Over the past four years, in our annual Who’s Fast issue, Fast Company has profiled more than 50 leaders from all walks of life and all parts of the world. But there’s been one core message behind these varied stories: Ordinary people with enough brains, passion, and conviction can achieve truly extraordinary results. The most powerful force in business isn’t money or technology or naked ambition — it’s a commitment to doing good work.
Enter now three eminent academic psychologists whose important and compelling new book makes much the same point. The title says it all: Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books, 2001). The book, written by Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, Stanford University professor William Damon, and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, testifies to the power of a commitment to professional excellence and to the challenges of meeting those commitments in the face of fierce marketplace pressures.
Of course, September 11 and its aftermath have raised the issue of good work to even greater prominence. Suddenly, all of us want to feel that what we do actually means something. But doing that seems harder than ever, what with a society gripped by uncertainty, an economy gripped by recession, and each of us struggling as individuals to make sense of what’s happening.
In an exclusive panel discussion, the authors of Good Work offer ideas and advice to help you stay focused on your work.
The horror of September 11 has our readers asking themselves tough questions: In a world shattered by terror and death, what genuinely matters? In the face of so much heroism and sacrifice, how do I make sense of what I do for a living? Whose contributions truly count? What are the valid sources of satisfaction and pride in terms of work? My question to you is, What does good work mean in light of these sorts of questions?
William Damon: In every conversation I’ve had since September 11, in almost any context, people have asked, What meaning does my work have now? And unless you’re in the military or one of the security forces, it’s not always easy to make a connection to this kind of cataclysmic event. But what we are trying to say is that anybody who’s doing work — whether it’s in law, medicine, journalism, engineering — needs to get in touch with the original mission of their field, the reason that profession was developed to begin with. Because all of those professions serve a public interest, and individuals who go into those fields originally have a clear sense of that, which why people speak about having a sense of a calling in life.
The problem is that all too often, such a sense of calling diminishes over the years as you get caught up in the kinds of career incentives that move people on a day-to-day basis — especially when those incentives pull people in the wrong direction, as they frequently do. For example, a lot of journalism these days is driven by sensationalism or work that’s written so briefly and out of context that you don’t really get the story across. Those practices pull you away from the mission of giving people information they need to live good lives and to support a democracy — the classic issues and missions of the field.
We’re trying to show people a way to get in touch with the fundamental purpose and mission of the field they’re working in, and to overcome the sense that to survive or to have a good career, you’ve got to compromise, you’ve got to cut corners, you’ve got to go along to get along. We think that’s bad advice. We’re trying to give examples of people who have become highly successful by being purposeful, by being ethical, by doing it the right way.
Howard Gardner: September 11 was a wake-up call. We often call our project “Good Work in Turbulent Times” to capture just that sentiment — although we didn’t quite imagine how turbulent the times would be. There really are three different kinds of wake-up calls. One wake-up call is the individual wake-up call — like Saul on the road to Damascus — where something happens in your own life. You lose something, or you get fired, and it throws you back to the fundamentals of your field.
The second one is a wake-up call for the profession itself. The picture that Bill portrayed of journalism — where journalists still have ideals, but they feel that the conditions of work make it impossible to achieve those ideals — is a wake-up call for the profession.
But the third kind of wake-up call, which none of us had in mind at all while writing the book, is a societal wake-up call. All of a sudden, the assumptions that we’ve all been making about what human beings are like, and about America’s place in the world, have been ripped to shreds. So we’re now experiencing a kind of a triple wake-up call.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: These wake-up calls are typically the moments when people think again about questions that are easy to ignore: What do I want to be remembered for? and What should I do so that I don’t look back on my life and think it was wasted? It’s too bad that as human beings, we address these questions only when things force them to our attention — like when we lose a loved one or our business is going down the drain or we face the kind of societal challenge we are now.
But, in some ways, of course, this is the moment when we have a choice to revisit the fundamental values that most of us have learned from our parents and our culture. Over time, evolution does select certain values as being necessary for our civil society to survive. We take them for granted, as we take good weather for granted and good air for granted. But when we see them threatened, we have to ask ourselves, What is it that makes life worth living? We are now in that position, and I hope we come up with a good answer.
Those are tough questions to ask, let alone to begin to know how to answer.
Howard Gardner: How’s this for something simple? We propose the “3M test”: mission, model, mirror. Mission is what we’ve been talking about until now. What’s the core thing that you’re trying to do in your work life? To make sure that poor people get justice, to make sure that people get well or get educated, to design excellent and beautiful products? There is a value core to every profession.
Number two is modeling. Whom do you admire? Whom would you would like to emulate? Who are the antimentors, the tormentors, the people who really give what you do a bad name? In journalism, we might talk about an Edward R. Murrow as opposed to a Matt Drudge, although I don’t feel the need to single out poor Drudge.
The third thing is the mirror test, where you look at yourself in the mirror and you say, “Am I the kind of person I want to be?” Am I proud or embarrassed at looking at myself?
And then try what I call the “M2 test.” If everybody in my field were behaving the way I am, would I feel proud about the profession, or would I feel ashamed? Compare journalism, say, in the Gary Condit era to journalism in the September 11 era. The Gary Condit era really showed us journalism at its worst.
William Damon: Let me give you a direct example of something that gets to what you are asking about. I was at a conference of academic psychologists shortly after September 11. Right from the beginning, a lot of people were saying, “Why did I even get into this field to begin with? What do we contribute? I feel that my work is so out of touch with the things that are really important when an incident like this happens.”
And the fact is that the kinds of psychology these people were talking about were indeed dry, irrelevant to most concerns, and highly academic in the worst sense. They should have been asking themselves those questions all along, because just as their work wasn’t relevant to a September 11, it was not relevant to the way any of us live our lives or to the things we care about. These people were doing studies for the sake of studies, studies for the sake of getting tenure at universities. This incredibly intelligent group of people could have been contributing so much more.
In every realm, if you value our civilization, if you value our public life, if you value the good things in our life, most professions have the potential to contribute to the public good and to civilization. But for that to happen, you have to orient people around the right questions, the right tests. You have to say, “What am I here for? What kind of a person do I want to be? Do I want to do the right thing? Or do I really just want to do what advances my career in the short term?” Eventually, it all comes down to aligning your day-to-day efforts with a sense of purpose that lets you contribute to the world.
Another big question people are facing is, How do we move on? How do we turn off CNN and get back to work? What’s your advice?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: I think that getting immersed in an activity that provides you with feedback is always a good strategy. It’s a good kind of antidote to looking at the future with fear. If you are really involved in something, whether it’s a job or a relationship or a hobby, it will get your mind away from those things and make you feel better. But it also can become also a kind of escape unless you stop and take seriously the issues we have been talking about. The ideal situation is when you can experience this flow, this total involvement, within the context of an activity that is actually of value to society.
William Damon: That last point is really important. Of course, people in the past have tried to talk about the moral dimension to work and life. Every business school has some course on ethics. But what we’re emphasizing is that the moral dimension doesn’t have to be a trade-off. It doesn’t have to be something that you do grudgingly; you don’t have to view it as something that takes away from your success, that cuts down on the chances you’ll make a lot of money, or that limits you from being highly esteemed in your field.
Our point is that if you approach things the right way, these two things actually enhance one another. The people with the really powerful careers are people who also tend to have a very elevated sense of purpose, who don’t cut corners, who have a lot of integrity. They’re not saints, and it’s not that they never make mistakes, or that they’ve never taken a low road. Nobody is perfect. But, in the long run, these are people who tend to take the high road. The high road is the best road to success.
Polly LaBarre (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor.