I met or got reacquainted with some of the most amazing people that I've ever met. Pam Slim, who teaches people to "escape from cubicle nation," Brian Shea, an enterprise IT consultant who combines traditional IT with the near-blasphemy that they teach at WDS, Etsuko Tsukagoshi, who helps cross-cultural families find happiness with one another ... the list goes on. While the speakers were top drawer, this is the only conference I go to where the attendees give them a run for their money.
Yet, as I return to my life at a traditional large organization, as I leave these amazing folks who have discovered a new world of work, a life where they can focus on community, adventure and service, I have this terrible feeling that as I age into my 50s, maybe I'm too set in my ways to truly join them. As they escape from a land where seven out of 10 of all workers are at least somewhat disengaged from their jobs, and become fully engaged and joyful in their work, maybe I can never fully appreciate or handle that kind of freedom. I worry that somehow I'll never be as happy at work as they are.
Any organization, especially an IT organization, needs old dogs who can learn new tricks. But first, you need to be happy at work, in an age where Dilbert and Office Space seem to be more like reality shows than parodies.
[ Is it surprising to think your employees' self-interest is good for your business? See Good Employee, Selfish Employee. ]
I've said in the past that if you aren't happy at work, or if you disrespect the stupid stuff that's going on at work (ironically, in this case, I was talking about age discrimination), you need to jump before you get pushed.
Yet, it is incredibly difficult to do. One of the most touching presentations at WDS was by Tess Vigeland, the host of "Marketplace Money," who quit her "dream job" at the height of her success, with 9 million listeners every week. While she was circumspect about the reasons, it clearly had to do with happiness at work. After a pivotal unhappy event that she didn't share, she says she simply couldn't do it anymore. In her words, she "jumped without a net," and "what's amazing about a leap of faith is how everyone around you is so sure that it's going to work out ... and deep down, you're pretty sure it won't." Far from telling everyone "hey, you need to do this," she related the true difficulty of jumping out of a bad situation. And most would think that she's got the visibility and career assets as a well-known NPR host to transition without much of a struggle. She's struggling.
"What I'm also supposed to tell you is what a great learning journey it has been. The truth is it has been terrifying, awful and heartbreaking. This has made me doubt my decision-making ability, made me wonder whether I'm in a loop of self-destruction. This has made me wonder if everyone who has admired my accomplishments, or who has told me that I'm remarkable was just being nice."
The tragedy here is why someone who clearly is so good at her job couldn't be happy in her work. I'm guessing it was the usual large-organization stuff that makes seven out of 10 of us disengage at work.
Though personal happiness is clearly important enough that WDS speaker Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, we have still not figured out that employee happiness is incredibly important to sustainable work productivity.
I am not talking about happiness at work like it's some kind of free-for-all, do-whatever-you-want, or freeloader type of situation. For those of us who like to work, and I think there are a lot of us, being happy while working hard is not only entirely possible, but also, because of a psychological state called flow, really, really effective! Why wouldn't all organizations want that?
Some of us realize that happiness can be the result of habit, and, like other habits such as changing backup tapes every day, you can create "happiness habits," such as these from WDS attendee Leo Babuta. But speaker Rubin told attendees that one of the keys to happiness is to know yourself, but "we so often don't even want to admit what's true, we don't want to look in the mirror." She suggested asking questions that get at aspects of your nature indirectly, questions such as: Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? (In other words, what do you wish was true enough that you lie about it.) What did I do for fun when I was 10 years old? When we get at aspects of our true self and what our true self wants, we're better prepared to take advantage of opportunities for happiness when they come up -- either in our personal life or work life.
Unhappiness also comes from fear of failure and rejection. We tend not to "go for it" because of that fear, and then we live with the consequences of mediocrity. But like happiness, courage can be learned. Jia Jiang, another presenter at WDS, shared his entrepreneurial rejection story and his experiential learning through "100 days of rejection."
Rubin says that negative emotions are a claxon call to wake up and do something. The blues that I felt on coming back from WDS to "real life" are such a call. It may be true that traditional organizations need to change for us to be able to realize truly great business technology innovations in the same way that smaller startups do. But just as ERP change management techniques recognize that you don't change organizations, you change individuals, maybe we need to start focusing on individual change -- starting with ourselves. None of us is too fossilized to learn something new, but it takes time and attention to form the right habits. What you, me and everybody needs to do is to get off of our duffs and invest in our own happiness at work. Today's dysfunctional world of work will only change one person at a time.