Lessons from Past Wisdom on Current Work Attitudes

“I have never done a thing I have wanted to do in all my life.” — A random old guy

Any responsible and insightful thinker knows that an adequate understanding of the present and future requires knowledge from the past. If not knowledge, we should at least hold respect for those who came before us. After all, they shaped the world as we know it. And that is a big deal.

This sort of awareness provides crucial context when understanding the dynamics of the contemporary world. It also helps predict potential paths of future change.

Attitudes toward work are now vastly different then they used to be. Even if we only rewind a couple of decades, the dynamics that previously governed relationships between individuals and their friends, along with neighbors, citizens, elected officials, and employers have been modified over time.

A Snapshot of the Past

To explore the past, it is helpful to tap into the mind of Joseph Campbell, an exceptional thinker during his time on earth.

Campbell made an interesting observation about a flaw within the conventional thinking that he observed in his era. He explained this with an illustrative story that he told in a widely circulated 1988 interview series with PBS television personality Bill Moyers.

The ‘Do What You’re Told’ Paradigm

Here is how Campbell tells the story to Moyers. While having dinner at a restaurant, Campbell witnessed an interaction between a 12 year old boy, his mother, and father.

“Drink your tomato juice.” The father said to the boy.

“I don’t wanna.” The boy replied.

“DRINK your tomato juice!” The now agitated father reiterated in a louder voice.

The boy’s mother came to her son’s defense. 

“Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do!” She insisted.

The flabbergasted father’s response to his wife expressed a strikingly grave and overly dramatic concern for the future well-being of his son. 

Disgruntled old man.

“He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do… If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be DEAD!”

The father went on. 

“Look at me… I have NEVER done A THING I have WANTED to do in all my LIFE.” 

Apparently the old man did his ‘duty’ during his life. It was always a duty to others, never himself.

The New Paradigm

Imagine never doing a thing that you have wanted to do in your life? By today’s standards, a statement like this is pure hyperbole. It may even be laughable. However, by yesterday’s standards, it may not have been as misguided.

There are currently zero parents in America who would advise their children to think this way. In the modern workplace, no one would suggest that simply ‘doing what you are told’ is a recipe for career success. Nor would they suggest that this leads to a fulfilling work life.

If anything, thinkers like Daniel Pink and Seth Godin have suggested the exact opposite. From Millennials on, the youngest generations of Americans have embraced their messages. According to Pink and Godin, workers are no longer cogs in a process that simply makes the machine work. Instead, they are creative professionals that shape the landscape of not just their companies but also, our future.

Today’s jobs are just different, and managers want a different set of skills. Doing what you are told was yesterday’s playbook. We have a new paradigm now. Here are 4 key characteristics.

1. ‘Follow Your Bliss’

“If you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” – A cliche

Joseph Campbell was ahead of his time. He wisely suggested that we should reject the old man’s advice and pursue a more meaningful, autonomous, and communicative life. His advice was to “follow your bliss.”

This mainly referred to prioritizing and enjoying non-work related, personal endeavors such as marriage and relationships. However, over time, western culture has increasingly applied this framework to career pursuits. The view that workers should follow their bliss, otherwise known as ‘personal passion’ and align their preferences with work is now dominant.

To experience bliss at work, it helps to be passionate about what you do. To many knowledge workers, the thought of doing a job that isn’t enjoyable is unbearable. The career support and higher education industries tend to encourage this attitude by suggesting that young people need to go to college and pick a major of significant personal interest.

We encourage children to decide what they want to do with their life before they have accumulated hardly any work experience.

More people are beginning to recognize and write about the folly of this approach. Author and Georgetown professor, Cal Newport has written an excellent book called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The book explicitly rejects this approach, which he refers to as the ‘passion hypothesis.’

Aligning the “right” job with a unique and underdeveloped set of skills and passions may sound great in theory, but it can be problematic in practice. The process is vague, abstract, and consequently, often not actionable.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, passion does not typically exist as an untapped reservoir within young, inexperienced workers. Instead, passion is typically discovered through work and life experience.

