I’ve been leading and coaching people for almost four decades. I’ve seen lots of people work their butts off, buy lots of stuff, yet find themselves miserable. I’ve also seen people work super long hours and love what they’re doing. They, too, can buy lots of stuff. Both groups of people work hard. The difference between the two is their understanding of, and appreciation for, work.
I believe work, and especially the Work we love doing (which I refer to as Work with a capital W), is one of life’s greatest yet grossly under-appreciated gifts.
I believe work, and especially the Work we love doing, is one of life’s greatest yet grossly under-appreciated gifts.
With this perspective, consider how sad it is that work (note the lower case) has such a bad reputation.
I suspect it doesn’t help that we start off life going to school and studying subjects we find totally uninteresting, useless, or worse, simply wrong.
I also suspect the vast majority of us start our careers by “getting a job” — a role that fulfills several lower needs but does not offer us the opportunity to develop the insights, passions and sense of purpose that are so essential to becoming better and better versions of our best selves. Maybe we find ourselves working for a company that does not appreciate us or our goals. Perhaps the organization lacks a shared vision or is infused with a culture of negativity. Perhaps people are ruled by bosses who make the work extraordinarily dull or painful, or both.
All of the above may contribute to work’s bad reputation in the minds of many. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I believe the vast majority of us are born with the need to make life better.
I believe the genetic encoding in each of us includes the desire to continuously become our best — meaning better and better versions of our best selves.
Consistent with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I also believe that life is a never-ending journey through which our needs evolve, from what we must have to survive (such as food, water and sleep), to what we need to thrive (security and belonging), to what we would like to have (self-esteem), to the highest level of what would be wonderful to have (self-actualization).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Physiological Needs: air, water, food, shelter, sex, etc.
Safety Needs: personal security, income, resources, health.
Love and Belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, connection.
Esteem: respect, status, strength, freedom.
Self-Actualization: desire to become the most one can be.
Most importantly, I deeply believe that it is only through Work that we can reach the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. And that is only the beginning! Allow me to explain.
Work as Our Developmental Journey
No other activity besides Work will get us to the top of the pyramid faster. Sleep won’t. Reading won’t. Playing won’t, unless playing is actually what we do for work. Eating won’t, even if it is work-related.
Only through Work can we hope to self-actualize.
Only through Work can we develop and gain access to the insights, tools, disciplines, relationships and competencies that are essential for our personal growth and well-being.
Think about this for a second.
Maslow’s definition of self-actualization implies there is a top to the mountain. But there is no top, only a peak from which to see a path toward a higher peak.
Before I share more about how Work gives life meaning, helps us connect with our purpose, helps us find our tribes and makes life better, let’s look at how many of us think about work.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, work is:
- An activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result;
- A mental or physical activity as a means of earning income;
- The place where one is employed;
- A task or tasks to be undertaken;
- Something a person or thing has to do.
This doesn’t sound very interesting or fulfilling at all, does it?
This narrow, oddly negative definition of work paired with work’s bad reputation is especially worrisome when we consider that it is only through work — especially Work — that we as individuals can evolve into better and better versions of the best and highest versions of ourselves.
I also believe that this misappreciation, albeit mistaken understanding, of the value of Work is just one of the many issues we are currently dealing with across the globe.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not a fan of the way work is typically defined and described. That said, I also recognize there are a lot of companies out there that don’t appreciate and respect how important Work actually is.
Fact is, many owners and leaders see their companies as simply a place for conducting commerce, exchanging goods and services for value, making money and making decisions based on an array of shorter-term goals. It’s seen as a place for giving orders or following orders — a place where true appreciation is rarely demonstrated, talent development is a sideshow, and trust is only earned after years of toil and loyalty.
Yet I believe COVID-19 has propelled us into a New Age, one that recognizes Work as part of our own evolution.
This new era may arrive slowly for the majority of companies, then build more and more momentum until companies are either playing by the rules of this New Age or risk seeing themselves harshly dropped into the dustbin of history.
I don’t know if it will take two years or 10 for this new era to dominate in terms of its impact on the global economy and its participants, but it’s here.
