02 December 2006

Tailoring Self to Fit a Job

Far too many jobs are the information age equivalent of flipping burgers. “Two minutes on side one, 90 seconds on side two – slide onto the bun to serve.” “Look at the data from these stores and determine if there are anomalies or trends that are worth analyzing.” (And the unspoken command is to analyze even if nothing significant has occurred, because one doesn’t want to appear less than busy.) There is nothing particularly engaging about this work, nor is it sustainable as a means for making a living. If a job can be reduced to a set of instructions, those instructions can be fed to a worker in any country – even one where costs are so much dramatically lower that an employee needing enough income for housing, services and goods in a country like France or the United States could never hope to compete with what is considered a good salary in places like India or the Ukraine.

Jobs ought to be process oriented, but not in ways that can be replicated by robots. In his study of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi has found some common patterns to what most engages the individual. The task that most engages us is one that represents a balance between challenge and skill, when both the skill called on and the challenge faced are above average for us. One’s sense of time becomes distorted in such activities, typically seeming to accelerate. And, a paradox emerges from Csikszentmihalyi’s study of flow. The more one loses himself in task, that is, the less self-conscious one is during its execution, the more able is self at the task’s completion. The person who loses herself in the task is more likely to find herself in her work. Thus, the state of mind that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow is not just psychologically rewarding – it is a means for development and growth. The strict adherence to process required in too many jobs precludes the attainment of flow and, by extension, development of the self.

As with carrot and stick, forcing process on the individual shifts the locus of control to the institution. Control not only over what is done but also how the individual develops. This is a kind of control over one’s life that certainly mocks the notion of freedom.

In his book, Good Business, Csikszentmihalyi quotes Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto. He makes a critical point about how individuals are fit into organizations.

“The notion of job implies that there’s been some supreme architect who designed this system so that a lot of parts fit together and produce whatever the desired input is. No one in a job can see the whole. When we ask you to join us, we are saying, ‘Do you have the skills and the willingness to shape yourself in this way so that you will fit into this big machine? Because somebody did this job before you, somebody who was different from you. Someone will do it after you. Those parts of you that aren’t relevant to that job, please just forget about. Those shortcomings that you have that really don’t enable you to fill this job, please at least try to fake, so that we can all have the impression that you’re doing this job.’”

“It’s a Procrustean concept, and it studiously and systematically avoids using the most valuable part of you, the part of you that makes you different from other people, that makes you uniquely you. If we want to be a great institution, that’s where we ought to be looking. We ought to be saying, “What can you bring to this that’s going to help?” Not, ‘Here’s the job, just do it.’”

What does Shapiro mean by “a Procrustean concept?” Procrustes was a figure in Greek mythology who forced travelers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies when they were too short or cutting off their legs when they were too long. It is probably true that the vast majority of employees are both stretched to the limits of their capacity in some aspects of their job and literally cut off from real and crucial parts of their self in others. In either case, fitting into a job in such a way does little to realize their own potential or, by extension, the potential of the organization.

In fact, such programming of one’s actions is antithetical to what any society would hope to see emerge: genius. “One admires genius because one has the imagination to see that there is no mechanism in him or his work, nothing that can be analyzed and rationalized, ” Barzun writes.

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