This is the 5th installment in a series of essays entitled “Healthy Work.” I’ve gotten some excellent feedback so please comment below.
Click here to read the other 4 essays:
I have been fortunate enough to travel to over 25 countries on 6 Continents. I’ve noticed, observed, and studied one particular phenomena which stands out: The Americans spend more hours working than in any other country. Most Americans have 2 or 3 weeks of time off every year at the most. From 14 or 18 to roughly 70 or so, Americans who do work will be working 40-60 hours per week most of their lives. The question should be asked- what are we working for? What should we value the most in work, in order for it to be healthy, valuable and self-sustaining? We’ve established thus far in previous essays:
- Work is good.
- Work is done to create value and fulfill human needs and desires.
- Work’s responsibility is to be valuable and to do no harm.
- Work done in a healthy way is meaningful and builds or sustains life.
The next question should be asked: What are the values of healthy work, in other words what should we value about work, those traits which make it meaningful and life-sustaining? The following are by all means not the entirety of the spectrum of good values for work, but they’re a good start. Instead of delving into an ontological or linguistic exposition with regards to each value, the nature of the particular value lived out in a work environment will be examined. Obviously, you could write an entire book on each value.
I’ve chosen my top 8, in my own business and work.
“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.” – Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
“Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules.” – Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” – André Gide
Recent cases of tobacco companies paying out billions of dollars in fines and settlements in negligence could have been avoided. Being ethical means being honest, and following the rules and laws of a given community. The dictionary defines ethics as: that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions. Had the tobacco companies been honest about the addictive aspect of nicotine and the carcinogenic effect of smoking, they might not have been successfully sued for billions. Healthy work is ethical work, because it brings forth the highest potential of mankind.
Radical honesty is a value I learned about a few years ago. It’s based on the work of Dr. Brad Blanton, who wrote a book by the same name in 1996. Radical honesty stands in contrast to plain-old-fashioned honesty in that it seeks to go a step beyond and facilitate more loving and honest relationships. The benefit is one of openness, intimacy, and authentic connection. Honesty takes courage, and radical honesty takes even more.
In my own work of personal training and counseling people on nutritional and other health and wellness issues, I came to the realization that for the first part of my career I was only honest, not radically honest. This held me back, in the sense that I would tell people at times what they wanted to hear. I made good connections and had close relationships but they were not as authentic and as intimate as they could have been. Since I started to highly value and employ radical honesty, I’ve lost some clients and probably some friends, but I have made even stronger bonds with customers, clients, and friends. Radical honesty might sound harsh or extreme but it is actually the most loving way to live because it implies a strong boundary.
Work should be done with care, care for the work, the worker, the employer, the community, and the customer. Work done any other way is not healthy, all 4 are important and without each component of caring, the work could eventually lose meaning and become destructive. The YMCA is an organization which exemplifies this trait and actually names caring as one of its core values. Started as a Christian spiritually based inner-city gym and lodging place for men during the Industrial Age, the Young Men’s Christian Association has always tried to live out the value of caring. Even today, YMCAs offer scholarships to underprivileged and at-risk youth.
This value, competition, may come as a surprise to some. Competition has been given a bad name. In the effort to create a more tolerant society, the cultural emphasis on competition has been looked down on in the name of equality, so that no one wins or loses, or stands out. This is not good. In some ways, life will always be a competition, if not with others then with ourselves. Competition makes work meaningful and healthy because competition in its most pure and ethical form is about character development.
When we compete, we are not literally trying to eliminate the other competitor, at least not in the post–industrial age. And we can think win-win when we compete, instead of win-lose. In a lodestar of a financial book, Understanding Michael Porter, the thesis is put forth based on Michael Porter’s research and work at Harvard Business School, that to create value in business is to compete on being unique and finding a competitive advantage, not on necessarily beating the other team. Microsoft and Apple can both be successful and survive, but they must each do what they do uniquely and do it the best they can. Even in the field of sports, titans like Vince Lombardi and Nick Saban are ferociously committed to technique and fundamentals, which is much the same idea: Compete with yourself to be the best you can be in order to win. Who you become is as important as the scoreboard.
