were allowed stay on for the few weeks before we went back to college, doing things like trimming branches on the hiking trails, repainting the lines in the parking lot, and working around a very old house that was to be turned into an exhibit on settlement-era homesteads.  It was work that was worth doing.

Unemployment was pretty high that summer, and there was a government program called CETA that employed people who couldn't find real jobs.  Non-profits could get free labor from CETA, and the nature center did.

Of course, free labor is often worth what you pay for it.  Throw in the costs of hiring and managing your free workers, and it's easy to come out behind.  CETA was structured to try to avoid those problems--the government did the hiring and the managing.  The workers arrived every morning in a government van with their own manager.  We were just supposed to to have to let them know what needed doing.

One morning, I was trying to clear brush from around the foundation of the homestead.  It had already been cut; I was just hauling the branches over to a brush pile over on the edge of the property.  It wasn't hard, but sometimes the branches got snagged on one another, and at one point I asked one of the CETA workers to help me with some tangled branches that two people could just haul together, rather than untangling and hauling separately.

The guy said no.  I asked him why, and he said he didn't want to waste his energy.

There may have been a mechanism for getting the CETA people fired, but there wasn't any point to doing so:  the nature center got them for free.  If they did any work at all, the nature center was ahead of the game.

So, I just shrugged and kept on hauling brush as best I could, yanking on branches to separate the tangle.  My example seemed to shame the guy a little, because he relented and helped me haul the rest of the tangle.  Working together gave us a few minutes to talk.  He asked how much we (non-CETA workers) were making.  I said I wasn't sure, but it was less than the minimum-wage that they were getting paid.

(Those of us who'd stayed on from earlier in the summer were not technically "employees."  I don't know what we were exactly, but instead of wages we were paid a stipend--not as much money as we could have made if we'd gotten ordinary jobs, but enough that we could afford to spend the summer doing work that was worthwhile instead.  The nature center had simply continued our stipend for those extra few weeks.)

He couldn't understand that at all, and I didn't have the words to explain it to him.  It's only been in the last few years that I began to understand the difference between work that's worth doing and work that isn't.

I hadn't thought about those CETA workers for a long time until I came upon the fascinating article Doing More with Less by Franklin Schneider.  He makes the case for refusing to slave away at a soul-destroying job, choosing instead an intriguing alternative:  Provide for your needs by taking full advantage of unemployment insurance and living in squalor.  When those means fall short, he suggests that fraud and theft can postpone the dreaded return to work, perhaps indefinitely.

Let me quickly deplore the theft and fraud--crimes that are morally wrong, harmful to everyone, and can ruin your life if you get caught--because I'm much more interested in grappling with the underlying assumption Schneider makes:  That the only jobs that exist are pointless, unrewarding ones.  If you really believe that, then milking every last cent of your unemployment benefit makes perfect sense, and finding a new job is crazy:

Given a choice between getting a check every week for doing nothing and getting a check every week for flushing 40 hours of the prime of their lives down the toilet, they chose the latter. I mean, what kind of self-hating, masochistic Protestant bulls*** is that?

The fascinating thing to me is the huge fraction of the population that simply accept it as given that jobs are crappy.  It's so sad that there are so many people--that entire CETA work crew, for example--who don't know that there is work worth doing.  Hang out with working-class folks and you'll find endless variations on the theme that jobs suck, bosses suck, and that the only two good things about their job are quitting time and payday.  Their goal to put in the absolute minimum effort to keep from getting fired--and once they qualify for unemployment, they might very well choose to cut back on the effort level and see if they can't manage to get fired and milk that unemployment check once again.

It's easy to see this as a class thing, but I don't think it is.  Middle-class and upper-class folks also find themselves in crappy jobs  for one reason or another, and among them you can find this attitude in full measure.

Frankly, it's not an unreasonable attitude.  If your work isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well.

I've always been sorry that I didn't have the words to explain to the CETA guy that there is work worth doing--work that isn't a waste of your energy.

There are lots of ways that work can be worth doing.  It's worthwhile to make something that's useful or beautiful.  It's worthwhile to help people or teach people or entertain people or comfort people.  Some work is worth doing entirely in its own right, and other work is primarily worth doing as part of some larger project that gives it meaning.

The way we structure work in our society makes it easy to lose sight of this.

