What great work is:
We’ve all seen it, these beautiful finished products. Articles of clothing that fit beautifully; fall beautifully. Films and books that stir emotions. Beautiful design; beautiful engineering; a beautiful solution. Products that inspire cult followings.
If corners are cut at all, they are dodging outside process or policies. In the craftsmanship itself, there is a very deliberate attention to detail and design.
Who can do great work:
It should be noted that beautiful work is not something to be achieved only by the world’s geniuses . Every individual is capable of finding and doing something that inspires him or her to create beautiful things into the world. “Man is counted a rational animal, capable of seeking and defining the good life and achieving it.”
The exception, really, is not in our own ability to yield beauty, but rather our confidence in finding those areas of work… and then our success in defending those spaces.
What it looks like when great work is being done:
You can tell, even as an outsider, when something is in the process of being done well. You can tell by the way a person approaches their work, by their energy and attentiveness, even in the way they talk about it – or, really, in the way the don’t.
“Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.” – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Author Robert Pirsig talks of visiting a welder to have a replacement part made for his motorcycle:
“When I show it to him he nods and slowly goes over and sets the regulators for his gas torch. Then he looks at the tip and selects another one. Absolutely no hurry. He picks up a steel filler rod and I wonder if he’s actually going to try to weld that thin metal. Sheet metal I don’t weld. I braze it with a brass rod. When I try to weld it I punch holes in it and then have to patch them up with huge blobs of filler rod. ‘Aren’t you going to braze it?’ I ask. ‘No,’ he says. Talkative fellow. He sparks the torch, and sets a tiny little blue flame and then, it’s hard to describe, actually dances the torch and the rod in separate little rhythms over the thin sheet metal, the whole spot a uniform luminous orange-yellow, dropping the torch and filler rod down at the exact right moment and then removing them. No holes. You can hardly see the weld. ‘That’s beautiful,’ I say.” – Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The work is unhurried. It progresses as though a “dance;” something nearly unseen to the outsider and even harder to describe. And, at the end, of it, something undeniably beautiful. And the whole time, a craftsman consumed by the work.
In short? “A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristics of Quality.”
What it feels like to do great work:
I look back on my own best work and try to capture what it was that it was that set it apart. Thinking about it, there seem to be commonalities.
At the start, first coming upon the task, it feels as though I approach a mound of raw material; something both heavy and solid while also shapeable; malleable – something like wet sand or maybe clay. This material feels… consumable. It will yield to my effort eventually. That initial touch, that first contact, may only hit the surface at first, but I know that with repeated strikes, I’ll start to feel and morph the real meat of the thing. You know going in that you can do so much with it. And the thing “feels” as though it has proportions as well: bigger and taller than I am, but not so big I can’t get my arms around – across – one face of it. (The significance of these dimensions and the anticipation of the way the material will yield, in relation to my own body, are probably important.)
During the work itself: energy seems limitless – I can sleep for just a few hours a night for days, even weeks, on end and still be energized to get up at 5:30 to work again. In the midst of it, nothing else matters. I lose track of the hours (literally, I don’t log time), and during the work itself, no task seems too big or too small to tackle to get it done.
Pirsig calls the mentality, in the moment of doing good work, “peace of mind,” saying: “Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial to technical work. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good work and that which destroys it is bad work. The specs, the measuring instruments, the quality control the final check-out, these are all means toward the end of satisfying the peace of mind of those responsible for the work. What really counts in the end is their peace of mind, nothing else… The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and ito be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”
“I say inner peace of mind. It has no direct relationship to external circumstances.” It is, in other words, strictly intrinsic motivation, and no shred of this belongs to the extrinsic world. Extrinsic motivators and measurement have no jurisdiction here.
He also calls it “being with it,” “being a natural.” Others have called it “being in the zone.” Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, calls it “Flow” – the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, the feeling is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
“When one isn’t dominated by feelings of separateness from what he’s working on, then one can be said to ‘care’ about what he’s doing… an identification with what one’s doing… The material and the craftsman’s thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant their material is right.” – Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
And at the end of it, when the finish product is out there, it is marked by two very strong feelings: a.) That it is an extension of you. Even as you’re letting it go into the world, it still feels like a real part of your being – very much, I would imagine, like watching a child go off to school. b.) Looking back on the process, what happened can never really be described to an outsider. If they were there – really there, in the trenches – then they already get it. If they weren’t, they never will.
Mediocre or poor work:
Ha. We probably all already know what this feels like. It’s the stuff of working world jokes – the stuff we take at face value and assume “that’s the way it has to be.” Mondays are draining, our commutes are horrible, we always feel tired. We drag our feet on the work itself, and almost any obstacle is enough to give up. “Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.”
This is how it looks superficially. At a deeper level, is something more: The work is treated as something that you leave at the end of the work day, that exists separate from you. You are the subject – the one who is “doing” – and the work is merely an object – the thing to which the doing is done.
