Enjoying Work When the Rewards Get Scarce

My years of college teaching and writing had its rewarding but also unrewarding moments as all jobs do. Most of these moments in my case were caused by campus politics and budget shortfalls. My somewhat passive temperament and reluctance to “play the game” had a good deal to do with my occasional difficulties succeeding but so did the indifference of those overseeing my career. At one point my salary was found to be indecently low by comparison with others of similar achievement and rank. At another my effort to discover the reason why I had failed to qualify for a grant from a research committee met with this marvelously evasive response: “I’m not allowed to say, but you’re far from the only one with a complaint like that.”

I’ll say. And it looks to me like that nonchalant indifference to career disappointment must still be around and then some. How else to explain all the current advice on how to amplify a resume, knock’em dead in an interview, and advance in a job once it is landed? Jobs these days, at least for the well trained, are not scarce and yet the prevailing mood among many job holders as well as job seekers seems to me bordering on a desperation it is difficult to explain.

The need to pay off big college debts may have something to do with it. So may all the examples of corporate misbehavior we have seen ever since the Great Recession and the reluctance of banks and companies to admit it. How is a workforce to feel comfortably employed when the institutions they belong to put profit ahead of such ordinary imperatives as prudent money management, keeping our waters free of oil spills, and managing air control systems so that the lives of 346 air passengers need not have been lost. To say nothing of so vigorously marketing drugs like fentanyl to doctors that an opioid epidemic emerges. Sustained participation in an atmosphere that insists more on success than on care for the environment and the lives of others is bound to shake the nerves, especially of an employee with a conscience.

Admiring success belongs to our humanity. It has embedded itself in our culture at least as early as the Olympic Games and no doubt much earlier. But must our present-day media confront us with Heisman and Lombardi trophies, Green Jackets, Oscars and Nobel Prizes quite so constantly? What about those who come in second or third, or simply exhibit genuine everyday competence? Are they, in effect, nobodies? And what is the instinct to which commentators pander when they start speculating on the winner of next year’s Super Bowl the day after the NFL’s first exhibition game? That’s not a natural interest in success in my opinion, but an obsession with it.

Is it possible to enjoy our work anyway even when experiencing a lack of recognition or missing a deserved boost in salary? Or feeling that a preoccupation with success in the form of profit is so high a priority of our employers that it can casually dispense with a concern for ordinary human decency?

When asked why they do the work they do some people reply, honestly enough, “for the money” or “to feed my family” or “because I majored in that field in college.” But as legitimate as these reasons are, can we go deeper inside ourselves to ask what drew us to our particular line of work in the first place? When I was a kid of just 9 or 10, the neighbor next door took to calling me “the perfessor” in a startling prophecy of what turned out to be my future. Similarly, I think most of us show an aptitude for some kind of work fairly early on in our lives–electronics, let’s say, or constructing things, or instinctively coming to others’ sides when they are hurt. Finding a job we are naturally cut out for helps make those jobs continuously satisfying. I am by no means suggesting that we should avoid complaining about an unfair work evaluation or making our case for a salary increase, or looking for a comparable job, or even becoming a whistle blower if there is just cause for it. I suggest only trying to rediscover the joy we could have found early on in whatever work we do and staying faithful to the idea, such as being helpful to one another, that drew us into that work.

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