Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

It’s been a month since I last posted, and that’s because it’s been a busy time for Funshop. We tested a new survey, and I’ve worked a lot on making fun surveys a successful product. I believe it’s revolutionary (have you ever had fun taking a survey?), and we’re out to prove it. But here’s a month’s worth of Fun Thoughts in one long post:

Why Fun Work is Being a Hero in Your Story

. . . and how to make cleaning the toilets fun.

You want fun work. If you don’t think so, turn it around. Do you want work that’s no fun? Are you more productive when you’re having fun working, or when you’re not?

Our paradigm for fun work is a story. Fun work has characters with individual and necessary roles, goals to strive for, obstacles to overcome, accomplishments (and failures, if you take our advice) to celebrate, plot twists, and sometimes a surprise ending.

One important insight of the story paradigm is that fun work is meaningful. Fun work has meaning that motivates and makes you part of a greater community, just as stories are driven by the meaning that supports the plotline. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings works to destroy the Ring of Power – is there something meaningful driving your work?

For many of us, the complexity and dissociation of the modern corporate world has separated us from the deeper meaning of our professional lives. Your duty is to higher productivity, greater efficiency, zero errors, or a similar abstraction. Monthly progress meetings are no substitute for meaningful work, for a plotline that features you in a starring role.

However, it’s hard to see a path to meaning when your work is finishing this month’s TP reports by Monday (nod to Office Space) or cleaning the toilets. How do you make the mercilessly mundane meaningful?

Let me tell you a story.

The Woman Who Got Lost in the (Middle) Distance

Once upon a time . . .

. . . there was a woman walking through the foothills toward a mountain pass. Beyond the pass there was a beautiful lodge, where she expected to spend the evening having cocktails while soaking in the outdoor jacuzzi.

It was mid-morning under a hot sun, and the woman struggled up a steep slope to the crest of a ridgeline. She was almost on hands-and-knees until she noticed an easier path leading around a boulder, giving her a chance to hike normally. As she climbed, all around her tiny golden flowers were blooming in the short turf, and she stopped a moment to catch her breath and admire them.

As she neared the top, she could see another line of foothills ahead. The hills on the left were higher than those to the right, and she assumed that the path would lead her over the easier slopes.

As she proceeded over the crest and down, she saw what appeared to be the path, as expected, cutting across the foothills to her right. Suddenly she tripped over a stone, hitting her knee on a boulder as she fell. Her pants were ripped, and she had to stop to clean and bandage the cuts on her knee. Luckily, though stiff, she could still walk.

She stepped carefully down the slope, looking ahead to the path across the next foothill. When she looked down, the path she followed had dwindled to a meager trail. Still believing that the path led over the hills to the right, she hiked on, angling towards its beginning in the valley below.

When she reached the bottom of the hill, even the meager trail had disappeared, and what she’d believed was the path up the rightward foothhill was revealed to be a dry streambed, a gully filled with jagged boulders.   She could no longer see the mountain pass , or any trace of a path – and, high above her, gray clouds had appeared, moving swiftly on a freshening breeze.

The Middle-Distance Fantasy

. . . and how it kills your story (and the fun).

I tell you this story to illustrate the middle-distance fantasy. It’s a common fallacy that can keep us from finding meaning in our work – and, when addressed, gives us a method to find the path to meaning again.

In my career as a academic researcher, the middle-distance fantasy was the rule. While our work had profound meaning – my group did research on the mechanism of action of glucocorticoid hormones, with huge potential benefits for the many patients with diseases treated with synthetic versions of these molecules – that meaning was obscured behind the middle distance goals of publishing manuscripts and successfully applying for grant funding.

Just as in my story of the woman hiking in the foothills, both our day-to-day research and the greater meaning behind it was lost in the quest for middle-distance objectives. And those objectives, like the trail across the rightward foothill, were always fantasies! Of course we produced manuscripts and grants, but they never turned out the way we’d planned. An experiment we expected to work one way gave an entirely unexpected result, or a tool we needed wasn’t available or didn’t work. We ended up on the equivalent of the higher leftward foothill, following a path we’d never expected to take.

And pursuing middle-distance fantasies often led us to the same sort of disaster that the woman in my story experienced. Lost, in danger, and with no guide to moving forward. I saw it again and again – results that were bent to support a fantasy hypothesis, or discarded because they didn’t. Alternative approaches to the same problem taken despite clear evidence that the original approach led nowhere. Countless hours and dollars spent in pursuit of a mirage.