Passion is more like a river than a reservoir. But the paradigm has yet to adjust to this emerging school of thought. For now, we still place passion in the forefront.

2. Abundant Opportunity

We are living through a time that is unlike any other. The ways in which we work, consume information, interact with each other, and interface with technology is changing so rapidly, it is difficult to keep up with what it all means. But fortunately, there has never been more opportunity to be exactly who you want to be.

These days, anyone with a laptop or tablet can create a platform, a persona, and a powerful brand that can market a product or service. With this democratization of opportunity, it is now easier than ever to independently find streams of revenue without going through a traditional employer.

Unlike the old father who lived in an era where he never got to do what he wanted, by comparison, we have the ability to do just about anything we want.

3. Forgetting about Community

Once consequence of this technological progress might be that we have forgotten the reality of our our inter connectivity and dependence upon others. These days, we have become so self-focused, we tend to forget something that used to be recognized as invaluable. Duty to others.

Individuals used to believe they had an obligation to contribute to the collective communities within which they lived. But we do not necessarily think this way anymore. Perhaps we should. After all, members of these communities who came before us have provided the modern opportunity we now enjoy through their labor. We all would benefit from reminding ourselves that returning the favor by carrying on the tradition has immense value.

Instead, we tend to turn the focus inward. Unlike previous generations, we often view the world through the prism of our individual whims, wishes, and interests. Neighborhoods, cities, religious, and volunteer organizations have never played a less prominent role in the social fabric of our civilization.

4. Social Isolation

Even before the Covid-19 era locked everyone in their homes and made us afraid of close contact with other human beings, the anti-social habit of self-isolation had been rising. According to a survey of workers by Cigna, in January of 2020 (just before the Covid-19 outbreak), 73% of workers aged 18-22 reported that they either sometimes or always feel lonely. This was an increase from the 69% who said the same a year earlier.

Social media has replaced in-person interaction. So have our mobile phones. For many, our homes have become sanctuaries that protect us from the rest of the world. Covid-19 unleashed a dramatic and immediate shift where roughly half of the workforce began working from home. This shift enabled many experienced workers to experience the luxury of increased work-life balance.

Our most influential journalists seem quite interested in touting these benefits. But these work arrangements have pernicious downsides that have largely been overlooked.

Among other things, the rise of remote work has decreased happiness, undermined younger workers chances of getting promoted, and it may even be a factor that is accelerating an already deadly mental health crisis.

Burning in Paradise

Achievement rings hollow if it only enriches the self.

In this new paradigm, it is easy to unwittingly get lost in the pursuit of status and prestige by emphasizing passion-seeking behavior. The other common approach is increasingly hackneyed, cookie-cutter path through a college campus. This path still promises to deliver a middle-class lifestyle without the need to perform manual labor.

When it comes to moving forward on a career path, many people get lost. Especially when they have non-specific college degrees. I did. After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from a small state college in New Hampshire, it took me a whole decade to gain peace and understanding about my career.

In my early 20s, I constantly thought about how to align my skills and passions with a job or a business endeavor. I read books, listened to podcasts, wrote frequent entries in my journal, mapped out the years ahead of me, and thought deeply. But I never really did anything to move the needle. I now know the reason. Despite all my reading and exploration, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it.

Think deeply but still not know.

How did I eventually figure it all out? I finally let it all go. It eventually drove me crazy. It was paradoxical. Everything I had been striving to learn about myself only made sense when I forgot about myself. I learned how to relax, worry less about my performance, and eventually, through many painful, anxious, and sleepless nights, finally learned how to turn off the unnecessary, self-induced pressure. It took multiple embarrassing failures but it finally happened. What a relief.

Taking action and focusing on the art of just living, instead of obsessing in passive contemplation is a better recipe for success. Too many people fall into the trap of overthinking.

