Job Satisfaction – a Homily

Much advice is given about ways of reaching satisfaction in life these days. Do we feel good in the morning when we get up? Are we convinced we are eating the right foods? Do we make enough money? All the things that spring from our satisfaction with how we’re doing in the job of living. It makes one wonder how much Cro-Magnon worried about job satisfaction.

A phenomenon of the modern age is our concern with job satisfaction. The equivalent of concern with how the hunt is going for me, or how the berry picking is working out for you. How excited are we to go in to work in the morning or afternoon or evening? How likely are we to want to just get up and leave? What’s in the evaluation this time? Am I doing this in the easiest, fastest way? I hope I did that well enough. It isn’t surprising. You spend a major part of your life engaged in whatever your work is, including time spent thinking about it. And when should you start to think about this? Or more importantly, when do you start to do something about it?

Well, here are some things to think about. Everyone connected with your work has an idea about what that work is and how it should be done, each has his or her own agenda which informs that tangential understanding of what you do or should be doing, and each has her or his own way of exerting influence on you involving your work. And then there’s you; you probably know what your work is and how you think it should be done, you have an agenda, and you have unique, and more or less effective, defenses against the negative influences of others.

Now take a minute and think: Who’s trying to influence your work, what are their agendas, and how are they trying to influence you? Influencers, beside yourself, may be people down the chain, such as customers, students and clients; they may be peers; they may be multiple levels of people up the chain, such as bosses, principals and parents; and they may be funding sources, such as government, stockholders and owners. Funding source agendas of course may be influenced by feedback from the bottom of the chain, such as sales figures, recovery rates and test scores. Yes, this is pretty much a graduate thesis research topic, except no one teaches this in grad school.

In the short run, try this. In the center of a blank piece of paper write what you really want from the work you do in your life. Think long and hard about this. Whatever this goal is, it is what you really should be living by. This is what you’re trying to do with your life. You should be able to say this to anyone who asks without hesitation, and be willing to stand by it. It doesn’t mean you should leave your job if your situation keeps you from achieving this goal, and you shouldn’t stubbornly follow your own lead to the point of getting fired. Cro-Magnons’ goal was to provide for their family and community. Hunting and berry picking weren’t their jobs, they were tasks necessary in completing their real work. If you don’t have the means to carry out your tasks, you won’t be able to complete your life’s work. This comes with the understanding of what makes a life’s goal that matters.

But first, let’s get back to your paper. On the bottom half of the sheet write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence against your achieving the goal of your life’s work. On the top half of the paper, write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence in favor of your achieving the goal of your life’s work. Some may be the same.

Now a cliché: know your friends, but know your enemy better. The people and things on both the top and bottom of your sheet you must know best of all, and make them your best friends. Ask their help and advice, and take it with an understanding of their agenda. Then leverage that understanding to influence them as a source of support and resource. Use the same Sun Tzu strategies on top, positive, influencers and bottom, negative, influencers. Understanding negative influence agendas and finding ways to at least appear to meet their demands, while continuing to work toward your life’s goal, dilutes and deflects the negative impact. Meanwhile, understanding your positive influence agendas lets you capitalize on cooperative return. Cooperative return occurs when you contribute to a joint effort or project and ultimately enjoy more return than your equivalent effort would have yielded had you worked alone. This calculus applies to goals as well, and helps us understand what makes a goal matter.

Goals that matter are not easy to set and not easy to reach. We know that goals ought to be challenging, but achievable, and rewarding but acceptable. Of these, reward is the most often short changed. Goals that matter are life goals, and they should provide a life-long reward. If the reward goes only to the goal seeker, in the form of money, praise or class standing, it generally is not as rewarding as one might expect, perhaps in part because the pursuit of the goal has now ended and the seeker is a little purposeless. If reward goes to the work of the goal seeker, the sense of reward may be even less satisfying. The work is done, the worker passes off the ball to someone else who runs the goal, and as with a reward for the worker, life goes on with no further life’s goal. A truly rewarding goal is one that is achieved ultimately. It requires continuous pursuit and earns ongoing reward. And that reward is almost always enjoyed by something larger than just the person doing the work. Truly rewarding goals make the home, the community, even the world better places. The life’s worker collects the cooperative return of living out life in a home or community or world made better by her or his having been part of it. This is why one’s life’s goal is so important to get right. It makes life what you do with it, not just what you get from it.

Your job satisfaction, I’m afraid, is going to have to be up to you to determine, because it will depend on what you choose for your real life’s work, not just your job.

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The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!

