Making work more pleasurable: How to date your job

With the new year, I’ve made more of an effort to read daily. I started a book of Wendell Berry essays (What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth) when Erin and I went to Vermont and returned to it this week.

Berry is a writer of poetry, short stories and essays. What Matters? is full of essays mainly discussing Berry’s theories on agrarian economics. He’s a polemicist in the best way – the theme of the book could be boiled down to “when everyone stopped being farmers, everything went to hell” – and I’ve enjoyed his perspective because it’s so different from my personal and work experiences.

Though it’s largely concerned with matters of the land, there’s also a lot in the book about the relation of human beings to work, communities and each other. These essays have a more universal appeal, particularly “Economy and Pleasure” in which he says the following:

“It may be argued that our whole society is more devoted to pleasure than any whole society ever was in the past, that we support in fact a great variety of pleasure industries and that these are thriving as never before. But that would seem only to prove my point. That there can be pleasure industries at all, exploiting our apparently limitless inability to be pleased, can only mean that our economy is divorced from pleasure and that pleasure is gone from our workplaces and our dwelling places. Our workplaces are more and more exclusively given over to production, and our dwelling places to consumption…More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement…We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure.”

He wrote that in 1988 but it really explains why people spend so much time on Facebook, Netflix and domestic beer bucket specials.

The above passage is part of Berry’s larger philosophy: we should not shy away from hard, physical work and the joy that comes from both the work and a connection to the land. But even if your job is largely desk-driven and that’s not about to change anytime soon, the above sentiment probably seems familiar.

This was taken on a recent work trip, one of those times I was combining business with pleasure.

This got me thinking about how to find pleasure at work, outside of the actual tasks that make up the day-to-day. How do we spice the stew of our jobs with new information, unexpected surprises or new perspectives? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed there were similarities between this effort and dating.

When you’re dating, everything seems unexpected. You’re getting to know someone better, trying new things and flush with the excitement of discovery. As you date someone (or someones), you discover aspects of other people you like and don’t like, what you want in a partner and – ideally – more about yourself, too. Your everyday is interrupted and you’re forced to get outside of your own head. It’s part of why they say people who are married should date each other; you’re engaging in the activities that made you fall in love with your partner in the first place, remembering what made him or her attractive to you and bringing new experiences to your life together.

So how can you date your job? I know of a few ways, but I’d love to hear yours.

None of this is going to be new information. If anything, writing this post is just a reminder for me of the things that give me pleasure in a job, outside of the work itself. I’ve often failed to do these things in previous jobs and it’s always been to my detriment. As in a marriage, you don’t want to wait until there are problems to start working on these things.

I also acknowledge the below doesn’t apply to all jobs and is more reflective of an office environment. But those are the jobs most often divorced from the outside world and the external stimuli that humans need in their lives. I hope this list somewhat reflects Berry’s love of communities and the people within them, even if it’s far afield from his point-of-view.

Here are three ways I try to date my job:

1. Make time for research/reading
Find some magazines, websites, columnists and e-newsletters publishing information about my industry. Make sure I have at least one or two that have a viewpoint different than my own. It tends to strengthen your views if you’re often presented with a good counterargument. I also create Review folders – physical and virtual – to store anything I fidn until I have time to read it. I schedule regular time in my calendar for this – usually Mondays at 4pm and Fridays at 10am when I’m in need of a productive winding-down or a kickstart, respectively. (I talked about why putting to-do items in your calendar is important here.)

2. Find opportunities to learn and teach outside of the office
Two to four times a year, I try to attend conferences, seminars or lectures about my work. If nothing else, it offers a better opportunity for networking than the usual name tags and cash bar events. Within that, I try to see something that’s completely unrelated to my job for some “right brain” stimulation. (The best talk I saw at SXSW last year was on artificial intelligence.) Asking myself “So how would I apply this to my work?” usually results in better insight than another presentation on something I already know.

And I also have a rule: if anyone in or just out of school asks me to have coffee and talk about what I do and how I got there, I say yes. Being a professional means you have a responsibility to help others who are trying to find their way. I also say yes to speaking in front of college classes and try to present something once a year in a professional context.

3. Get to know your co-workers outside of work
I’m not advocating having intensely personal relationships with co-workers but you should have a sense of the lives of your immediate team outside of the office. If you’re a manager, it makes you better at understanding your employees’ needs. If you’re not, it still provides more context for those moments when things get tense.

The best way to do this is to go hang out with them in a completely non-work context. Go to a bar, have a few drinks. Have some lunch. And do this as a team, when possible. Two to three times a year isn’t much. You don’t even have to avoid work talk completely – although I’d limit it. The informal setting often helps you see an active problem from a different angle but if you spend the entire time talking about work it defeats the purpose.

Those are my three. What are yours?

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