Finding Fulfilling Work

People often think of job satisfaction as a spectrum, with happiness on one end and unhappiness on the other:

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In this view, how happy one will be at a job can be determined by “adding up” all of the tangibles (salary, benefits, workplace environment, etc) of that particular position and seeing how far they collectively move the needle on the spectrum. Because it’s cumulative, the lack of certain elements (like a good manager, for example) can be compensated for by increases in other elements (more salary, better perks). It makes for a mostly intuitive linear formula. And we know that the absence of things like an adequate salary, generous benefits, a respectable title, and so on are known to cause unhappiness, so it’s only logical to look for a surplus of those things to bring happiness… right?

Framing job satisfaction as a single spectrum that can be overtaken by a single variable doesn’t quite model the problem correctly. Take salary, for instance. There have been numerous studies showing that there is a limit beyond which increases in salary no longer contribute to happiness. So, if a linear spectrum isn’t correct, how does one actually gauge happiness at a job? Clayton Christensen theorizes that there are two independent dimensions that determine this:

On one side of the equation, there are the elements of work that, if not done right, will cause us to be dissatisfied. These are the hygiene factors: status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices… Bad hygiene causes dissatisfaction.

But even if you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction. They’re not the same thing at all.

So, what are the factors that will cause us to love our jobs? These are what Herzberg’s research calls motivators. Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth. Motivation is much less about external prodding or stimulation, and much more about what’s inside of you and inside of your work.

The best algorithm, therefore, is to look for a job with:

  1. Sufficient hygiene factors, so as to avoid dissatisfaction
  2. Optimal motivators, to maximize love of one’s job
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In other words, fulfillment can never be delivered in a paycheck, you’ll have to find something more. But that, in turn, raises an even more daunting question: how do you know that you’ve found the most fulfilling work?

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The modus operandi for “ideal” careers goes something like this:

  • Accept an associate job at great company X
  • Get promoted to manager at great company X
  • Get promoted to senior manager at great company X
  • Get promoted to director at great company X
  • Get promoted to VP at great company X
  • Receive gold Rolex, move to Hawaii, and contemplate the emptiness of your existence

Once you’re on this track, it becomes extremely difficult to jump off. Humans are notoriously susceptible to sunk costs; it’s remarkably easy to fall into a cycle such as “well, I’ve been here for X months/years, and I don’t want all that time to have been for nothing. Plus, the next promotion cycle is only six months away…”. Fulfillment becomes artificially defined by your ability to make the next marginal step up instead of by what actually makes you happy.

As mentioned before, you’ll only truly be happy with your work if you find it fulfilling outside of hygiene factors. The problem is that, without a broader frame of reference, it’s literally impossible to conclude that you’ve chosen the most fulfilling work among all of the opportunities available to you. You really have no way of knowing how much you enjoy doing something else without actually trying it. Chris Dixon likens this phenomenon to a classic machine learning problem:

Imagine you are dropped at a random spot on a hilly terrain, where you can only see a few feet in each direction (assume it’s foggy or something). The goal is to get to the highest hill.

Consider the simplest algorithm. At any given moment, take a step in the direction that takes you higher. The risk with this method is if you happen to start near the lower hill, you’ll end up at the top of that lower hill, not the top of the tallest hill.

Another and generally better algorithm has you repeatedly drop yourself in random parts of the terrain, do simple hill climbing, and then after many such attempts step back and decide which of the hills were highest.

So you still want to look for work with sufficient hygiene factors and optimal motivators, but you should maintain a reasonable level of skepticism with respect to whether you’ve found work with truly optimal motivators. This doesn’t necessarily imply that you should be constantly hopping from job to job every few months or year; continuing the metaphor, you usually can’t see through the fog to the top of a hill just by taking a few steps up. Granted, most people don’t have enough time in their lives to explore all of the “hills” available to them, but it’s worth the effort to try to find the highest one, even if the time you’re afforded doesn’t allow you to find “the absolute highest one”.

Maybe we don’t need a silver bullet. We just need to take off our blindfolds to see where we’re firing.
—Bret Victor

One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your search space is look for companies with cultures that place extremely high value on motivators. You don’t want the ones who plaster posters of aphorisms around the office and call it a day. You want an employer who is intimately aware that its success is inextricably linked to employees becoming intrinsically fulfilled. In reality, this should be true of all companies, but very few actually realize it. Finding a company like that may entail becoming an entrepreneur and starting it yourself, though, in all likelihood, that’s a suboptimal route.

Pixar is one of the best examples of a company that just gets motivators. Way back in 1996, shortly after Pixar had released its first film, Charlie Rose interviewed John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, and Steve Jobs (Charlie Rose comes off as a bit antagonistic at times, but it’s otherwise a fantastic interview that you should watch in entirety at some point). If you jump to 15 minutes in, you’ll see Lasseter’s thoughts on what they think they have to offer employees, even way back then:

Charlie Rose: Why should I come to Pixar if I’m a great animator?

John Lasseter: Three reasons. One, Pixar is a place, more than anywhere else in the world, that they can get creative satisfaction. We try to give these artists a project that they can be proud of for the rest of their careers. That’s a big thing. I know, because I’ve worked in a lot of places where I was working on kind of garbage, and it’s hard to work.

Secondly, in working with these people, I try so hard, even if it’s the smallest task, to give them a little bit of creative ownership, to let them figure out how to do it. I don’t tell people how to do it.

And the most important thing, is at Pixar we have a lot of fun, and it shows.

So to recap, you want to:

  • Look for sufficient hygiene factors
  • Look for optimal motivators
  • Be skeptical of whether you’ve actually found something with optimal motivators
  • Look for companies that are invested in employees’ internal fulfillment

To be clear, this isn’t so much advice as a framework to be applied — hopefully you’ll find it helpful in building your career.

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