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When it Feels Like Work

Posted 11/04/2014 by Stacey Cornelius

I’ve spent the past several months communing with construction materials. During that time I’ve had the opportunity to carefully examine the concept as well as the bruising reality of work.

The concept has proven more difficult.

A dozen years ago, at another house and during another renovation, I was feeling overwhelmed and said I needed more help from my partner. The reply: “But he works!”

I was momentarily taken aback, then realized where the answer came from. This was someone who believed “work” means leaving home at an appointed time, punching a time clock, having a boss, a steady paycheque, and more often than not, praying for Friday and dreading Monday, week after week. In that narrow view, nothing else qualifies.

It was a culture clash. I was talking to the wrong person.

But as the current project dragged on, I found myself struggling against that mindset.

As the project got bigger and more complicated, I began to question the value of how I spent my time. It wasn’t just the physical effort, but considerable mental exertion: demolish, clean up, measure, cut, fit, curse, trim, refit, repeat, while being careful not to test the laws of gravity. When I wasn’t in the middle of it, I worried about it.

At the end of a long day when there was only another day of the same to look forward to, it felt like nothing I did was worthwhile. The Sisyphean slope was clad in shingles, and I began to look at what I was doing from the outside in. I looked at the person financing the whole thing, and started resenting that he had work and I had… whatever the hell I was doing.

The math made sense: the cost would have been far more than I could earn in the time it would take to have someone else complete the job. We were saving thousands of dollars. So no money in, but much less going out. We had all the required skills in-house. It was a smart decision, but smart decisions don’t always offer consolation.

It was only after I remembered that long-ago conversation that I finally figured out what was really missing.

Money would have been great. But that wasn’t the problem. Anyone who’s been in a job they hate know money doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Most of us need more than money to make work worthwhile.

Applause would have been nice, too, but that can become addictive. Anyone who watches social media can see the dangers of mainlining attention. It’s fine when it’s happening, but when it goes away, things can get ugly. I didn’t want praise. I wanted a shower, a good meal brought to me on a silver platter and a serious vacation on a beach.

It wasn’t about external validation of any kind.

The thing that was missing wasn’t about work. It was satisfaction.

I was so focused on the urgency of the project, and what could happen if I made mistakes, I forgot that. I forgot I’m project-oriented. I need to see results. A big, complicated job is agony without them. This one had long stretches of prep work before anything could be completed. It took a skewed perception of what work is to snap me back into taking a critical look at not just what I was doing, but how I was doing it.

Is money important? Of course. Do I enjoy it when someone appreciates what I do? Definitely. But without that sense of satisfaction, work just becomes another four-letter word.

Creative Commons image credit: Wendell