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Almost everything you hear at graduations – and read on the internet, and watch on television – focuses on the idea of work, especially entrepreneurship, as a means of self-expression and (to use the term from David Brooks) self-actualization. I am as guilty as anyone – see here (why we love entrepreneurs), here (entrepreneurs and authorship of life), and here (perhaps my favorite piece, contrasting disruptive and incremental progress).
Having spent a fair bit of time in the workforce, at both small and large companies, I have two words for you: selection bias. True, most books and news stories about business feature a narrative arc; true, most business authors, bloggers, and speakers discuss their motivation and vision — yet these depictions turn out to be largely unrepresentative of the busines world as a whole.
Most people, I’ve come to recognize, seem to work not for enlightenment, a higher purpose, or to change the world, but because they enjoy the satisfaction of completing tasks, and getting paid a fair salary for delivering consistently and reliably. They like to work hard and see their efforts recognized and appropriately rewarded.
These “jobbers” – to borrow a term from my youngest daughter — likely represent the silent majority of our workforce; you may be a jobber yourself. Even if, like me, you are not a jobber, there are at least two important facts about jobbers you need to understand.
First: most jobbers have a pretty dim view of the work-as-path-to-self-actualization mindset, a way of thinking jobbers tend to perceive as naïve at best, preposterously self-absorbed at worst. In their view, the goal of work isn’t to entertain, elevate, delight, make a dent in the universe, or enable self-expression — and please don’t waste their time (or yours) thinking it is. True jobbers recognize the right place for ennobling sentiments are mission statements and PR materials; anything beyond that is pure self-indulgence.
Second, these benighted jobbers may actually be incredibly effective at business; as Brooks pointed out, most CEOs are likely jobbers. Jobbers are found in all types of companies, from the large corporate behemoths to the smallest start-ups; a founder might be motivated to come up with a brilliant new idea and change the world, but if she’s smart she might well be sure employee #3 is a jobber who is motivated not by the overarching mission but rather by the satisfaction of applying his existing skills to a novel challenge, and getting the work done.
There may be a generational component to jobbers as well, both because I suspect more people today enter the workforce seeking some form of self-expression, and also because, sadly, many workers who might have at one point harbored grander ambitions let these dreams go as the years passed, sometimes deciding these hopes were foolish, in other cases deciding the aspirations were simply not attainable. The resigned embrace of the jobber life may help alleviate the profound cognitive dissonance that would otherwise be experienced.
In most cases, however – and I still have trouble coming to terms with this observation – it really seems that most people see work as just that – work; no apologies. You show up, you get the job done, you try to do it well, responsibly, on time, collegially – and then you go home.
If you are not a jobber, what you want to believe is that jobbers are responsible for business as usual – they keep businesses running – while you contribute the disruptive thinking, the new ideas, the impactful innovation.
If you are a jobber, you’re more likely to believe that these other people create extra work and extra drama, with little to show for it besides a well-developed sense of entitlement and a smug lexicon replete with phrases such as “delight,” “design,” and “break through walls.”
Granted, this view is a little binary – most of us are probably somewhere in between these extremes.
Does this mean graduates should moderate their ambitions, put their heads down, and just get to work?
Get to work – yes. Put in long hours without expecting immediate rewards – yes. Reign in ambition: not on your life.
Brooks could be right: jobbers may well be responsible for building our industrial future –but not before entrepreneurs imagine it, design it, and break through walls to make it happen.
David Shaywitz is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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