Your Work is Not About You

At frog design, a company I had worked at earlier, we had a credo that says, “Love what you make”. This sounds a little incorrect, right? Should have been, “Make what you love”. We also hear many famous quotes like “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Cal Newport calls this ‘The retrospect principle’ which is quite popular today. It says that matching your work to personality traits and interests, is the key to finding a job you love. That is why I could not agree with frog’s credo. Don’t you think it is common sense to choose a career that you are passionate about? Of course, in many parts of the world, that is a luxury to think so about finding a job. But, we all want to do what we love.

However, what about the work of a home-maker, or a janitor? Or for that matter, even the challenging work in the hospitals or the police department? Isn’t that work? Do you know that care takers in hospitals also go through depression? Should we then have to leave such a job to pursue our dream job? Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do”. Here Jobs is not saying ‘do what you love’, but rather ‘love what you do’. What does that mean?

A study by O.C Tanner institute and Forbes Insights, shows that “great work (award-winning work) is produced when people focus on doing something others love.” It showed that 88% of the projects that earned awards began with the employee asking their own version of the question “What difference could I make that other people would love.” The nature of love is to give and focus on others’ benefit. Work birthed out of love, cares about what the end recipient would truly need or love. They might be the customer you work for, or your customer’s customer, colleagues, patients in the hospital, your students, a community that expects your service, your city, or may even just be your family.

But, does that mean our abilities and passions are unimportant? No, passions are essential in our work, otherwise our work becomes drudgery. But, you can either cultivate your passion towards your own interests or towards others’ interests. ‘Love what you make’ then means, excelling in your abilities which are focused at the end recipients’ delight and good. Then not only we can produce great work, but also find meaning in our work. Frederick Buechner suggests this on one’s ‘Calling’. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is not just about your ability, it is about the end recipients’ need as well.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Unfortunately, today most of us see our work as drudgery. Why? This may be because we have lost sight of the end recipient so we just focus on our bosses or even worse, we focus only on our own benefit — our own income, appraisal or popularity, but not on the end recipient. This is exactly that Adam Smith from the Scottish Enlightenment said “work solely as a means of fulfilling one’s self-interest”. This is dehumanising. Unfortunately, this is the mantra in today’s workplace. Can you imagine a doctor working for his own gains instead of the patient’s healing or an engineer building things for his pay check without the end user in mind? Even in the software industry where I work, it is hardly about the end user. It is mostly about the benefit of the people who are working. We begin with us in mind, what technologies we know or what ROIs we want, and finally we force it on our end users to use it. Millions of dollars have been spent on developing products or services that do not benefit the end recipient. Sadly, most times, they create new problems.

This does not mean that we have to do whatever the end recipients demand. No! Often, they don’t know what they need or what is good for them. You may have heard this famous quote, “If Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’”. It is about empathy, to step into their life to understand what might be their important need, not just what they say they want. Most of the times end recipient is not just the one who is going to directly receive it. It is the ecosystem and the environment we all share. It ought to be for the common good.

Our self-centred disposition, industrialist mind-set and highly hierarchical cultures, shaped us as machines who cannot empathise. In organisations, we are conditioned to please our bosses and are not empowered to work for the end recipient. This culture is producing enterprises, economies and ecosystems that are not flourishing anymore. That’s why today’s design thinking approach, which is transforming many businesses, governments and people’s lives, is bringing back the emphasis on empathy. We need to cultivate skills, create organisational structures that help empathise with the end recipient we are working for- what they love and care about. It is all about them, not us!

We need to cultivate skills, create organisational structures that help empathise with the end recipient we are working for- what they love and care about. It is all about them, not us!

Great entrepreneurs know this. When your work begins at your end-recipient’s need, then you drive home a great product or service. This is the work ethic we need to uphold. But most of the time, we sacrifice ethics on the altar of the bottom line. Having a great ability that does not serve the end-recipient’s need is of no value.

I am not suggesting that anyone can do any kind of work well and produce great products or services by just empathising. No, empathising should lead to implementation, validation etc. Our unique abilities that we develop play a crucial role in meeting the end recipient’s need. We ought to be good at what we do. People with highest work satisfaction are those who are good at what they do.

Once my friend from the US who was visiting India for the first time was doing a domestic trip from Bangalore to New Delhi then to Hyderabad and back to Bangalore before she returned to the US. Since she wasn’t aware of the boarding procedures here in Bangalore she had missed the flight even though she was quite early to the airport. So, while returning from Hyderabad to Bangalore she was sure she was going to miss the flight again as this time she reached the airport late. But she told me that when she arrived at the airport, an airport staff at the entrance asked her if she needed any help. She immediately informed him the flight that she need to board and she needs help. This person made sure that she finished all the procedures and boarded the flight on time. He escorted her all through until she is on the boarding bridge. She was extremely happy about this experience. She mentioned to me that he came like an angel to help. Then I told her how GMR who operates Hyderabad airport is known for this customer service. There was a point when GMR asked their own version of the question “What difference could we make that other people would love”. Then general manager, terminal operations, when it was being setup and inaugurated in 2008 wanted every passenger to feel safe and secure when he/she travels through Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, Hyderabad. He made sure their staff, especially the front-line customer service assistants are trained well. He also set up feedback mechanism for constant monitoring which made all the difference. This airport bagged many awards in the category of “Airport service quality” in its past 10-year journey.

You too can become that angel for someone in need and make their world a better place!

So, if you desire to do great work, by all means “Love what you make”. Be good at it, because it is all about them, not you. If you can imagine yourself in a movie script, imagine your end-recipient as the hero and yourself as a guide to help the hero reach his or her dream. Go meet your end recipient. See how your work is being received and impacting them. Such a work ethic can produce great work which creates better economies and communities and in fact a better world. Who knows, you too can become that angel for someone in need and make their world a better place!

Mark Raja

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