“This is brain-dead stuff,” my manager said, in an attempt to convince me the work I’d been assigned was easy.
“Great,” I replied, with less enthusiasm than he’d been hoping for.
Though the incident happened at least 15 years ago in a galaxy far, far outside this industry, I have never forgotten those words. And, of course, it wasn’t because they had their intended effect.
“Why am I wasting my time doing work that does not require a brain?” I asked myself. After being unable to arrive at an acceptable answer, I promptly began investigating graduate schools for journalism.
I got to thinking about the idea of mis- or underutilization while listening to Robert Caro’s, “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” the second installment in his seminal series on that president. Johnson’s life, more than any other I’ve studied, takes the form of a roller coaster ride, with amazing highs and lows of power. While “Master of the Senate,” he was, of course, on top. While Vice President under a man (John F. Kennedy) who had little use for him after the election, he fell to the depths of underutilization and, thus, despair.
It’s amazing how having little of the “right” things to do can cause more profound exhaustion than the most extreme exertions. And what are the “right” things ? They are those that most fully call upon our unique mix of talents.
When Johnson assumed the office of president after Kennedy’s assassination, his transformation from lethargy to intensity was palpable to all those who’d observed him before and after. After becoming president, he had no shortage of very important things to do that he was amazingly good at, that he was the best at. The author makes clear that Kennedy’s lack of understanding about the nuances of Senate power meant both his tax cut and civil rights bills would wither and die on the legislative vine, just as opponents wanted.
But Johnson, Caro’s “Master,” immediately grasped where things stood and within two weeks pushed and pulled the right levers (ethics aside) to get the bills moving again. Intention and vision, one learns, are not enough to make things happen. One must also grasp the operational and systemic processes of power. In this case, those processes dealt with the easily derailed path of bills moving from subcommittees to committees, then full houses of Congress. Johnson knew all this, was, in fact, better at making these processes work as he wished than anyone in history.
From being almost completely excluded from the meaningful workings of government under Kennedy to being suddenly in charge of them, it’s as if Kennedy’s death gave him a completely new lease on life. In fact, right before the assassination — while floundering in the political wilderness, ironically, a heartbeat from the pinnacle of power — Johnson told one of his staffers to go ahead and take a job working for one his political friends in Texas. “You go ahead and take it,” he said. “I’m dead.”
As Johnson’s case proves, and as my experience confirms, one’s physical and emotional well being are not impacted by the amount of work we are doing, per se, but the type — does it or does it not engage us on the most profound level? If it does, no amount of effort will exhaust us, for we leave work with a feeling of satisfaction bordering on the sublime, and our sleep is that rarefied rest of the contended. If it does not, the slightest efforts drain us to the very core. We look back on a day in which we’ve done nothing, and shudder at having to do it again tomorrow.
If you have the former kind engagement in your work, relish it; if not, seek it. As managers, look to better match your employees with the tasks and projects that will require of them all they have to give — for lifting someone from the wrong work to the right, is akin to giving them new life.