Work, Success, and Achievement




     “Work is not a curse, it is the prerogative of intelligence, the only means to manhood, and the measure of civilization.  Savages do not work.”  Calvin Coolidge.   One’s choice of work is a CLD of the highest magnitude.  Typically, a person spends more than a third of their day working, or preparing for work (education).  This may be a conservative estimate in a modern society where preparation for the working day, i.e., dressing and traveling, can involve substantial time.  Ordinarily, a person will work most of their entire lifetime, i.e., until they are about 65 years old.  That is, for a period of about 45 to 55 years, half of all waking hours are devoted to work related tasks and demands.  Furthermore, because one’s vocation determines in large measure their wealth and self-esteem, work exercises a profound impact on the quality of the remaining half of the day, and, indeed, the quality of life after retirement. 

Finally, while there is certainly some plasticity in vocational choice, it is extremely difficult to make changes in vocation after the age of thirty-five, and, indeed, for many occupational choices, it is quite difficult to do so after age twenty-five.  While there may be factors of life that have a greater impact on life satisfaction, e.g., health, work is unique in that its impact is great and yet it involves a fair amount of freedom of choice.  In contrast, you can’t choose many aspects of your health status.  Your genetic predisposition to suffer from cancer or heart disease, or the presence of congenital disorders like schizophrenia or diabetes, have immense life satisfaction impacts but are largely (not completely) outside of one’s control.  Paradoxically, vocational choice is often made very early in life with little appreciation of its significance and with little meaningful information about how one’s life will be impacted by the choice.  Indeed, children and young adolescents are encouraged to voice occupational aspirations long before they have any idea about the remarkable scope of occupational possibilities in the modern world.  Consequently, one of the most important CLDs in our lives is made under circumstances were misguided and ill informed choices are quite likely.

In light of the dramatic importance of work choice, and the highly varied kinds of work that is offered in the modern world, it is helpful to appreciate certain guiding principles in dealing with this CLD.  Reward Potential, Reward Likelihood, Work Pleasure, Effort and Stress, Capacity or Skill Demand, Work Hierarchy, and Plasticity are the central factors that must be weighed and balanced in considering work alternatives.  These are discussed briefly below:

Reward Potential:  A truly rich man makes money while he sleeps.  Reward potential is a euphemism for money, or money equivalents.  It refers to the highest level of compensation you can receive and your determination of whether this level of compensation is consistent with your “needs” or objectives.  For example, if you aspire to be relatively wealthy, then the reward potential from being a dental assistant will probably be too small.  Even the highest paid dental assistant cannot become wealthy based on their occupational compensation.  Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who does not need to be wealthy, then being a school teacher, for example, where maximum income is limited, might be sufficiently rewarding to sustain high levels of life satisfaction.  For those who need to truly be rich, the occupational choices are fewer indeed.  The reward potential for a business owner, e.g., the owner of rental property, a manufacturing business, or a food franchise, can easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.  The potential income of a rock star, professional athlete, or investment banker, for example, can be millions of dollars a year.  The factor of Reward Potential focuses on the potential rewards -- not the usual reward.  Obviously, if your desired income is not within the potential rewards, the occupational choice under consideration will be problematic.

In order to understand Reward Potential, you need good information about the actual compensation achieved within a given occupation and you need good information about your own “needs” and desires.  This information is more difficult to acquire than many realize.  There are a myriad of technical vocations that have surprisingly high potential rewards that are not generally known.  Understanding your own “needs” or desires can be equally difficult to ascertain. 

Reward Likelihood:  Reward Likelihood refers to the probability that you will actually reach the reward potential, or some particular level of acceptable compensation for a particular vocation.  For example, the likelihood that you will achieve the reward potential for the professions of concert pianist, rock star, actor, entrepreneur, or athlete is very very small.  Very few people, even amongst those with extraordinary talent, succeed in having any significant income in these, and many other vocations.  In contrast, a very high percentage of engineers, plumbers, electricians, dentists, teachers, pharmacists, accountants, attorneys, secretaries, and physicians attain the reward potential of these vocations.

Understanding Reward Potential is important because you need to govern your vocational choice based on your tolerance for risk and assaults on your self-esteem.  If you have high self-esteem that can resist the pressures of many failures and obstacles, and if you can tolerate a very real risk of ultimate failure, then you can seriously consider the vocations with a low reward likelihood.  If you are risk averse, and have a fragile self-esteem, then at all costs you must avoid occupations with low reward likelihood.  Inattention to your own need for security, and the reward potential of your work can be a major source of stress and unhappiness throughout life. 

