What Do You Actually DO For A Living?

February 19, 2008

Do you perform surgeries? Do you write articles? Do you win golf tournaments, paint houses, plow farmland, or design automobiles? Those are occupations with tangible, measurable results.

These days though, many of us have jobs/careers that can only be measured by the fluctuation of our compensation. In sales, for instance, your performance and your output are only measured in terms of how you “performed” against whatever goal your manager set for you – especially if you work in a service industry where you aren’t even selling tangible objects. And there are millions of jobs where people answer phones, deliver packages, or put together hamburgers. It’s hard to derive satisfaction from repetitive work that never ends or culminates in a finished product.

Information age jobs are often similar to working out in a gym on a treadmill. Sure, you can measure how “far” you ran, and you can even get stronger. But you can only compare your progress to other performances. It’s not nearly as satisfying as competing and placing in a marathon.

There’s a great article in the Wall Street Journal today called A Modern Conundrum: When Work’s Invisible, So Are It’s Satisfactions.

Some interesting quotes from it:

Not only is work harder to measure but it’s also harder to define success. The work is intangible or invisible, and a lot of work gets done in teams so it’s difficult to pinpoint individual productivity.

Information-age employees measure their accomplishment in net worth, company reputation, networks of relationships, and the products and services they’re associated with — elements that are more perceived and subjective than that field of corn, which either is or isn’t plowed.

At closing time, work doesn’t seem completed, just temporarily abandoned.

It can be hard to find gratification from work that is largely invisible, or from delivering goods that are often metaphorical.

You can’t even leave your mark on a document in increasingly paperless offices. It can be even harder trying to measure it all. That may explain why to-do listers write down tasks they’ve already completed just to be able to cross them off.

The person doing the landscaping has a better sense of accomplishment.

Not even the marketing people could come up with a plausible explanation for why the company existed.

I have a personal anecdote on this topic. My father was a stockbroker for 15 years before I was born. Then he was a family business owner for 15 more. Technically the business didn’t even need to exist; it was created to be the wholesaler for his own father’s manufacturing business. So there wasn’t any production (just sales activity), few people to manage (a couple of sales reps and admins), and he handled all the financial elements of the business anyway (signing checks, bookkeeping, etc.). In fact we didn’t even live in the same state as the business except for 5 years.

Sure, the company grew (in terms of money coming in), and I assume everyone’s salaries did as well, but there wasn’t any actual output to measure except on historical spreadsheets. Not even any “I did X for that person.” They were simply taking parts from one company and selling them to another.

When he “retired” by selling his shares to his brother, he started searching for his next career or project (he wasn’t even 50 yet). One day he declared that he wanted to become a bricklayer. “I want to come home at the end of the day and have my back hurt – not my head,” he tried to explain. In truth, I bet he just wanted to see and bask in the day-to-day fruits of his own labor. To be able to day “I DID that, I CREATED that today” – rather than “I went to 8 meetings” or “I checked 85 emails.”

More from Meg at The World of Wealth

15 responses to What Do You Actually DO For A Living?

  1. This is brilliant.

    You’ve made my day miserable 🙂

  2. I’m with you, Brian – now I’m depressed.

    I check emails, lead meetings, anayize numbers and write recommendations. Clearly I don’t do anything real.

  3. There is something to this. I work in software, and am quite thankful that I work in a small company where my product is used for fairly obvious things in physical devices (cellphones, car nav systems, etc) that are used by real people. I’ve never been in love with code for code’s sake, and wouldn’t want to work in a traditional IT environment where work disappears into some amorphous “corporate IT infrastructure”.

    Such work is useful and even critical to companies, but it’s hard to get excited and motivated by this sort of thing.

  4. I upgrade satellite communication systems for the Army. Every day on a job site I can see tangible progress: removing old equipment, installing new, installing cables, testing, etc. Even on days where we don’t seem to make visible progress, there is prep work and the like. When I’m back at the office, though, I measure my progress in how early I can sneak out the door and head for home without anybody getting mad. 4 hours of sitting in my cube doing nothing is more tiring than 10 hours of real work.

  5. So depressing & true Meg! 🙁

  6. I get teased about this all the time by the people I work with. I work in the construction industry but instead of a brick layer I’m a Project Engineer so the brick layer (and every other trade on the jobsite) give me a hard time about how I don’t do any “work” since I spend all day in there words coloring drawings and pushing papers and when I’m out on site all I do is “walk in circles”.

    I do have to say at least at the end of a project (several years) it is awesome to be able to look at a finished building and know you had a hand in making it happen.

  7. Why I enjoy my jobs so much:

    After I leave the hospital, I can say “I checked X newborns’ ears today.” And hopefully I can say “And I made their parents’ happy/relieved them because the babies passed.” Or at least some babies passed.

    At the library, I can say “I shelved X carts of books today or approximately X books. And I checked out X patrons so that they can enjoy some of those books I put on the shelves.”

    I think that’s why, of all the jobs I’ve had, the two I’ve most enjoyed have been shelving and bathroom cleaning. Not prestigious, but they give you a real sense of accomplishment!

  8. I don’t know why I put an apostrophe after parents. Must not be thinking clearly.

  9. I ask myself this question every day! In a former life, I repaired aircraft in the USAF. At the end of the day, I saw an aircraft fly. And I knew I did my job well. Now, I don’t see tangible results of my efforts. I don’t think it means I don’t do anything useful, but it certainly is a different feeling at the end of the day. Very nice article.

  10. I totally agree with this article, but I have decided that my job provides my income to do my hobby and I can show things that I have done by the the progress of my hobby. Now showing my boss what I have done can be a little harder 😉

  11. I liked your post, but someone has already beaten you to it…

    Funnily enough, Karl Marx (the Father of communism) talked about this EXACT thing in his theory of alienation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx's_theory_of_alienation#Alienation_in_the_labour_process

    And before anyone asks: no, I’m not a communist, I’m a political science student 🙂

  12. I’ve always found it funny that we need to be measured against something to prove that we’ve been productive. Yes I know there’s a need to maintain a certain level of serivice and quality but comparing me an individual to some imaginary norm is frustrating and pointless. Working in the digital world does not mean that there can’t be any creative substance to it but people try too hard to create that feeling of accomplishment where none really exists.

  13. I think one thing is forgotten regarding the measurement of “productivity” in the work place. I view it this way: I’m not always paid for what I do. I’m paid for what I know. In fact, being knowledgeable about my profession means, sometimes, I am paid for what I do not do. I don’t waste the time or treasure less experienced workers might because my accumulation of knowledge and skills have taught me that simply doing what is expected squanders those two precious commodities.

    A very thought provoking post. Thanks.

  14. I leave my blog.

    See if compensates access: http://www.rendavariavel.blogspot.com

  15. yeah, I really wish I knew what I did. The US has become such a services industry it’s quite sad. One day I hope to actually produce something tangible, besides PowerPoint presentations or Excel spreadsheets.