I once listened to a Professor of Public Philosophy talk about work.
The whole idea of work is very poorly defined, she said. What exactly is it and how can we tell when we’re doing it?
Work has a few characteristics. First – it’s something we have to do, rather than something we want to do. In other words, there is a reason for doing it and we’re not just playing.
Then, it’s something that we do in exchange for money. If there is no money involved, it’s something other than work.
You may agree or disagree with her definitions and my memory may not be exact – but she said something else that was interesting.
Do you work for the sake of the work you do, or do you work for money?
Some people love what they do – they feel involved and committed and would do it even if they weren’t paid. Although they would then need to do some other work to actually get paid…
But others work for the money, or so they say. What do they want out of work?
Well, the Professor said, if you work for money, then before you can ask what you want out of work, you have to ask what you want out of money.
What is it that money gives you? Is it the ability to go on holiday? To buy nice things? Are you ok working at a job you dislike for the money that gives you the things you want out of money?
But that isn’t really the focus of this piece.
For many of us, we don’t work for money, and we don’t have the perfect job that we would do for free. So what is it we want?
One of the things we crave is mastery. The others, according to Daniel Pink, are autonomy and purpose.
So, how do we achieve mastery?
The author Robert Greene has written a book on the topic and, in this interview, sets out some of his ideas on the topic.
The place to start is with deliberate practice. As Zig Ziglar said, you don’t wander about and find yourself at the top of Mount Everest.
Whatever you do – sport, business, writing – the way to get better is to practice. And that practice needs to be deliberate, breaking down everything you need to do and working to improve each part.
But how do you know what to do?
You need to become a learning machine. There is information out there on everything. There are books, experts, resources.
The question is whether you have a system to take all this knowledge and process it, analyze it and internalise it. Make it your own.
There is a second part to doing anything. It’s easier to do something when you have a deep connection.
If you’ve entered a profession because your parents wanted you do but really don’t like it at all, you can end up living a life that doesn’t fulfil you.
It’s better to work on something that interests you, something that truly makes you happy.
Or you can settle for being happy by taking the money and doing fun stuff. Your choice really.
But how do you stand out?
Some people do that by knowing more and more about less and less. Academics can fall into this trap, where they know everything about something two other people in the world care about.
That’s great from a knowledge point of view – but don’t expect to get rich that way.
A better option is to combine two or three skills and create a niche that no one else is doing.
Scott Adams writes about this. He says he was an average cartoonist, an average storyteller and knew a little about engineering.
When he put all three together, he created one of the most loved comics in the world.
But it also takes time to get started.
We need to be grounded in reality. Realise that when we start we are an unknown, a small cog in a big machine.
We need to pay our dues, do the grunt work needed to be known and trusted enough to be given responsibility and chances.
That’s an apprenticeship we need to go through on the route to mastery.
And along the way we will meet people.
If we can maintain good relations with them, we are more likely to prosper.
We’ll find colleagues who will support and teach us, friends who will be there for us and mentors who will pull us up.
As the saying goes, your network is your net worth.
And what happens at the end of all of this?
At some point, you are so good at something that it’s self sustaining.
You work on something you love, get better every day, work with people you like, admire and trust and make a good living.
You’ve achieved mastery.