You Do Good Work

keep-calm-and-keep-up-the-good-workThere is something I’ve been struggling with lately, trying to deal with some major issues of the pressure that comes naturally to a workaholic in high-stress environments. You may have been too; in fact a friend of yours may have sent you a link to this blog for one very important reason that you may have missed somewhere along the way:

You do good work.

It may not seem like it right now. In fact, we seem to live in a world where the predominant paradigm is of pain, where we only feel validated when we actually don’t live up to our own outlandish measures.

Having “The Talk”

For me, it started with a frank conversation with a good friend of mine recently. It was uncomfortable, as I don’t like hearing good things about me – something that should have raised warning signs in and of itself. After months of working my butt off for what seems like little or no recognition or appreciation, he pointed out that I had been looking in the wrong place.

Be-So-Good-Steve-Martin

He told me that what I do matters to a lot of people – people who I may not even know or even have the capability to express appreciation. He told me that my reputation is such that I have become a dependency (in a manner of speaking) for others. He said that whether or not people agree with what I say or write, they at least know that they can count on the motivation and integrity. Most importantly, what I do can make others’ lives easier.

In short, I do good work.

Nevertheless, I’m acutely aware of the perception of people who don’t pull their own weight – those from the participation ribbon generation in particular. I’m sensitive to the notion that in my career I have worked with (as we all do) people who care more about the praise than they do about the actual quality of their work. People who skate by, lazy, driven by the least possible amount of effort and don’t give a damn about whether they give bad information to people who come to them in good faith.

They do not do good work, but they demand their trophy and when they get it, they use it as additional excuse for not doing much of anything else.

Most peoples' 'reward' for doing good work

Most peoples’ ‘reward’ for doing good work

I do what I do not because I want or need the accolades, but because I believe in a quality of work that I must adhere to. It’s part of my identity. It got me thinking about how many people in my area of influence (that goes two ways, I mean, that is those people who influence me) may not know that they, too, are appreciated. I realize that they take the mantle, carry the banner. They make up for the weaknesses of colleagues because it’s the right thing to do.

In short, they do good work.

They, like me, have a sense of respect for the work that they do, as well as for those who rely on them, and that in turn inspires me not to cut corners. It’s just not who I want to be, and I feed off that integrity of others. This isn’t about doing the right thing because of what others do (no, that’s inherent to who I am), but drawn from the strength that I’m not carrying the weight of doing the right thing all alone.

The tyranny of 'enough,' a standard you can never reach

The tyranny of ‘enough,’ a standard you can never reach

Accept the Good

I was stunned when he continued on. We are conditioned to refuse positive feedback, to be humble, not to have a swelled head. If we accept the kudos, don’t we run the risk of being seen like those lazy colleagues? After all, that’s what they do, and if they didn’t earn it, could it be that I didn’t either?

There comes a time, however, that you learn to shut it all out and only accept the negative criticism, the complaints, the fact that what you do is ‘not enough’ (man, how I hate the tyranny of the word enough).

You absorb that negativity into every pore of your being all the while shutting out the good stuff. You do this if you want to improve, if you want to prevent stagnation. You do this because you don’t want to become the arrogant bastard that everyone hates because he’s too ignorant in his own limitations to take stock of his own reality. You keep your head down, chip away at this ever-growing mountain of “to-do’s” on your plate until all it seems you are doing is playing “catch-up,” and failing at that too.

It’s exhausting, and it’s easy to forget just how much you do makes a difference. It may be something small or off-hand. It may be something large but you didn’t get the reaction that you thought you’d get (at first). In the hunter-gatherer world of instant gratification, you can’t see beyond the first few moments and then before you know it it has faded from view and all your effort is forgotten. Except it isn’t.

Because you do good work.

It’s not hunting, it’s farming. Your reputation is built up over time, pedantic seeds sown, weeded, and cultivated for months and years before it can be reaped. You may not even see the ultimate outcome of who gets fed by your efforts, who may appreciate what you have done. They are the invisible fan club that may not want to – or maybe they can’t – tell you how much you’ve impacted them, but that impact is real enough.

