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Getting Unstuck: From the Rut to Creative Work

In the classic film "Modern Times", Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character struggles to find his place in the newly industrialized world. As a worker on a factory assembly line, his work is repetitive and mind-numbing. He dignity is torn to shreds by his supervisors who have dim-witted ideas to make him more productive’. Not surprisingly, he finally suffers a nervous breakdown and runs amok.

The film is obviously satirical and exaggerates for entertainment purposes. In our modern offices, working conditions are mercifully not quite so dire as they used to be. But many of us would recognize something of ourselves in Chaplin’s hapless character. Often we have no control on what work we do, how we do it and who we do it with.

It can feel like we work under policies created in an ivory tower that do not reflect on-ground realities. Frequently, the system can overwhelms us, leaving us deeply dissatisfied at work and even impacting our personal lives. In other words, we find ourselves in a rut.

What Causes a Rut?

People naturally have greater ambitions than merely earning a wage. If we find our day-to-day work to be an unrewarding, dehumanizing experience, there are usually three underlying reasons, or some combination of them:

  • Lack of creative satisfaction: As trained professionals and inventive human beings, we seek fresh, interesting challenges on a regular basis. A salesperson seeks to test himself in a new territory, a programmer wants to master a new language and a fabricator longs to work on a recently-discovered alloy. In practice though, we are often forced to do the same repetitive work over and over again.
  • Lack of purpose and impact: One of the unfortunate consequences of the complex and highly industrialized world we work in is that we can often feel like a small, insignificant cog in a giant wheel we cannot see. But as human beings (and social animals), we derive satisfaction from seeing our work make a positive impact on our fellow human beings. An architect experiences joy when she sees a building she has designed serving the needs of its occupants well. A teacher finds it rewarding when his students learn and prosper. A gynecologist smiles along with the newborn’s parents. But what of a professional developing a tiny component of a software for users he will never see?
  • Lack of a good working environment. As social animals once again, we wish to work with other human beings (colleagues, clients) we like and respect. Often this is not possible because of politicking and our lack of input into the composition of our teams. The lack of autonomy may also extend to tools we requires to do ours jobs (e.g. the programming languages we use, the productivity tools we employ).

Five Ideas to Get Out of a Rut

Five Ideas to Get Out of a Rut:

There is good news. Unlike Chaplin’s character, most of us have the good fortune and means to get ourselves out of a rut. Here are five ideas that will help you find greater creative satisfaction and purpose.

  1. Find What Drives You: The story goes that American President John F. Kennedy ran into a man at NASA and inquired what he did. “I’m a janitor and I’m helping our team to put a man on the moon”, was his reply, at which point Kennedy knew NASA was united in its purpose. Seek out teams with a cause larger than itself, because working with them is joyous. They’re usually easy to spot. People will seem visibly excited to be working and they know their work matters in a fundamental sense. You’ll also find that managers on such teams don’t micromanage their people, and instead trust them to do their jobs.

    This can be done at the organizational level too. On a personal front, being a part of ThoughtWorks has helped me find greater meaning in my work. Our larger goal is to advance social and economic justice around the world - one that we take very seriously. Of course the definition of ‘meaningful’ differs from person to person, and it’s necessary to know oneself very well. How to do that is for another article, but start with self-reflection.

  2. Expand Your Shape: Learn a skill/subject that’s only peripherally related to your core area. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Industrial Revolution is super-specialization: our idea of an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less. That’s not bad at all - but it isn’t for all. Such narrow lines of work can produce ennui that are only broken by learning something new. If you’re a mathematician, learn to play the violin - you’ll find unlikely similarities between the two disciplines and you may even find that your skills at mathematics has been enhanced by the patterns of music. If you’ve always worked on back-end systems, try a developing a front-end system for a while - you will return a better all-round developer. A T-shaped person (jack of many trades, master of one) is more likely to find joy, and even success, in our modern knowledge-led economy. Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, two of the most creative scientists ever, had a deep interest in the arts - it’s no accident.

    My personal go-to move is to immerse myself in understanding the relationship technology shares with the world at large. Of particular help have been reading Daniel Kahneman’s work on behavioral economics, Tim Wu on technology and policy and Evgeny Morozov on the societal impact of technology.

  3. Find Your Space: There appears to be a high correlation between team size and the conditions that are necessary for joyful work. There are usually fewer layers of management and the processes and tools are chosen by people who do the work. There is a reason why startups consistently produce more innovative products than larger companies. Each year, people escape the clutches of Fortune 500 firms to start something of their own, seeking more learning opportunities, more control over their work and freedom from inflexible 10-year plans.

  4. Create Impact: If you find that you can’t see the difference your work is making to other people, it may be time to move to the front lines, so to speak. If you’ve spent a career working in offshore software development, go and meet the people who actually use your product. Or consider working on a project whose users are closer home.

  5. Expand Your Horizon: Often practical reasons prevent us from quitting less-than-satisfying jobs or finding gainful employment that also offers joy. If so, why not start something on the side? If you’re a graphic designer, create ads for an NGO that will allow wide latitude in the themes you choose and the tools you choose. For programmers there has never been a better time to do this - platforms like GitHub let you choose the problems you want to solve, who you want to solve them with, and at what pace.

Given that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it is important that we derive emotional and intellectual satisfaction from it. Some philosophers have gone so far as to say that joyful work, like our more physical needs, is a human right.

We’re fortunate to have the opportunities Chaplin’s character didn’t have in Modern Times. Finding joy from work is easier than ever before, especially for those of us that work in the knowledge economy. Let’s go find it; we have nothing to lose but our drudgery.

Further Reading:

Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us has become something of an instant classic. The main lesson is that the 21st century creative professional seeks autonomy, mastery and purpose at work.

Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson is iconoclastic in several ways, and will make you question many things you probably take for granted at work.

Finding Your Element” by the famed educator Sir Ken Robinson.

A deep, philosophical one: Man’s Search for Meaning is Viktor Frenkl’s chronicle of life in a World War II concentration camp. It’s a brilliant one for self-reflection and might help answer the eternal question, “What does one want from life?”