Participating in Community

Millions of dollars are regularly delivered to solving social, educational and economic disparities. That’s good, and much good is achieved by it. Research, training, investment get injected into communities and impact many lives. The scale of these projects is essential for what their donors hope will be achieve, but that scale is also a throttle, limiting the depth to which their work can effect change, and a regulator, narrowing the range of impact to a categorical norm.

There is another way that lives are impacted in communities lacking resources to move their members into the full light of American society. When one person enters the world of another and shares her or his “excess of resource,” that entry helps to balance the advantage of those less lucky. Such an act is not a gift, nor is it an investment; it is a sharing that assures mutual improvement. And because the resource being shared is seldom money or goods or materials, it is in far greater abundance among a large segment of society. These resources are such things as time, experience and compassion, resources freely given and yet undiminished. Such resources are in the hands of many people, even among those in communities in need.

In recent years, I have volunteered my time tutoring Latino students in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. This effort has helped several individuals rise substantially in their school experience. Furthermore, my tutoring is personally rewarding. I tutor in the spirit of meeting my responsibility of citizenship, serving the community from which I also benefit. At the same time, I am rewarded with the personal relationship which develops in tutoring. The power of an individual sharing time and knowledge with one or two others in an ongoing and personal relationship is simply astounding. The outcomes benefit all. The student benefits in his or her academic career, the tutor benefits in the rewards of appreciation and purposefulness, and the community is raised that little bit higher.

One-on-one volunteering is highly efficacious. However, by its very nature, it has a relatively small impact on a community as a whole. That means numbers of volunteers are necessary to make real and lasting change. This should not be confused with scale. Think “crowd sourcing” not “corporate sourcing.”

Scale, as we have used it in the tech-age, brings with it a number of wasteful characteristics. Scale brings bureaucratizing and administering. What are not needed and are not productive are more cadre organizers, schedulers, communicators and chiefs. These often financially attractive boss roles exist in plenty already. These administrators are not volunteers and seldom do the work they administer. They collect a percentage of the dollars that you and I are asked to pledge to their organizations–organizations that offer to help those in need. They sell us a clear conscience while shielding us from actually doing anything, coming face to face with unpleasant things, or getting our hands dirty. They allow us to buy off our responsibilities to our community. They are social indulgences. As a result, large scale operations diminish the sense of community and our role in it. Less good is accomplished in the community, more time is spent collecting donations, and donors remain detached from any personal or spiritual reward.

Additionally, scale leads to standardizing and mandating. The power in the volunteering relationships is developed by uniquely individual interactions between the participants. The individualized goals of the sharing mean that success is achieved by a continuous give and take on both sides. No one outside the relationship is deciding what goal should be sought or how it should be reached. There is no single one-size-fits-all goal or standardized procedure for reaching it. Humans come in unique sizes, after all, and have unique goals. And just as their goals are unique, so are their stories. Every person has had her or his own path in life. Pursuing that individual path is every person’s right, assuming that it does not impinge upon the rights of others, and should be supported in whatever unique ways are needed.

The importance of organizational scale cannot be denied, but numbers of individual community members can bring important change as well. If one person in four-hundred in Minneapolis, about 1,000 people, each made time to help one or two people—disadvantaged students, long-term job seekers, struggling shop owners, overwhelmed single parents, and many more who simply do not have access to the resources necessary to pull themselves up into the light—1 person in 400, helping one or two people each—one or two thousand lives could be changed in Minneapolis every year. And if this were the norm across America, millions of lives would be improved through sharing what many of us have more than enough to share, mostly at no material cost to ourselves.

I have time to tutor, and it takes time, but the tutoring is its own reward. And if you think you don’t have enough of anything, think about how much we have that we take for granted. Time? How much non-productive time do you spend in front of a computer? Or in front of a television? Knowledge? How much do you know about starting and running a small business? My wife has met with a few of my former students, many new Americans, to help them get started in their job searches. If you’re a computer user, could you track down places for someone in distress to get help? Research and provide resource lists? Automobile? Could you give rides? Make sure young or old get home safely? Deliver meals? We have so much, there is no reason so many human beings who live within reach have to live in such need.

We can all do more, but even one in four-hundred would mean so much. You can give a few dollars here or there and feel you’ve met some obligation, or you can give a little time, effort or knowledge and know you’ve made a difference.

The Problem with the “Achievement Gap”

Words carry baggage. A gap in a society has a near side and a far side. We put people on one side or the other. “We” are of course on this side and “they” are on the other. So a gap forms groups, absorbing individuals into one group or another. “Gap” and “group” are constructs imposed on reality, not derived from it.

If the separating measure used in creating a gap is achievement, it ignores the fact that achievement occurs on a continuum. So “gap” is a false construct, which not only does not accurately reflect reality, but which must serve some other agenda as well.