Schools are a big part of the problem:  Most schoolwork is not worth doing.  It's an imitation of real work designed to teach some skill or another.  But giving children nothing but mock work for 12 or 16 years makes it a lot harder for them to understand that there is real work out there--work that's worth doing.

I think parents also do their kids no favors when they encourage them to take low-skill, part-time jobs to earn pocket money.  (Sometimes they do so with the explicit motivation that it will teach their kids the value of work!)  Kids will be far ahead of the game if they're taught how to identify work that's worth doing, and how to find a job doing that work.  Among other important reasons, it's good to keep them away from the Franklin Schneiders of the world who can't imagine a job that isn't soul-destroying drudgery, at least until they've got some personal experience to teach them otherwise.

It's possible to shake yourself free from those ideas.  Start by keeping clear the distinction between work and a job.  A job is something that pays the bills.  Reserve the word "work" for work that's worth doing--whether you get paid for it or not.

Over time, increase the amount of work you do.  That will sound like crazy talk if you're still stuck in the notion that work is the stuff that's so awful that no one would do it unless they were getting paid.  But it comes naturally, once you find work that's worth doing.

If you can increase the amount of work you do within the context of your job, that's great.  If you can't, look for another job where you can.  If you can't find work within the context of a job at all, do work for yourself.  Think about what makes work worth doing, and look for those traits in the tasks you perform anyway--much of that work is worth doing.  If some of it isn't worth doing, try to do less of that to free up time to do more of the other.

Whether or not work is worth doing seems to have little to do with how much you can earn doing it.  Plenty of crappy jobs pay low wages.  Plenty of high-income occupations require that you spend large amounts of time and effort on tasks that provide no benefit to anybody.  It takes effort to understand what work is worth doing.  It takes effort to find that work.  It takes effort to arrange your life so that work worth doing becomes a larger part of it.

The thing is, after your family, having work that's worth doing is very possibly the most important factor determining whether you're happy or not.  It's worth some effort.  One might even say, it's worth some work.

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Guest's picture
Jay

I encourage my kids to find work that isn't worth doing. Obviously they hate it.

Therein lies the lesson. At 16, 17 and 18, our kids are in a unique position to plan to do whatever they want to do in life. This is often the ONLY time they'll be in this position. Choose and plan wisely, and they "get to go to work" everyday. Choose poorly, and they become one of those CETA folks.

My oldest son caught on quickly. He'll be attending the US Naval Academy next year and he's thrilled. My daughter is a work-in-progress. My other two children are a little too young to start the experiment, but I'm betting they're paying attention to what their older siblings are going through.

"Work" is a poor word to use in defining what we do to provide for our families and better ourselves. The most successful folks in life (and success doesn't necessarily have to be quantified in dollars) make sure that "work" is everything but...

JAY

Philip Brewer's picture

The problem is not that "work" is the wrong word, but rather that the word has been degraded just lately.

We still use the word correctly sometimes, as when we talk about a great work of art, music, or literature.  But all too often we use "work" when all we're really talking about is a job.

If one of your peers sees what you've done and says, "This is some of your best work," that's one of the highest compliments you can get.  If it's not--if you've got some job where that statement could only be meant ironically--you should find some work worth doing.

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Dianne

Work is worth doing. What has become worthless is people's attitude toward work. We have whole generations that think they are too good to work, that they are meant for better things, that they are elite because they are told they are perfect beings. There is no work without honor if the person doing the work does their best. I regularly thank the people around my workplace who pick up the garbage left by the elite group too indifferent to use trashcans and recycling bins...I thank them for trying to make the place look better by being up the garbage of the elite but lazy group who find themselves too special to pick up after themselves. I thank the landscapers, and I thank the staff who vacuum and dust, and I thank anyone who goes out of their way to fix something they see broken without waiting around for someone else to do it. I have no patience for this idea that work is worthless. What is worthless are the holier than thou group who think they are too special to make any effort. I don't think a person has to wait around to find a job as special as they are...what they should be working on is your attitude that they are too special to work at anything. Work done well, at any level, is something special. People too lazy and egotistical to apply themselves are a dime a dozen.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Dianne:

I think the examples I provided (trimming branches, painging parking lot lines, hauling trash) make it clear that I'm not suggesting that menial work isn't worth doing.

But I think there is work that isn't worth doing, and plenty of it. 

