In the Flow of Good Work | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

In the Flow of Good Work


My obsession with the spirituality and science behind "good work" started innocently enough. We were about five years into publishing this newspaper and were working so much that I didn't have time to think about, well, work. I was certainly busy trying to change the world, and our city especially, for the better, but I hadn't considered slowing down to think about what it meant to come to work every day. I was decent at teaching writing and reporting and getting people to work hard, but I hadn't done research into what really makes human beings want to do good work. Or how to help those who want to but are blocked in various ways.

Then one day I got a call from Millsaps professor Raymond Clothier who directs an outfit there called the Lilly Interns and Fellows program. He wanted to send me a fellow--essentially an intern they would pay--who wanted to explore how we do journalism.

Specifically, I would learn, the Lilly Foundation offers Millsaps students (and others around the country) the "opportunity to make connections between academic learning and personal, professional and spiritual growth." The fellows go into workplaces they believe do "good work"--meaning good works in the community in some way--so they can observe it close at hand and then discuss and think about it to explore how it's done.

Yes, I was flattered that anyone would put the JFP in such company. But more importantly, these fellows (I've had a string of them since then, including one who helped create this GOOD Ideas series) taught me to look at work in a more spiritual way. In many ways, the Lilly program changed my life.

For one thing, it made me evolve the way we manage and teach our interns. I copied the reading list from our first Lilly fellow (the fabulous Luke Darby), and I dove into much of it, reading about collective mentoring and using spirituality (not religion necessarily) to make one's work more personally meaningful, and a greater experience for employees, interns, clients and, in our case, readers.

I redesigned my workshops with much more emphasis on conversation and big ideas, and I started asking more questions--the age-old Socratic method of getting students to come up with the answers themselves.

Luke's reading list led me quickly to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (CHICK-sent-me-high) who co-authored (with Howard Gardner and William Damon) a book called "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet" (Basic Books, 2001, $17.50). The book explores the moral and ethical questions behind "good work" in the fields of journalism and genetics--industries that have suffered from ethical lapses and in journalism's case, corporatization that waters down our potential to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable as needed.

That book inspired me and gave me strength to deal with the challenges that inevitably come our way. It addresses media outlets' tendency to water down the truth in deference to advertiser concerns (something we're known for not doing); the fake "objectivity" that keeps good information from getting out; and the lengths many media outlets will go to in order to please politicians. It talks about crime sensationalism and the negative effects bowing to blood thirst inevitably brings to a community.

The book takes a long view of our profession, and others, and calls for us to do the right thing and wait, so to speak (a phrase my partner Todd Stauffer adopted years back to deal with inevitable attacks when we reveal something some "power" would rather we didn't).

Near the end, the authors call for any reader, regardless of profession, to be "good workers"--meaning ethical and focused on the greater good. If invited to write a letter to young workers, they say they would urge revisiting principles behind what's good in specific professions, not to mention the core of their spiritual beliefs. Young workers should seek the support of others who share a higher work purpose. Find allies, on or off the job, or become a social entrepreneur and start your own workplace for "good" (what we did in 2002).

They then write: "But having strong principles and support may not be enough. You will also need a third vital ingredient--the resolve to stick by your principles. Knowing what should be done and having the means to do it are useless without personal commitment. In the last analysis, no one else is responsible for upholding the values of your work. Either you live up to the implicit covenant that justified professional status, or you do not."

They promise that "the joy we derive from doing our best work, according to high standards, is rewarding enough, even if we must sometimes struggle in lonely confusion."

Now, all that may seem like spiritual mumbo-jumbo to many of you, but here's the wrinkle: Turns out it's also science.

Remember that I said above that the Lilly folks turned me onto both the spirituality and the science behind good work? Five years ago, I had no clue what was going on in the world of neuroscience. But the reading path Luke and his fellowship sent me down landed me at the door of discovery that is brain science. Now, I admit that I'm a tad obsessed with it.

When applied to the workplace, recent brain science has revealed so much about how we can work and manage better. My favorite discovery was the concept of "flow," which Csikszentmihalyi discovered some years back and that about every brain-science expert quotes repeatedly. Detailed in his book, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" (HarperPerennial, 1990, $14.99), it's powerfully simple: People are happiest at work and at leisure when we are in "flow"--fully focused on a challenging task at hand, whether playing sports, writing a story or figuring out how to re-organize the dang garage. It is mindfulness on steroids. It also means that we humans cannot effectively multi-task (this includes talking on a cell phone and driving: not safe) and that we will continue to be agitated if we cannot focus completely on the task at hand.

"Flow" is potential work (and leisure) nirvana. Yes, it takes practice, but so does anything worth doing. My suggestion is to turn the phone off, mute the constant email alerts, close your door and allow yourself to sink into whatever you need to do next. And if it's work to make our city and world a kinder, gentler, more compassionate place, all the better.

Also see: The GoodWork Project.
Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's TedTalk: "What Makes A Life Worth Living?"

Previous Comments


As usual with your columns, Donna, what an important, informative, & well-written piece this is! Keep up the good work! Sara Anderson

Sara Anderson

Thanks, Sara. ;-)


Here is a review of "Flow" in Psychology Today; the section on finding flow at work is definitely worth reading: Although adults tend to be less happy than average while working, and their motivation is considerably below normal, ESM studies find more occasions of flow on the job than in free time. This finding is not that surprising: Work is much more like a game than most other things we do during the day. It usually has clear goals and rules of performance. It provides feedback either in the form of knowing that one has finished a job well done, in terms of measurable sales or through an evaluation by one's supervisor. A job tends to encourage concentration and prevent distractions, and ideally, its difficulties match the worker's skills. Nevertheless, if we had the chance most of us would like to work less. One reason is the historical disrepute of work, which each of us learn as we grow up. Yet we can't blame family, society, or history if our work is meaningless, dull, or stressful. Admittedly, there are few options when we realize that our job is useless or actually harmful. Perhaps the only choice is to quit as quickly as possible, even at the cost of severe financial hardship. In terms of the bottom line of one's life, it is always better to do something one feels good about than something that may make us materially comfortable but emotionally miserable. Such decisions are notoriously difficult and require great honesty with oneself. Short of making such a dramatic switch, there are many ways to make one's job produce flow. A supermarket clerk who pays genuine attention to customers, a physician concerned about the total well-being of patients, or a news reporter who considers truth at least as important as sensational interest when writing a story, can transform a routine job into one that makes a difference. Turning a dull jot into one that satisfies our need for novelty and achievement involves paying close attention to each step involved, and then asking: Is this step necessary? Can it be done better, faster, more efficiently? What additional steps could make my contribution more valuable? If, instead of spending a lot of effort trying to cut corners, one spent the same amount of attention trying to find ways to accomplish more on the job, one would enjoy working--more and probably be more successful. When approached without too many cultural prejudices and with a determination to make it personally meaningful, even the most mundane job can produce flow. The same type of approach is needed for solving the problem of stress at work. First, establish priorities among the demands that crowd into consciousness. Successful people often make lists or flowcharts of all the things they have to do, and quickly decide which tasks they can delegate or forget, and which ones they have to tackle personally, and in what order. The next step is to match one's skills with whatever challenges have been identified. There will be tasks we feel incompetent to deal with. Can you learn the skills required in time? Can you get help? Can the task be transformed, or broken into simpler parts? Usually the answer to one of these questions will provide a solution;that transforms a potentially stressful situation into a flow experience. Much more on flow in the article.



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