When we align the achievement-gapped construct with the long-standing race construct, we simply reinforce the notion of racial difference. In addition to focusing our attention on achievement, one very impersonal aspect of education’s many acculturating functions, it turns our attention away from the broader cultural and institutional aspects of a society that so stubbornly exclude individuals from opportunity and access to full and equitable participation based on superficial characteristics, such as skin color.

The achievement gap is only a glimpse of the vastly larger culture gap from which we suffer, and for which there is no self-elevated committee, council or cause resourceful enough to correct us, it seems. Even the good news is bad: we are not the only ones. Almost every culture on this planet suffers the same twisted, albeit self-serving, perspective on reality. Markers of “group” difference are plentiful—race, religion, ethnicity—all social constructs that have no basis in essential reality.

The problem, as I see it, is that there may be no solution to a “gapped” world. In the absence of the motivation of six billion plus individuals, there may only be resignation or eternal angst. Given how many of the world’s people will read this article, what are the chances?

Meanwhile of course, we can use “achievement gap” as a political tool for funding and policy decisions, the other agenda.

Talking to Myself

In a recent conversation with a doctor friend, a man of considerable intelligence and self-assurance, I found myself repeatedly rambling off topic, following one inciting spark after another. And not just wandering off the initial topic onto another, but cascading from topic to topic. I found myself on several occasions dangling among the twigs and leaves, but had little idea how I had achieved my arboreal dilemma.

Well aware at the time of the communicational problems I was creating for myself, I reflected on what had transpired as I threaded my way home along Lake Street. I seemed to have forgotten how to have an intelligent conversation. I had good ideas, but I had lost my capacity for expressing them at all clearly. No. I had somehow disconnected the ideas, many of which were pithy abstractions, from my skill at discourse, assuming I ever had any of the latter. This was not good. Allegorically—and much of the good thinking has indeed been allegory anyway—it amounted to cognitive constipation. A friendly cup of coffee, had been a harsh brain laxative and had produced an abrupt, barely controlled flow of intellectual crap.

And that wasn’t the only such outpouring of well-founded, poorly produced thought. The week before coffee with my friend, I was in a meeting of which I attend perhaps nine each year of any kind. Concerned with the possibility of our group’s constituents perceiving their privacy violated by an action on the floor, I suggested a strategy for forestalling a negative response. In the face of critical review of my suggestion, I planted my standard and drew sword. Later, realizing that I was neither persuading the opposition of accepting my proposed course of action, nor was I getting them even to grasp my concern, I relented. In that moment of deflating insight, I saw that the constituents would be similarly unlikely, to the committee, to sense any privacy violation. I could see that my fear sprung from a distant possibility, but I had charged ahead.

How had I flown so furiously down that dark path? It wasn’t that my fear was unfounded, but only remote, yet it churned into action a deaf passion, not to be reined in and deal to criticism—a stampede of words. Then days later, I found myself over coffee, again astride a runaway train of thoughts. What was becoming of me? I am of an age where considering early onset dementia is not unreasonable. I don’t seem to have this problem when sitting in my recliner, pontificating to the empty chairs across the room on ideas sparked by what I am reading in Erdrich or Hardy or Raabe. And so there it is. Alone, I am privately coherent. While in conversation, disjointed in context, thought and word, I have been called upon to merge these, unsuccessfully, into public coherence.

When my neighbor asks me what a flower is in my garden, I am occasionally stuck for the name of the thing. I know what it is, when it will bloom and how to treat it. I just never say its name out loud when I do these things. So I have pushed its name-words down, beneath more pressing, and non-lexical, information. I know that I often think in the conceptual without dipping into the symbolic. I see a pattern here, and patterns are big with my understanding of things. In my head, in my reading, in my garden, I am fully functional. I can manage, arrange and cross-connect the material, temporal and abstract realms just fine, but when I apply the word producing rhetorical processes into these, I find my results faltering. I have craft in expressing ideas, observations and understandings into words, given time and an editor’s pen. However, I need to practice this craft so that I can fluidly call upon it. There may be some slowing of the processes, due to aging, that bring these rhetorical skills on line, but the skills are still there. Using them well will require more practice before and more time when I need them.

I must therefore write more, for my brain’s sake. Moreover, I must write about how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively, for everyone else’s sake. I have recently started a list of things I think about. I will add “how I can communicate my thoughts more effectively” to that list. I can use this list to prompt more writing. I hope by this means to refine my rhetorical skills and at the same time, apply them to some of my most abstract thinking. I hope by this to keep my brain working well, longer and to make a conversation with me more coherent and perhaps enjoyable.

To do these things, I must simply get out more. I spend too much time alone.