In the industrial era, workers could afford to show up and be told what to do. Those days are over. In a large sense, we’re going back to the pre-industrial era where initiative will be required. Work now should be built around goals and more specifically projects. In his inspiring and insightful book Lynchpin, Seth Godin writes eloquently of the need for modern workers to view themselves as a “lynchpin” without which, great loss would be felt. In other words, work should be done with a specific goal or project in mind specifically in order to create value. We are to set goals, define projects, put ourselves out there, and not be afraid to show our work to the world. The days of hiding are over. Seth also refers to this as “shipping”- creating something of value and putting it out for the world to see. Another way this has been put, in the outstanding personal development book “The Freaks Shall Inherit The Earth” is: 1) Make a plan 2) Stick to it 3) If you don’t have a plan, make one.
I have a friend who eats the same thing for breakfast every day. He also wears a white dress shirt every day to work with a blue blazer. He occasionally wears a red tie, or a blue one, or a black one. He also exercises every day, and doesn’t drink during the week. He goes to church every Sunday and never cheats on his wife. He is a happy and successful person who has contributed to the community greatly and done much meaningful work. Why has he been able to achieve this? My friend, who is a former military officer, is one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met. Time after time, discipline keeps coming up as one of the most important values we can have when it comes to work, particularly since work is becoming so much more self-directed. Discipline is the heart and soul of keeping the work train running. Steve Jobs wore the same black turtleneck most all of the time, and only had a handful of items of clothing. This freed Jobs up to work on other more important things. Discipline is irreplaceable and foundational for healthy work, but luckily, it’s like a “muscle” which can be built over time.
As stated previously, the days of showing up and getting by are over and done with for the most part. Man in a primitive state had to think creatively, to ward off predators, to wall of the perimeters, and to hunt and survive. It seems as though the labor required of us now will require us to be more courageous emotionally, and morally, if not physically. We may have to go search for new work, create our own businesses, or speak up in our current work environments. The point is, the status quo is no longer good enough. The bad news is that those who aren’t courageous or disciplined will be left to whine and complain, or protest for an easier way, or lobby for government handouts or a sinecure. Some will need time to become courageous, and we should care for them, be patient with them, and urge them along to a new way of looking at work. Who exemplifies courageous work better than the civil rights leaders like MLK Jr. or a founding father like George Washington, who actually died working in the case of MLK, or could have in the case of President Washington? Though neither worker was much affected by the industrial age, each was willing to be courageous to the point of death to do the job.
As discussed in the essay on meaningful work, self-validation is something to value highly in work. Work which fits with our highest ideals, ethics, and morals, is work which is valuable in its own right and can and should give us great joy. Some artists, such as the writer John Kennedy Toole, create great masterpieces such as his own “A Confederacy of Dunces” which later won the Pulitzer Prize after Toole’s death, but are not able to experience the joy of their efforts. Some work and can’t see the beauty in their own creation, the courage and will in it, and frankly suffer as a result. Others are able to tap into this valuable insight of self-validation and experience work in this way. After suffering and witnessing unspeakable horrors in Nazi death camps, Viktor Frankl said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl came to the realization that no one could rob him of his dignity and that he could work to do what he could, to live and find meaning in the hand that had been dealt.
At certain times in a man’s life, it’s good to take a step back and ask, what do I value most? When a man takes a look at his work, what does he want to see in it looking back at him? These are the values of healthy work, the things that give our work a tangible emotional and moral presence, in turn making work meaningful and life-sustaining. These values, and you may add a few others, are like road signs which point to the route and destination. They point to the things which make work healthy in the long run. That way, when the sun sets on a lifetime, we can look back at our work and be proud of what we did. Mark Twain once said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” A man who works with values in mind, is preparing himself for whatever may come, by living in the moment with the greatest of integrity and purpose.
Read Next: Sparta vs. Babylon
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