In past decades, people didn’t have as many options or exposure to ideas that distract from what needs to be done. With less to distract, they were more likely to just do what was in front of them.

There is still valuable wisdom in this approach to life and work.

Someone has to Sweat

In my experience, I find that as people, we get in our own heads, a lot. I used to experience this first-hand in the conversations I had as a Career Advisor who interfaced with non-traditional college students at one of the largest online providers of higher education in the United States. Most of these folks were much older than me, yet they were just as lost in their own heads as I was in my early to mid 20s.

Contrary to what gets preached by the church-like faith that has taken over higher education, not everyone can have a glamorous, “sexy” job. And not everyone needs to.

Someone needs to do low-skilled labor. The classic character, Archie Bunker in the legendary television series “All in the Family” referred to Rob Reiner’s character, his daughter’s lover as a “meathead.” Why? Because he was arguably focusing too much on the pursuit of social justice and unnecessary higher education. In Bunker’s view, he was not adding enough value to the world.

Old wisdom would likely remind us that manual laborers should be respected and appreciated, rather than demeaned and scoffed at as failures. They deserve credit for their valuable contributions to the economy.

Shiny Objects

“Don’t you want to be ‘self-made?” – Internet Gurus

A by-product of a society that shuns hard working but low-skilled employees, is our tendency to glorify people who turn their personal dreams and passion projects into viable streams of income. It has never been a ‘cooler’ time to be an entrepreneur or to ‘do your own thing.’

An army of self-help gurus have grown to dominate the internet, encouraging impressionable people to pursue the next ‘get-rich-quick’ breakthrough. Some of these gurus provide helpful information and guidance, but many prey on the insecurities and weaknesses of followers.

“If I could only be like that… THEN I will be happy.” Many of us think. This type of encouragement is not always bad, however, it still has not been a solution for most people. It likely never will be.

Stronger Together

An example of a sense of collective duty leading to collective achievement within a group is the Boston Celtics 2021-22 journey to the NBA Finals. For the first part of their season, the team played rather selfishly. Then, seemingly overnight, a shared sense of duty and camaraderie emerged. They managed to come together and achieve remarkable collective success that inspired an entire city and fan base.

To a fan like myself, their accomplishments were a reminder that not only is money and status not everything, they can each actually be detriments to fulfillment and achievement if they are the primary areas of focus.

Achievement rings hollow if it only enriches the self.

Back to Basics

While we do not need to sacrifice as much as the grumpy old man did, we should not lose sight of what can be learned from his memorable words. People used to believe that personal satisfaction has more to do with attitude than other circumstantial factors. If we could return to recognizing how much power we hold in our hands through our own mindset and attitude, it would serve current and future generations well.

Past wisdom suggests that many people would be better off today if they just returned to basic career fundamentals.

First, you find job that is decent.

Second, you do your best at the job.

Third, you get your next job and repeat the process until a unique assortment of skills and passions is developed. In an interconnected world that values quick-fixes, these fundamentals have become a lost art.

Over time the worker gains a reliable assessment of personal strengths and weaknesses. Extra points are awarded if you can learn to temper expectations and experience personal happiness primarily outside of work.

Duty is Freedom

Ultimately, it is not our accomplishments that free us from dissatisfaction. Instead, it is the completion of our duties to employers, friends, ourselves, and our communities that are most satisfying. Past wisdom offers a crucial reminder that we are most fulfilled when we commit to something worthwhile.

Perhaps the most damaging fallacy of our time is idea that people should experience the luxury of bliss while they work. Bliss is a fleeting feeling. It is notoriously unreliable. Planning a life or career that maximizes bliss is a fool’s errand.

When it comes to career development, we are better off enjoying passionate moments when we feel them. Focus should be directed at prioritizing skill development in the direction of something we can succeed at, instead of worrying about passion.

If we continue to forget the wisdom of the past, we will continue to miss important signs that we otherwise could have seen. Given the state of where things currently stand in the world of work, a return to these basic fundamentals would enrich countless lives.

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