Work Pleasure, Effort and Stress:  Work is the calculated struggle for victory of needs, desires, will, and a plan, over the ubiquitous forces of disinclination and laziness.  They don’t call it work for nothing.  Very few people find an occupation that they enjoy doing all day long.  People are paid to work because it wouldn’t get done if an incentive were not offered.  Even those who get a great deal of satisfaction from their work typically find at least some portions of their work demands to be unpleasant.  If you set as a goal to discover a line of work that is always pleasant, you should prepare yourself for poverty now.  Nevertheless, different kinds of work will generate pleasure for different people.  In order to understand the potential for pleasure, or pain, in a vocation, you must understand what a person really does in the vocation throughout the day.  Movies, TV, and parents often provide very distorted or idealized conceptions of what the actual workday is like.  Every attempt should be made to talk with someone in your prospective occupation in an effort to gain a realistic sense of the day-to-day tasks that comprise the vocation.

            In thinking about work pleasure, you will want to pay special attention to certain sub-factors.  First, you should determine how social the work is and your own need for people contact.  If you are a “people person” and have a strong need for, and skills at, social interaction, then certain jobs will be painfully asocial.  Accountants, computer programmers, night guards, and certain engineers, for example, lead very isolated work lives.  This isolation may be a positive factor for some and a negative factor for others.  Jobs in the arena of sales and management, for example, place strong emphasis on social interaction.  Second, you should determine how stressful the work is, and, importantly, your tolerance for stress.  Stress in work arises essentially from time pressure (deadlines) and high levels of expectation.  For example, litigation paralegals, the specialists who help trial attorneys prepare their cases, often work under critical deadlines and have their work reviewed often.  Some people thrive on these demands.  Others suffer every moment under such a work regime.   A salesperson in an established posh clothing store, however, will operate under minimal stress.  Third, you must determine how physically hard the work is and how willing you are to work hard.  Construction work is often quite hard.  Physically, computer animation is relatively easy.  Many people enjoy physical work and find it more satisfying than social or mental work.  Again, understanding yourself is critical.  Fourth, you must determine how much problem solving and creativity is required in the work and how this fits with your enjoyment of problem solving and creativity.  Movie directors, writers, research scientists, and high-level business persons and entrepreneurs, for example, are problem solvers.  If you like repetitive predictable work, however, these vocations will be unpleasant.  Interestingly, there are some highly compensated forms of work that are very repetitive in their actual daily application.  For example, within a few years of graduating dental school, or specializing in some kinds of orthopedic surgery, the work is actually very repetitive.  Finally, you must consider your interest in the subject matter of the work.  Obviously, you are not going to enjoy being a high school English teacher if you don’t like English and/or teaching.  Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.  He has a work, a life-purpose, he has found it and will follow it.

Capacity or Skill Demand:  It should be obvious that you must choose a vocation that has a demand for skill that is within your personal capacities.  At the extremes, it is not difficult to know if your capacities match the skill demands for a given vocational calling.  Concert pianist, mathematician, and world class athlete are vocations that require such rare and extraordinary skills that you can know easily if these activities are within your reach.  They probably are not within your reach even if you are very good.  Alternatively, receptionist, janitor, and store clerk are vocations that require so little skill that most people certainly could perform the required tasks without much effort.  Between these extremes, matching skill-demand and capacity can be more challenging.  It is important, however, that the match be close.  If the task demands of a vocation are so difficult for you that you must constantly be functioning at your best and working your hardest, then the stress level of the occupation will make it too unpleasant to be survivable for a lifetime.  Likewise, if the task demands are too easy, boredom will make the work intolerable.  The key is to find a forum for work that is challenging, yet easy enough that you will experience significant success without becoming obsessed with work.

Work Hierarchy:  Work Hierarchy refers to your power and independence in the working environment.  Relatively early in life, people develop a preference for the level of power or control they need in a working environment.  At one extreme, there are those that enjoy working in an environment were their activities are closely monitored and controlled by others, i.e., supervisors or “the boss.”  Such people enjoy pleasing a “superior” and feel uncomfortable when they have to be self-directing.  At the other extreme, there are those that cannot take direction, advice, or control from anyone.  Between these extremes, of course, there is a continuum of the independence allowed a worker in the work environment.  If you need to be independent and in control, it may be best for you not to be an employee.  You may need to direct your life towards starting your own business or functioning as an independent professional.  If other factors dictate that you will be an employee, rather than an employer, and you have a need for control, you will have to structure your life, such that, you have the credentials and experience to rapidly elevate yourself into management.  It is not crucial, however, to be in management to avoid unpleasant supervision.  For example, cable TV installers, who work in the field, often function quite independently during the day after receiving their initial assignments.  Because a mismatch between the work hierarchy and your own need for control can lead to real misery, it is imperative that you get a sense for your need for independence as soon as possible.