As just one example, I spent several hours I'll never get back at a workplace presentation on a new initiative that was supposed to improve communication between workers and managers.  It was a stupid, one-size-fits-all program that had no applicability to what we did.  That meeting was "work," in the sense that they paid me to show up, but it wasn't worth doing.  It was a waste everyone's time.

Work isn't worth doing in the abstract.  It's worth doing if it serves a purpose.  It's worth doing if you think it's worth doing.

Suppose somebody set you to work counting something, and then made it clear that (except for checking to make sure that you actually did it), no use would be made of the data that you collected--they'd take your tallies and toss them in the trash.  Would that be worth doing?

I've spent way too much of my life doing work that wasn't much different from that, simply because somebody was paying me to do it.  It took me far too long to figure out I was making a terrible trade, taking money in exchange for work that wasn't worth doing.

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Dad

The great song-writer/folk singer Charlie King has a song that catches some of the same things you're saying. Fortunately, he has a T-shirt with some words from the chorus. The back says, "Our work is more than our job," and the front says, "Our life is more than our work."

Great post, Philip, as usual.

Guest's picture
dave wright

dont' you EVER underestimate the value of volunteer labour.

i'm 32 now, but when i first left college way back in 1994, i could not get a job anywhere, no matter how hard i tried (i'm referring to the UK btw).

my only recourse (to get some REAL works experience), was to take up a part in voluntary work.

I initally worked for the National Trust (google them), and was expected to put in 90+ hours per week, unpaid!!!!!!

completely unrealistic.

So i ended up working for my local community news sheet for 40+ hours per week, and this got me what i needed, a fairly decent job, as whenever i went for an interview, the panel would ALWAYS ask how i was motivated, and telling them i did voluntary work always went in my favour.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Dave:

You bet.  I've written about volunteering as a path to finding your true work here:

http://www.wisebread.com/pre-career-advice

Guest's picture

@Jay: Maybe your kids are learning a valuable lesson from doing work that isn't worth doing. Maybe I just wasn't smart enough. As an impressionable teenager, working with people who were stuck in low-wage jobs, I learned that the boss doesn't pay you as much as you're worth and so you should always slack off and stick it to the Man. Don't work too fast: if you let the Man know you can do the work in half the time, he'll give you twice as much work. It took me years to grow out of what I learned in these jobs.

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Katy

I think that one way for teenagers to find some meaning in a job--even though it is a menial one--is for them to believe that they are making a contribution to their family's welfare. During the Depression, my father picked fruit in the summers to help pay for college. His family was poor and his parents appreciated his effort; especially since their friends came to them to tell them they were stupid to send him to college when he could be earning a job right now working at the cleaners or as a gardener (the types of jobs open to adults in his community.)

Nowadays, teenagers, in many cases, still must help out with the high cost of college. Even looking for scholarships if the child can't work would be helpful to the whole family.

Even though those around are slacking off, the teenager who sees the larger purpose of his/her effort should be able to find a temporary job meaningful.

Guest's picture
Guest

The job that provides for the family is a job worth doing....even if it seems pointless to others.

Guest's picture
Guest

Oh, I remember CETA workers. I lifeguarded the summers I was in college at a pool on a military base and we had this CETA worker who was kind of worthless because she wasn't certified to be a lifeguard. We would give her little jobs to do and she moved so slow that it was way easier to just do it ourselves -- things like cleaning the bathrooms, hosing off the deck, straightening up the baskets that you put stuff in. This would have been maybe '81 and '82.

Now I seem to run into people that work for a little while and then quit and live off the money that they have. I don't get this mindset at all. What about emergencies? what about retirement?

Philip Brewer's picture

@Guest (in #10):

Providing for your family is not merely worth doing, its one of those fundamental obligations.  To me, though, merely using the proceeds to support your family doesn't make the work worth doing.  The value comes (or doesn't come) from the work itself.  Does it help people? Does it produce something of value?  Does it use your talents?

I've done work that I didn't think was worth doing, simply because someone would pay me to do it.  It supported my family, but I think the harm it did oughtweighed the good.  There's always another way to support your family.  If your work isn't worth doing, you should find a better way.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Guest (in #11):

I've written a bit about choosing intermittent leasure over steady work here:

http://www.wisebread.com/retirement-on-the-installment-plan

I don't think it's a crazy idea, at least for people who have a little capital.

