“Work is about more than making a living, as vital as that is. It’s fundamental to human dignity, to our sense of self-worth as useful, independent, free people.” — Bill Clinton
W hen searching for a new job it’s easy to romanticize a fancy title, high salary, or great benefits. All these things are important, but the best, most satisfying, work comes when we feel that we are truly working with dignity.
Dignity, means associating your self-worth with the effort placed in your work. When we don’t work with dignity our work becomes “separate” from us, the person. To work with dignity is to take responsibility for its results, it is the pinnacle of what we can do as creative professionals in a complex, shifting, and interdependent world. It helps us cut through the overwhelming cacophony of the world that’s telling us what we should care about and where we should direct our attention.
When we don’t work with dignity our work becomes “separate” from us, the person.
Working without dignity is to divorce our values from how we spend the majority of our waking hours. Work without dignity is shallow, timid, and forgettable. It sets us up for disappointment when a once-exciting job is no longer a sufficient proxy for a fulfilling personal identity.
Lacking dignity in work we begin to cut corners. We cast about for tips, tricks, and the easy way out of the uncomfortable situation that is doing great work in a fast and loud world. We become dissatisfied with our current situation and resolve to find a “better job” where the process repeats. We commoditize ourselves. We commoditize our work.
There are thousands of decisions we make on a daily basis that either align us closer to dignity or push use closer to the superficial levels that govern the “what” of our work. In broad strokes, here are three concepts we can hold onto as we explore what dignity in work looks like.
Curiosity prevents “This worked in the past,” from becoming, “This is all I know how to do.” The curious worker sees daily experience as an overwhelmingly rich trove of inspiration that can inform his or her work in unexpected ways. Obviously, the artist and the graphic designer can easily find inspiration in the colors, forms, and shapes of their environment. However, these visual professions do not hold a monopoly on curiosity. The researcher observes a fascinating phenomenon while standing in line at the supermarket, the teacher hears a turn of phrase that would perfectly illustrate a difficult idea for her students, and the manager reads a book about chaos theory and has an insight into how to better motivate his employees. In a world of overwhelming information our own curiosity serves as the funnel and filter that keeps our work fresh and new.
Without curiosity there is no drive for development or improvement. The work stagnates and what once might have been an exciting new adventure is now simply drudgery.
The craftsman brings the entirety of his skill to every aspect of a project, regardless of its publicity. A medieval artisan sculpting a gargoyle to be placed in the greatest heights of a cathedral and tucked behind a pillar brought the same care and attention to detail as his colleague creating the most visible components. Nobody would know if corners were cut but approaching work with dignity requires nothing less than the highest level of attention brought to every aspect of a project. Does this mean locking into a mindset of perfection-driven procrastination? No. It means taking seriously the old adage, “You are who you are when nobody is watching.”
Modern knowledge workers may feel separated from the artisans of times past but the actual medium in which we work, whether aged oak or PHP, has very little to do with cultivating a craft mentality. Attention to detail, complete immersion and understanding of the tools of the trade, and a respect for every phase of the project are as open to programmers creating enterprise software as they are sculptors making gargoyles for cathedrals.
A respect for every phase of the project are as open to programmers creating enterprise software as they are sculptors making gargoyles for cathedrals.
When we bring humility to our work we acknowledge the idea of having room for improvement. Without humility our own egos often fill the void that should be filled by learning and development. The moment success in the past is allowed to bleed into the future—that future success is guaranteed by past success—is when a lack of humility most often shows its face. Every day is an opportunity to find a slightly better, slightly more efficient, or slightly more interesting way to do something we thought we already understood perfectly. With the right mindset this is exciting and allows us to approach our work with a rookie’s raw excitement while at the same time allowing us to utilize our hard earned experience.
For example, the successful non-fiction author experiments with writing poetry for ten or fifteen minutes a day not because she’s good at it (she’s not), but because it’s a reminder that there are other modes of writing she has not mastered. Or, the successful app creator spends an hour every day simply learning her language of choice even better. It’s an exercise in humility. It’s a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted and that each day’s success must be earned anew.
The autonomy that many of us enjoy requires greater responsibility in making the deliberate decisions about how we choose to conduct ourselves in our work. What decision can you make today to bring greater dignity to yourself and your work? What does the first step of greater dignity in work look like for you?