Plasticity:  Plasticity refers to the ease with which you can move from one type of job to another kind of work.  Essentially, this refers to how specialized the work demands tend to be.  High levels of plasticity are a positive attribute of a vocation.  For example, if you train to be an underwater welder doing ship and oil-rig repair and maintenance, you will be working in a vocation with very low plasticity.  That is, if for some reason you cannot continue this work, the skill you have acquired will not be very helpful in other kinds of work.  Alternatively, in any job where the primary entry qualification is a B.A. degree, plasticity will be fairly high because there are many different kinds of work where a general degree is an important qualification.  Generally, you should avoid vocations with low plasticity unless the compensation, or other factors, are sufficient to offset the risk of un-employability if the work ceases to be available.

Success and Achievement

            Modern culture places a tremendous value on success and personal achievement.  It is difficult to avoid this influence, and, accordingly almost everyone seeks to actually succeed or to possess the symbols of success within some domain.  Whether one seeks the Nobel prize or to be the best pool player amongst his friends, one way or another, everyone seeks success.

            While the drive for success is basically healthy, it can become pathologically self-destructive if it takes over one’s life.  Happiness requires accomplishing a modicum of success that is balanced against the need for more immediate pleasures.  As you get older, you should increase your emphasis on pleasure.  The arduous foundations for success should be laid in youth and young adulthood.

            Success at work, or anything else for that matter, depends on many factors.  Nevertheless, there are a few techniques that account for the lion’s share of success. 

            First, it is really true that the longest journey begins with a single step.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to take that step if it appears trivial in light of the journey to be completed.  For this reason, one of key ingredients to success is to set up a final goal, and most importantly, a series of sub-goals, short of the final remote goal, which can be achieved in a realistic time period, i.e., before you become disheartened with the journey, or bored.  A plan of attack is an imperative component of a stratagem for success.  Thomas Edison once noted that: “I never did anything worth doing by accident; nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”

           There is a master principle of planning that is very helpful to achieving success.  This principle is backward planning.  Think about your final goal, and then think about what would have to be accomplished just before you reach the goal.  Think about the last step.  Then ask yourself: “What would I have to accomplish just before that, and just before that, etc., etc., until you are at the beginning of the process.  Interestingly, this is also a master principle of problem solving.  (Try going backward in a maze problem.  You will be delighted with how easy it becomes.)  It is very important that both the final goal and the sub-goals or interim goals be realistic.  A realistic goal is one that is within your capacity to reach using ordinary efforts.  If your goals require that you function at your limits for long periods of time, the level of stress and the risk of failure make the effort unwise.  There are more victims of unrealistic goals than of chance misfortunes, and, accordingly, wise goal setting is a key to happiness.

            A second step in producing success is setting up personal rewards (self-reinforcement) which you provide yourself upon completion of sub-goals.  The ability of self-reward is a central characteristic of the successful.  Self reinforcements can include rest from the struggle, food, entertainment, trips, purchases of special items, etc.  Self reinforcements help produce success and they create balance in life.  A balance between work and struggle, on the one hand, and pleasure and reward, on the other, is an important component to life satisfaction.  Continuously postponing pleasure weakens or paralyzes the pleasure response and creates the risk, in the case of goal failure, that pleasure is not achieved.  Alternatively, postponing work and struggle insures that future pleasure will be limited.

            A third step is persistence and hard work.  Edison taught that his invention of the lightbulb was ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.  This is universally true for those who succeed.  Most failures overvalue their great ideas and underestimate the importance of persistence in the face of frustration and failure.  Almost every successful person failed many times before succeeding.  Learn to expect and tolerate failure.  Learn to use failure as a time for assessment and re-evaluation, not self-deprecation.  Having said this, it is also important to be able to give-up.  Some ideas sound good, and are bad.  Some ideas can't be accomplished for practical reasons beyond your control.   Sometimes you do not have the talent to succeed.  Sometimes the effort, pain, and social cost of going forward is just not worth it.  You must be able to give-up because only then can you go on to the next good idea.  Finding the balance between persistence and having the flexibility to relent is one of the difficult tasks for which there is no sage wisdom.  But, you must consider the choice.