Guest's picture
Ethan

I think we have lost much of the work ethic that previous generations had; things are too easy today. I know that I am guilty of this, in fact I didn't realize how satisfying work could be until I spend some time volunteering in Central America. The good honest work was backbreaking, but it actually meant something because as a result someone would have a roof over their heads, or they wouldn't need to worry about food as much since they had a larger garden... Consider volunteering if you want to feel that your work is making a difference.

http://www.volunteerforfree.com

Guest's picture

What makes work worth doing is the perception of the person doing the work. The more excited and passionate they are about the work the more it's "worth it."

Finding "work worth doing" is nowhere near as easy as most writers or career pundits make it out to be. I suspect that it's nearly impossible for most people to find this kind of work. The best that we can hope for is "tolerable work." Work that you may never be passionate about but will at least let you live a decent lifestyle and not stress you out every day.

Here's a few possible reasons for that phenomenon:

No connection between your education and the kind of job it prepares you for. You may pursue a subject at school because you love it and then you seek out a career in it because you loved your course work. Only catch is that the careers available combine something like 1% of the knowledge you learned with long hours of menial robotic work.

Few jobs available. Some careers just don't have many jobs available. And you don't have a chance of getting into the jobs that are available unless you were either an elite student and/or have connections.

Jobs you would actually like to do don't pay.

Jobs are otherwise ruined by outside factors. Any job can be destroyed by a bad boss or toxic co-workers.

Philip Brewer's picture

@SaveBuyLive:

There's truth to everything you say, but I think you're overly pessimistic.  Settling for "tolerable" work is a perfectly reasonable thing to do for weeks or even months at a time.  But to settle for tolerable work for years at a time, or a whole career--that's really sad.

While it's true that some great jobs don't pay well, others do.  (And, of course, sucky jobs cover the whole range from low pay to high pay as well.)

One central message that I keep coming back to is that frugality leads to freedom.  If you spend a lot of money, then you need to earn a lot of money--meaning that you have to find a job with a high salary whether it's work worth doing or not.  As you find that you can get by on less money, the universe of possible jobs begins to open up.

Anyway, don't confuse work and job.  Although you really want to have your job involve doing work that's worth doing (because you spend so much time and effort doing it), it's possible to do work that's not part of your job--work that's worth doing.

That, by the way, is the way to develope the skills and connections that lead to those great jobs that are otherwise closed off--start doing the work informally, on your own (or as a volunteer) in your free time.  Once you've got a track record of success doing the work, you're in a position to start asking people to pay you for it.  I've got a post called Pre-career advice that goes into it in some depth from the perspective of students, but it's a strategy that's available to anybody.

Guest's picture
Guest

I admire your attitude, I really do. However, sometimes the pessimistic view is also the realistic one.

I work in the software industry, and although I still love being a programmer in theory, over the years I've become disappointed by the type of projects I've gotten to work on. Everything I learned in school has been wasted on my employers. It's become clear that most of the work available is boring and unappreciated. As an example: my last employer had a strategy of inventing as much work as possible, no matter how useless, in order to bill more to the client. What should have been an honest day's work often ended up being a few weeks of drudgery. The remarkable thing to me is how well this sort of dishonesty pays off.

Anyways, I've left that place and began consulting on my own. While I am happy that I did, it became underemployment. The small jobs to be had neither pay well nor provide a genuinely rewarding challenge.

Ideally I'd like to be doing some research work at a university or any setting with decent resources. I apply only to be dismissed. Without an MA or PhD though, my odds are realistically very slim. The competition in the software field has been fierce due to the negative growth since I graduated, I fear outsourcing may have permanently damaged any opportunities I had to find work I enjoy.

Would you have any suggestions for me?

Philip Brewer's picture

My only short-term advice is just what I mentioned in the comment you're replying to: temporarily separate the work that you do to earn a living from the work that you do because it's worth doing.

Volunteering is one way. Software in particular lends itself to this tactic, because there are always open-source projects that you can work on.

Demonstrating your proficiency in this way can lead to all variety of paid gigs—and in the meantime you're doing some work worth doing.

I talk about working for free in my post of pre-career advice. I talk about separating your paid work from the work you want to do in a post called Dream Job or Day Job.

Good luck!