Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Question: How can we conceive of alternatives to work?
Alan Webber: We used to talk at Fast Company about the Department of Lost Souls and it’s unfortunate but true that an awful lot of people do lose themselves, they lose track of what matters to them or they never are challenged to think about it.
Speaking of newspapers and journalism, there was a terrific piece in the New York Times about a week ago about young kids graduating from business schools, I think in particular, they were looking at Wharton and this one quote just jumped out at me the way sometimes a message is just riveting.
A young woman said, “I didn’t know. Until Wall Street was no longer an option for my classmates and me, I didn’t know how interesting my classmates were.”
And that is an example of how habits of minds or assumptions or the dead hand of the past or a way of keeping score that puts money ahead of everything can scream out things that are either much more interesting or much more important, what this young woman was saying was once it wasn’t about getting the highest paying, most prestigious job, all of a sudden my classmates and I started talking about things we would like to do, things that we would enjoy doing, things that we would learn from or contribute by doing.
One guy was going to work at a jazz club, another person was going to go into social services and these are things that weren’t options when the game was winning at all cost, winning defined as whoever dies with the most toys wins. She suddenly realizes; she didn’t realize it, I read it and interpreted her realization as there’s a different game here, we can play this game with a different scorecard and a different set of values so rather than saying whoever gets the job with the biggest job title and the biggest check wins, it’s the person who finds something that really matters to them who wins, who’s able, yeah, put food on table but put meaning into their life, put something into their existence that really feels good, feels right for them, that may not be the only thing they ever do right? And this is not the vow of poverty, chastity and silence, but when the game changes to go back to where you and I started, when there is discontinuity in how you keep score or what the game even is, people are challenged to make sense a different way.
One of the ways we start making sense is not just looking externally for validation but looking internally about what really matters to me. And when you get a little bit of quiet either forced or intentional, the monkeys in your head stops chattering, the world slows down a little bit, you’re not racing after a Wall Street gig, you’re saying to yourself, that’s not on the table, what would I like to do, who do I want to be when I grow up and how do you I want to feel about what I’m doing?
Again, I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish about isn’t it great to be poor and the more people who lose their jobs are really lucky because now they can get in touch with themselves, that’s not it. But there is a pragmatism that’s very clean here and the pragmatism is I really didn’t want to do what I said I was going to do, I thought I had to do it.
Now, that option doesn’t work, what would work?
And wait a minute, what do I mean by work?
What would be workable?
What would be a good way to work?
What would be a work life combination that would really meet my needs and will be a pragmatic response to a tough situation?
So I don’t think it’s Pollyannaish to say you can be both win at your work and really be a happier or at least more engaged person who’s looking at what you’re doing with 8 to 10 hours a day of your work life and having it actually be valuable.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009