Robert Pirsig discusses this, within the framework of motorcycle maintenance, saying, “This eternally dualistic subject-object way of approaching the motorcycle sounds right to us because we’re used to it. But it’s not right. it’s always been an artificial interpretation superimposed on reality. It’s never been reality itself. When this duality is completely accepted a certain nondivided relationship between the mechanic and motorcycle, a craftsmanlife feeling for the work, is destroyed. When traditional rationality divides the world into subjects and objects it shuts out Quality.”
In doing mediocre work and in mediocre work environments, we are permitted – even encouraged – to only pick up our work or set it down or to never really touch it at all. Having to “come back to” the work each morning is the default; the risk of not even really coming back for it very real.
This is the deeper level – this feeling of being “away” from the work; that you are working at arm’s length – or rather, that the work is arm’s length from you. The feeling that you do not have your hand on it, let alone that you’re pressed up against it or submerged into its core or it into your own.
Risks to great work:
There are two big categories, one superficial and one more significant.
Level I – superficial:
The craftsman has the motivation to do the work well, but external factors are challenging his or her ability to do so. Lighting is poor, fatigue encroaches, timing or budget restrictions limit what he or she can give. Or, perhaps one of the most critical: poor managers strip morale.
Level II – significant:
The second, however: the craftsman is losing or no longer has the motivation to do the work well. “When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.”
How to foster the motivation to do good work:
1. Find work that drives you and you are compelled to do well.
2. Defend that at all costs.
1. Find team members that are driven and passionate; who love what they do and want to do it well.
2. Defend them at all costs.
In short? Whether we’re motivating ourselves or managing others, the steps are really fundamentally the same: Find it. Protect it.
In ourselves: Chase engagement. Pursue what energizes you, what makes it easy to work through the night and again the next morning on just a few hours sleep. Find something that feels embedded in your body; something you’d do even if stripped of your pay. Chase what feels easy to throw yourself against. “Cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings,” and then avoid and defend yourself against anything that drains your enthusiasm for doing it.
In others: When we are entrusted with others’ morale, especially when they come into it already bearing the motivation to yield beautiful finished products, we must take this role seriously. And absorb that “the state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or love. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” – Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program. There is no structure or process that will fabricate good work out of thin air, if the team members themselves have been broken. The manager’s job is not to build and tether them to a structure of working, to force-feed project plans and prescribed methodologies, but rather nourish a love for the work itself.
What this means for the manager:
Beautiful work is beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at thing that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They do it for the love of the product – or the work itself. They see the work as an extension of their very being, not something they are trying to finish and rid themselves of.
So, it should go without saying but shall be said anyway: great workers do great work without the influence of artificial, extrinsic motivators. They don’t do it for the promise of reward – badges or bonuses or sticker-stars – and they also don’t do it out of fear of repercussions. In fact, most things outside of themselves, good or bad, go largely unnoticed; merely noise beyond the work.
Many people want to good work. In fact, there are people who bring it to work already. And you really have to do as a manager is do absolutely everything within your capacity to protect them from the threat of anything that may compromise or do harm to it. If the perspective to value good work is there, maintain it. If it’s not, inspiring that intrinsic perspective is far more valuable than any extrinsic reward / repercussion model.
“Values is the predecessor of structure.” Motivate the team and manager their morale, rather than the specifics of their work or the way they do it. Focus your attention on the “what” – the goal; the objective – and nourish the morale to get there. Focus less attention on forcing them to follow through. When a team is doing good work, “there’s a kind of inner peace of mind that isn’t contrived but results from a kind of harmony with the work in which there’s no leader and no follower.” – Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
If we are going to make improvements and make things better – even if “all” we aspire to do is improve the dynamic of a single company, or a single department, or a single product – the way to do it is not with talk about “subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do.” It’s about finding or inspiring teams to embrace the work as extensions of themselves.
Running teams is not about tasking. Building programs is not about finding ways to force them to work.
“Programs… are important end products… that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Programs, in other words, are not built as a means to an end. They can never be seen, nor expected to succeed, as contrived structures in which team morale and productivity can be forced. On the contrary, they are the natural, organic, utterly unavoidable end result of a team morale well-managed and nourished. They are mere evidence of an effective team of individuals treated well.
And so for the manager, the responsibility is twofold: not only to cultivate this care and compassion in ourselves (and our own hearts and heads and hands), but to also ensure that we protect and nourish and foster the hearts and heads and hands of the team. At all costs.
A note on challenge:
Note that not all challenges are draining. On the contrary, the worthwhile challenges are fueling – and an important ingredient of finding flow and yielding great work. These are the challenges we should pursue.
(I actually think that there’s another metric missing here… “desire,” perhaps, or “passion” – some level of intrigue toward this task specifically, above others, which causes engagement. After all, just because a person can do something, and just because it might be sufficiently challenging, doesn’t mean that doing it will generate flow.)
When to know you’re close – or when you’ve nailed it:
In short, you know. You know without anyone even telling you – in fact, you don’t have to hear it from anybody, and in fact the words of those who do try to commend you on your efforts seem to fall short; flat. Though they often mean well, but they’ll never fully get it.
The making of something worthwhile is really the making of yourself. The final product isn’t separate from the rest of your existence – it is an extension of you. You suddenly have a very real, very deep realization – an understanding – “of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.”