Saying it Now

It’s always amazed me how people wait until after someone dies to eulogize them and say all the things they should have said beforehand, when it would have meant something to the person no longer able to accept the gratitude. I don’t want to wait for that, but I see what happens when I try to tell people that I respect just how much good they have done, how much I appreciate their efforts.

They shy away from positive feedback, but – like me – open arms wide and accept any criticism, no matter how slight, and use that as their driving motivation. Ultimately, it is a law of diminishing returns; it may get you moving in the short term, but long-term it is adds more wear and tear on your psychic engine.  It’s always important to remember:

You. Do. Good. Work.

So, if you’re reading this and you see yourself in these words, remember that. If someone sent you this blog to read, it’s for a reason. They’re not just telling you that you do good work, they’re also saying:

Thank you.

thank-you

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4 Comments

  • lcaywood June 23, 2014 at 23:47

    There are a lot of good messages in this post, J, that I suspect many need to hear. If I might embroider on a few:

    – The culture that says don’t accept positive feedback because you’ll get a swelled head–it’s the *result* of one that teaches people in positions of authority not to give it, or always to balance it, to focus on what needs to be “fixed”. We internalize that, and reject praise, or get cynical about the people who do it. Accepting praise is almost a subversive act when you realize that. Maybe giving it, sincerely, is even more so.

    – Sometimes stuff needs to be fixed. Sometimes something’s just good. Americans in particular are very utilitarian and goal-oriented, and we tend not to be able to comment on something that just *is*, in that particular moment, without tying it to how you should use this particular piece of feedback to go improve either yourself or something else. That contributes to the treadmill feeling you describe.

    – Praise is nice, but I find it more interesting, and more valuable, to stop sometimes and examine *what* people praise. Sometimes praise makes us squirm because inside we’re rejecting it as fake or irrelevant–because what’s being praised has more to do with the values of the other person than our own. Maybe we’re frustrated at not being seen for what’s really important (to us), or maybe it’s the social discomfort of trying to appear appreciative of something we’ve rejected, who knows. But if there’s a consistent theme that emerges–just as with criticism–I’ve occasionally found it enlightening to reconsider what others are seeing that I myself have been unaware of. It can even lead to taking a road less traveled by. =)

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz June 24, 2014 at 06:20

      I agree wholeheartedly to all your points, Lisa. I’m trying to learn how to be brief(er) in my blogs, so I avoided the “why” element – perhaps a bit much. I’m glad that you were able to add it in here, though. 🙂

      I struggled with this blog for a long time because I didn’t want to refer to “false praise” or “false modesty,” two elements that are highly culturally motivated (as you point out). Living in England for as long as I have both of these elements are rife in that culture, for instance. Instead, I really wanted to refer to the fact that some times, as workaholics who feel as if we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders from time to time (at the risk of indulging in self-pity, which is a natural criticism of a piece like this), we forget that we actually do affect the lives of others in positive ways.

      To that end, then, it’s not so much about the praise (or need for it), but rather the re-calibration of our own sense of value. Sometimes we need to know that what we do, the effort we put in, means something to others even if we can’t see it. 🙂

      None of this, of course, negates what you’ve written. As I said, I completely agree with everything you wrote. 🙂

      Reply
  • Greg Schulz (@storageio) June 27, 2014 at 15:01

    Great post and perspectives Jay, and, thank you for a job well don, atta boy! 😉

    Reply
  • Shaking Hands with Steve Wozniak | J Metz's Blog August 11, 2014 at 06:38

    […] It was a time in my life when I needed that. I needed that reinforcement that not only could someone like me be successful, but also celebrated, drove everything I wanted to do. It heavily influenced my teaching style, for instance, as I strove to counter some of the soul-crushing, creativity-eradicating methods of other professors. It’s what underlies my attempts to do good work. […]

    Reply

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