153 - What we want from a job

06-02-2024

career design

In what we want most from a job there’s a paradox: we don’t know what we want more—great work or a great work culture?

My sense is that you’ll be prouder of the time you did great work without a great boss or a supporting culture or a comfortable work environment than of the time you felt supported and accepted at work but the work itself didn’t make you jump out of bed.

There's a line in Christopher Nolan's biography by film critic Tom Shone that goes:

If you were unhappy at the school, the mixture of misery and abandonment was potent.

The direction of causality in the line jumped out at me. Shouldn't the misery and the loneliness of life at boarding school make you unhappy?

Christopher Nolan spent several years in boarding school at Haileybury in England: militaristic, restrictive, isolating. It was an environment many boarders found hard to cope with, writing letters home begging to be rescued (those letters would be intercepted by hawk-eyed school authorities).

Nolan survived. He would lie in bed after lights-out, listening to soundtracks of his favorite movies on his Walkman. For these nightly escapades, he would—this was the 80s—warm batteries on radiators to squeeze out the last drop of life from them. He was good at rugby and the sport was celebrated on campus.

Nolan found purpose at a terrible place.

To think of it, it’s much the same for us at our jobs. If we're unhappy with the work, if we are far removed from seeing the difference we make with our efforts, if we are not called by adventure, work is ennui. It is a dead end, no matter how many birthday vouchers come your way.

But if the work is thrilling, purposeful, we're willing to jump hoops, put up with discomfort, and do all that it takes.

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