            Finally, it is important to escape from social approval as your driving force in setting goals, sub-goals, and an allowance for pleasure.  We live in a world where parents, friends, movies, the internet, TV, and the popular press directly or impliedly set up the desired goals for the general population.  Unfortunately, many internalize these goals with little real thought about whether the goal, if achieved, will actually produce life satisfaction.  The result can be a life filled with a desperate struggle to achieve an outcome that has no fulfillment potential.  Life is too short for this kind of mistake.  At some point it is imperative that one stop and really ask what they want and what makes them happy.  There are, for example, millions of people who have internalized the model of spouse, children, and family as a core life goal when, in fact, this life style will not produce a pleasant life for them.  Once the choices are made consistent with this goal, i.e., marriage and children, the result may be irreversible consequences that impact virtually every other life decision.

Advice on Work

1.  Work and work accomplishments no matter how hard or trivial gives meaning, direction, and joy to life and so you should always work.  Never retire, obliterate fantasies about not working (which is a bore), and focus on making your work hours as pleasant as possible (Note:  raising children, doing the yard, etc., etc. are all work).

2.  Make your work goals realistic and well within your limits, don’t stretch your limits to please others or to meet societal norms.

3.  Keep your work life away from overly dominating your home life; keep a good perspective about the importance of your work.  Your major love interest should be first and your work second.

4.  You should develop some broad occupational skills (or develop two sets of separate skills) so that changes in the market-place or economy do not leave you stranded.  Along similar lines, even when secure in a job, keep abreast of alternatives and don’t burn bridges, e.g., alienate significant persons who may later be instrumental to other work.

5.  Regardless of your pay, or the goodness or badness or your boss or conditions of employment, struggle to meet a high standard of skill in your work.

6.  Make a decision about what kind of work you want to do as early in life as possible; then begin immediately to prepare for that work.  Don’t wait for the perfect work, leap into a possibility now.

7.  If you dislike your work, do not complain or allow yourself the luxury of depression; rather, look for alternate work or learn a new skill.  Never substitute complaining for a problem solving action.

8.  Don’t quit a job unless you have an alternate job or course of action clearly laid out in advance.

9.  Within your area of work, set up little day-to-day, month-to-month challenges, around which you can organize your efforts.  Keep many of these challenges short range so that you have many small success experiences.

10.  Learn to finish tasks at work.  Avoid starting too many little projects. While some tasks have to be done simultaneously, always have some which are begun and finished without interruption.

11.  Inevitably you’ll encounter a superior who is wrong, unfair, unjust, incompetent, cruel, insensitive, etc.  Understand that this is inevitable and that you do not have to confront such people with their faults.  With a person who has power over you, try once or twice to calmly, and unthreateningly, reason with such a person; should this fail, either quit or quietly succumb; don’t waste your energies on long term battles.

12.  If you have a number of jobs competing for your attention, do the most difficult one first.

13.  When choosing your future life work, take into consideration how much money you will earn and decide if you will be comfortable with the lifestyle it provides.

14.  When making a career choice, take into consideration how hard you want to work to get your degree, etc., and how many hours you want to work once you’re there.  Be realistic.  You know yourself best.

15.  Project yourself 10 or 15 years into the future, on the job.  Fantasize about the day-to-day requirements and payoffs.  Are these thoughts comfortable, exciting, or unpleasant?  These fantasies should give you some clue as to whether or not you really want this career choice.  Better, find a person who has this job and talk with them about what it’s like on a day-to-day basis.

16.  Don’t be afraid to make social ties with the people you work with.  Here you can find some very valuable and rewarding friendships.  After all, they have something in common with you, the basis of all good friendships.

17.  Dress appropriately for the job, and watch your posture, gait, etc.  People will judge you by these things.

18.  Have a desk and area at home where you can sit down and take care of your personal affairs and any business you do at home (bills, phone calls, reports, studying, reading journals, etc.)  It’s important to have a single space designated for work.

19.  Do not convey deeply personal aspects of your life to people at your workplace unless the person you are talking to is a friend away from the workplace.  Further, and most importantly, assume that anything that you convey confidentially will be public knowledge within one month.

