#58

It’s final exams week.

In my north office (Starbucks), a young woman named Emily (those labels on Starbucks cups make it super easy to creep on people) is clearly preparing for finals. Her table is littered with multi-colored index cards. She picks up a stack and works through it, reading a card, then flipping it over to check the answer on the back and dealing it to another stack. She occasionally counts off some mental list on her fingers, and her motions convey a whiff of focused urgency, as if there are far too many tests ahead and far too few hours before they arrive, and I am glad I am not Emily, because this is a genuinely stressful time for students. Also because I have a niece named Emily and having two of us with that name would make Christmas really confusing.

I don’t know Emily (the one at Starbucks, not my niece) but she is awake and studying at Starbucks at 7 am, having clearly invested extensive effort in her study system, and my guess is that she will do just fine on her exams. I will also do fine this week: “It is more blessed to give exams than to receive them.”

One of the greatest parts of my work is its seasonality (not to be confused with sensuality), and the certainty that no matter how massive the current term’s disaster might be, it will end, and the grades will be recorded, and I will start again with a clean slate. One of the characteristics of ‘good’ jobs is some kind of rhythm, and jobs in more industrialized societies tend to have less of this, with days bleeding into months, and months merging into years with no real conclusion to any of it. A week from today my grades will be in the system and I will rent a bulldozer to re-organize my office, and I will close the book on Spring ’17.

Job satisfaction was one of the first topics I studied as a PhD student. Like many people, my career change was motivated by some level of dissatisfaction with my work, but ultimately, what makes a job ‘good’? In short, it’s critical to have a job that ‘fits’ you well (uses your unique skills and abilities), plus having as many of these things as possible:

  1. Task identity, which means the job has measurable beginnings and ends (like a semester) and you are involved in the whole process, not just one piece. Attaching single cushions to an endless conveyor belt of chairs is going to be far worse than building complete chairs.
  2. Task significance, which means the job positively affects the lives of others, rather than simply delivering a paycheck. That nightmare of waking up at 45, rich and successful, and asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” suggests a problem in this area.
  3. Autonomy, or how much control you have over your own work and its outcomes. The absolute worst, most stressful jobs force you to deal with problems you have responsibility for addressing, but zero control over. Picture an airline gate agent warily watching a line of 300 angry international travelers whose flight was just cancelled and who now have no way to get home.
  4. Feedback is simply a knowledge of how well you are doing your job. Ironically, even negative feedback is better than no feedback at all, since knowing creates opportunities to improve.

I’m a huge fan of finding a job that fits, and that makes you want to go to work each morning, and that you are glad to have a break from, but also look forward to returning to. You’re spend a huge chunk of your life at work, so why would you give that much of your existence to a job that you despise?

I love my work, but there are parts of it that don’t jazz me. The first day of finals week is called, for reasons lost to antiquity, Dead Day.  Students believe this is because on that day professors cannot assign any work, chapel doesn’t meet, and they can focus on learning the stuff they have steadfastly refused to learn for the previous fifteen weeks. Or on cleaning out their dorm rooms and packing for home, which is also important. In my mind it’s called this because students tend to show up in my office having just realized, “I am dead in this class.” They are usually correct. So I go to my office on Dead Day because it’s university policy and I sit quietly hoping nobody will knock, and I leave early because I can. I’m still trying to embrace this part of the school year.

There have been parts of my life that I never really embraced at all (like winter in Indiana, even though I was told “you have to embrace winter,” which was just total bunk, like telling someone they need to ’embrace’ a flea-infested porcupine). My PhD program was an incredibly difficult, non-stop grind and I never really found a way to enjoy the many cool parts of it because I was so consumed with reaching the finish line. By the way, sitting in my office after my final ‘defense,’ which is the official end of a PhD, was the single most anti-climactic moment of my life. Seriously. Whatever you are doing, you better find a way to enjoy it, because that ‘reward’ at the end (promotion, corner office, fame, PhD, free bagels) rarely lives up to its billing. If you don’t enjoy the ride you probably won’t enjoy the destination.

There are some parts of life that are joyless, and you just have to mark off the hours and get through them. Grieving comes to mind for me. But if you reduce your life to a list of tasks to finish as quickly as possible, what is the point of living? I organize my life with lists, on an old-fashioned notepad, because I love the tactile experience of vigorously, enthusiastically, violently marking them off when they are D-O-N-E. But at some point you have to ask yourself this basic question: “What then?”

Eating your vegetables so you can have dessert makes sense to most of us, but what if there is no dessert and it’s just vegetables all the way down? (If you have eaten at our house you know this is just an illustration because we eat far more vegetables than desserts.) And college? I remember only a handful of in-class moments, but I treasure a trove of extra-curricular memories, many involving questionable judgment, and several of uncertain legality. While earning a diploma was undeniably important, today I use little of what my classes taught me, but much of what I learned in long talks late at night with my friends as we tried to make sense of it all. My only real regret from college (aside from trying to major in physics, which lasted less than a semester) is that I spent a bit too much time working and a bit too little time with my friends.

So, if you have finals this week, quit reading this post and study. If you have a job you love, appreciate it. If you have a job that doesn’t fit you or that makes you crazy, start making a plan to change it. And if you are living your life as nothing more than a series of items to check off, ask yourself, “What is the point?” When you reach the end of your life, you don’t want to look back and think, “Good job. I checked more boxes than anyone else,” but wish, deep down inside, that you had accomplished a little less and lived a little more.

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You can read more about job satisfaction in a previous post here.