The New Age Has Arrived
At the core of this New Age of Work is the appreciation that, like Maslow’s pyramid itself, companies need to move from helping people meet their lower needs to an awareness and support of their higher and higher needs.
I believe we will move from places to work to places of Work.
Ultimately, as individuals evolve, so, too, will companies. I see it as a bit of a “Catch-22.” Ultimately, the winners will be companies that are not just committed to the betterment of the individual, but to the organization and all of its stakeholders, including society as a whole.
This is the beauty of the “Gift of Work” within this new era.
This Gift of Work is not exclusive of education, background, age or culture.
This Gift of Work is not exclusive of education, background, age or culture. For those who accept the Gift with an openness to appreciation, consideration, growth and positive development — of both individuals and companies — the traditional constraints will fall away and the Gift recipients will continue to contribute their skills, experience and value as they see fit, for as long as they like, and will be appreciated for doing so.
Allow me to share this example.
Imagine your 36-year-old self (prospective or reflective) actively envisioning your 90-year-old self as a person who is still working, loves what you do, loves who you do it with and still gets paid a very fair level of compensation for what you do. Reflect on how you deeply believe you’ve lived a great life… where you not only made the world a better place, but you continue to make the world a better place… where everyone who works with you genuinely values the work you do… where your Work continues to invigorate you and inspire others.
Now imagine the same story, only from the perspective of you as a leader.
Imagine you are a senior leader of a 15-year-old company and you’re envisioning what it needs to look like in 25 years. You envision it thriving. You love what it does. You love who it serves. You see that it continues to generate a very healthy risk-adjusted return on capital for you and your shareholders. You envision it continuing to employ wonderful people (providing for wonderful families). You’re proud that it has not only made the world a better place but continues to make the world a better and better place. And it’s clear that every one of its stakeholders genuinely trusts it (and you) and values the Work that it does (and the Work that you do).
Do these visions resonate with you? Do you want to manifest these stories?
Here’s the great news: You, me and billions of other people around the globe have the power to live this dream and make these visions real (that is, provided we’re not severely limited by some form of bad luck, and assuming our political systems continue to support the notion of freedom and our inalienable rights to pursue our own needs and happiness).
There’s even better news: If you genuinely want this and can envision it, you’ll immediately feel a huge weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. Whether you’re a worker or an employer or both, now you have plenty of time to get from here (wherever you are) to there (wherever you want to go), even if you’re approaching what was once considered “retirement age.”
This is the New Age of Work that we are entering into, an age where we not only understand and appreciate humans, but where we collectively get to Work making life better and better as we make ourselves better and better. I believe this age is coming fast at us for a whole host of reasons, which is a topic for another day.
This is the New Age of Work that we are entering into, an age where we not only understand and appreciate humans, but where we collectively get to Work making life better and better as we make ourselves better and better.
Until then, be good, if not great. We need you, especially as we all share the experience of coming of age in this New Age of Work.
- Our evolutionary drive toward self-actualization most fully manifests in our Work.
- Work we love doing is one of life’s greatest yet grossly under-appreciated gifts.
- It is only through Work that we develop and gain access to the insights, tools, disciplines, relationships and competencies that are essential to both personal and professional growth.
- Effective and purposeful Work requires an effective and purposeful Work place.
- Ultimately, the winners will be companies that are not just committed to the betterment of the individual, but to the organization and all of its stakeholders, including society as a whole.
- Consider your approach to Work. How can it better fulfill you? How can you continue to improve upon your best self through Work? If you work for someone else, how can you help them move into this New Age? How can you help them turn their workplace into a Work place?
- Think about Work as perpetual. What kind of Work can you see yourself doing for decades and decades to come?
- Rethink your retirement. How long you “have to” work can be reframed as how long you “get to” Work.
- Build a pyramid for growth. Because we self-actualize through Work and in reference to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, review how well you are enabling your stakeholders (e.g., your colleagues, boss, subordinates, vendors, partners, etc.) to evolve, not just professionally but personally, passionately and emotionally.