20.            Before you send an email at work, or to a fellow worker or supervisor, read it twice.  After the first read, ask yourself if you would be comfortable with the email if it was read by every employee and supervisor.  Ask yourself,  how this email would look to a future employer.  During the second reading, proof the email for spelling, grammar, and word choice.  You are going to have to live with this email forever; they don’t disappear.

21.            Once you set a goal, be persistent and focused.  Persistence, in almost all areas of human accomplishment, is more important than intelligence, natural talent, or any other factor, in determining success.  Some failure or setbacks is a natural process of all significant endeavors.  Respond to failure and setbacks by attending to the cause (not blaming) and thinking of steps to put you back on track.  Be open to the possibility that you, or some aspect of your approach, is the basis of a setback.  Use this conclusion to plan the next step -- not self deprecation.  Focus, which involves thinking exclusively, at critical times, about your goal and the steps it will take to accomplish your goal, is second only to persistence.

22.            Learn to give up and surrender.  It is paradoxical that success requires persistence and focus, and yet failure can be produced by an unwillingness to give up on a goal or a plan.  Find the dynamic harmony between persistence (which becomes stubborn obsession when pursued blindly) and flexibility (which becomes pathological meandering when adopted too quickly).  Persistence should be your default; Flexible development of new methods or goals should be adopted only when repeated persistence fails and your analysis of the cause of the failure indicates that factors beyond your control, and unlikely to change, are the basis of failure.  Many lives are ruined by a refusal to face reality and formulate new goals.

23.            Do not criticize or verbally denigrate a boss, supervisor, or fellow employee when talking to a fellow employee, boss, or supervisor.  Avoid the language of personality (e.g. “Jason is an egotist.”) and use the language of behavioral analysis (e.g. “It is difficult to increase my sales when Jason refuses to refer customers to our department.”).  Do not lie about your boss, supervisor, or employee.

24.            Do not criticize or verbally denigrate your own employees when you are talking to a fellow supervisor, or employee.  Avoid the language of personality (e.g. “Jason couldn’t sell matches to an Eskimo.”) and use the language of behavioral analysis (e.g. “Jason’s sales remain below expectation despite repeated efforts to show him better sales techniques.”).  Do not lie about your boss, supervisor, or employee.

25.            Employers and supervisors should make a concerted effort to find verbal and non-verbal ways to reward employees on a regular basis.  Genuine verbal praise and recognition is a very powerful instrument for incentivizing a work force.  Do not give verbal praise when criticizing some aspect of performance or when you are asking an employee to do more work.  Give sincere undiluted praise at least once a month.  Small non-verbal rewards (e.g. “you can take off today at noon”) are powerful motivators.

26.            Listen carefully to your employees, and solicit their views often, because many times a low level employee, even one with minimal training or experience, may have profound observations about the workplace and productivity.  Do not underestimate employees based on position, education, training, gender, or their introverted style.

27.            Employers and supervisors should never threaten to terminate an employee unless they really intend to terminate and they have a clear reason to do so based on performance or legitimate business needs.  Employees should not quit, or threaten to quit, unless they mean it and can afford the economic consequences.  Generally, employees should not quit unless they have another job in hand.

28.            Employees should have a habit of arriving and leaving work on-time without excuses or lies.  Similarly, they should work hard and not repeatedly take sick days when not actually sick.  Employees should agree, under special circumstances that occur rarely, to work harder than usual and for longer hours, without seeking additional compensation.  Workers should not agree to work longer hours, or extra days, without additional compensation when it becomes a regular pattern.

29.            Employees should avoid being ingratiating or overly friendly with bosses and supervisors.  A little psychological distance between employees and supervisors is important.  Employees should avoid counting on a single supervisor to protect them against adversity or unfairness.  They should cultivate a friendly respectfully relationship with at least two “superiors.”

30.            Ask for help when you need it.  Do not be embarrassed to ask for help.

31.            Do not have a sexual, romantic, or business relationship with anyone at work who has substantial more or less power than you in the work environment.  (Here, business relationship refers to a business outside the work environment.)  Do not borrow or lend money from work mates.

32.            With the exceptions noted below, you should avoid entering into the following occupations as a primary manner of earning a living: professional musician, artist, actor, rock star, athlete, politician, gambler, and any other profession where failure and rejection is a regular consequence for the majority of those attempting to earn a living in such a occupation, even those of exceptional talent.   This advice should be ignored only by those who are, objectively, the best of the best (nationally), and who have such high self esteem that they can tolerate years of failure and disappointment.

33.            Develop skills and training, during your life, in at least two occupations.