Don Rogers: Why do we do what we do?
When it feels like work, maybe that’s a sign.
I’m puzzling this through, considering my job, the best, the worst of jobs. By which I mean the most interesting of jobs, full of wisdom, foolishness, hope, despair.
Kind of like these times: Transformative. Which is to say, very exciting, deeply frightening. Fire and ice and wind serve now as symbols beyond the go-bags, snow shovels and broken umbrellas.
But at least in the context of careers, I’m far more grateful than frightened. Not many people get to just fall into journalism late as I did, or as inexperienced and ill educated, quite literally fresh out of the woods and unable even to type properly.
Never doubt our adaptive, inventive nature. I think that’s the main lesson. Humans are amazing creatures. I’m so glad to be one, here, now.
Never doubt the value of obsession, either. The research into what satisfies in the workplace gives short shrift to obsession. It’s all autonomy, mastery and greater purpose in the white papers and books, the TED talks and consultations.
All very nice, and I agree with these concepts. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Right on.
Only, I get this feeling of choirs singing while colleagues hold hands in awe of great rainbows as they magically sail forth into wonderful, effortless successes that just sort of happen because they had the grand vision and genius to dream them up.
True maybe at happy hour. The workplaces I know, at least the ones where stuff actually gets done, have always been, well, grittier. You don’t build muscle just longing for the sea or whatever. This is going to hurt. Time to get busy. Bear down.
“Grit,” by Stanford psychology Professor Angela Duckworth, is more like it. Forget the SAT scores, the helicopter mom upbringing, the carefully cultivated extracurriculars, the recommendations from friendly congresspersons. The best indicator of success at West Point is grit, good ol’ grit.
This resonates with me and people like me, stubborn, independent spirits who I would dare say do not impress as the smartest person in the room, any room. Life unspooled a different way for us.
Oh, I wanted the patrons in the bars I tended to have the time of their lives, fires I fought to be out, and today our community to be as wise and knowledgeable and thriving as the paper and online service we provide can help us all become.
But none of this has ever been at the root of my quests, quixotic and thoroughly self-absorbed. The core for me was pursuing excellence in some of the least promising environments.
Newsrooms and fires and popular bars have chaos in common. Each can roar with no end to the demands and no time to meet them. In such moments, you can only go for the sweet spot, getting the most done in the best way.
Think surfing overhead and higher. There’s the balance among the crashing swells, and the thrill when you pull it off, the fear you can’t. That you’re in too deep this time for sure. Now what? Dig hard. Stand up. Try.
I never yearned for the sea. No, I fought for the eye of the hurricane, that pristine place of pure flow, true focus. To do precisely what I believed I could not possibly.
Anything short of that was work.
My soul is tied to the newsroom, though I’m no longer in it. Now I’m answerable as well to sales, circulation, finance, operations.
I came to this job declaring for decades I’d never be dumb enough, the role surely as good a definition as any for misery. Old friends still laugh at me, 10 years in now as a publisher.
Maybe the bright sheen, the cutting edge, as editor — after my fourth posting — had begun to dull. I don’t believe so. But looking back, autonomy, mastery and purpose perhaps weren’t quite enough.
I told myself, and everyone around me, I only answered a call to help during a recession, never dreaming it would last this long. Or that I’d engage with it so. There was the surprise of my life.
I needed fear, stark fear, the whole swirl, the form of Chaos that leads to creation because there is no other choice. If so, I found it all right.
Anything to get out of work.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.