The lesson from my experience is not rocket science, and perhaps that’s why it’s so often ignored in favor of more sophisticated (and less effective) approaches. The lesson is to keep your eyes on your feet and on the destination, and to largely ignore the middle distance.

I’ve illustrated this metaphorically in my story, where the woman scrabbling on hands-and-knees finds a shortcut to the top of the hill. Keeping your eyes on the trail keeps you in the present, aware of the opportunities that pop up right in front of you. In case you missed it in your education, the present is the only time that exists. The past is dead, and the future is a fantasy. Don’t let your focus on the middle distance blind you to the shortcuts, or keep you going right when the trail turns to the left.

Keeping your eyes on your footing also gives you a series of little victories, short-term and immediate accomplishments that are essential to morale and motivation. Waiting until you climb a whole mountain to celebrate makes the climb difficult and daunting, as each step or little slope climbed is only a miniscule fraction of the whole.

And those little victories include the victory that is being alive in a beautiful world. The woman in my story never noticed the beauty around her after she took her eyes off her immediate surroundings, and that’s true for us too, no matter what setting we’re in. Most of us spend almost all our time in comfortable settings surrounded by beauty – how often do you notice them on your way to work, much less at work? Eyes on the trail means you see the trail.

Your destination is in the far future, and so it’s a fantasy. You may never get there. If you do, no one may care. However, unlike the middle-distance fantasy, it gives your life meaning, and even failing to get to your dream is a victory. You tried, and the goal was important enough that it kept you moving in a positive direction. That’s a win.

And you never know whether your failure may later turn into a victory. History is filled with people whose accomplishments were laughed at during their lives, only to be recognized later as fundamental. That’s another reason to both pursue the fantasy of a destination and to celebrate failure. I’ll discuss celebrating failure and its important role in fun work in another post.

We can’t avoid looking into the middle distance. But we can recognize it for what it is, rather than puffing it up into something it isn’t. Building a successful company is real – meeting a quarterly budget target as a means to that end is almost always a fantasy.

The middle distance is actually most useful in the negative. Pausing in your hike to check the weather may save you from a soaking, or hypothermia. Pausing in your day-to-day work to reassess may show you’re on the wrong path, and help you find another. But spending too much time with your eyes away from the task at hand or the prize you are working for is likely to lead to wasted effort, low morale, and even disaster.

How do you make cleaning toilets fun?

. . . it’s spelled out in a song by Otis Redding.

How does all this sophomoric-sounding philosophy help us with fun work? With making cleaning the toilets, or the equivalent, fun?

Let’s call the work we doubt will be fun cleaning the toilets. You (even if you’re a custodian) likely see toilet cleaning as the bottom rung on the ladder, the most menial of menial labor. From our story example, in order to make it fun you need to keep your eyes on the work at hand and on the prize.

There’s a seeming paradox that lurks in the gulf between you cleaning a toilet and you as Superman, flying through the skies in pursuit of lofty goals. The Fun Paradox here is that it’s actually easier to give greater meaning to a custodian’s job than to Superman. A custodian is starved for meaning (or for quitting time so he can go home), while Superman is filled to the top and probably overflowing. Superman’s life is all about meaning, and the slightest slip is catastrophic. The custodians have probably given up on meaningful work, and punch the clock so they can find meaning in the outside world.

How do you give meaning to toilet cleaning? You could hire Superman, who probably assumes his alter ego as mild-mannered Clark Kent to get away from all the respect and meaning he’s normally burdened with. Failing a superhero hire, you must give toilet cleaning respect. As in R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

How do you feel when you enter a stall and the toilet has – poop particles? Is that meaningful? How much would it affect your day-to-day experience at work? Your respect for your workplace? How would the star recruit feel when she stopped off between interviews to use the restroom? You don’t think of the importance of clean bathrooms until they aren’t – or until they’re exceptionally nice.

One of the custodians at the research institute I worked at brought in a large dried-flower arrangement in a tall, attractive vase, and a wicker basket filled with towels and bars of herbal soap. This was a men’s restroom, remember. This little gesture had a significant effect on how I felt about my workplace, and my work. It was a big gesture. A demonstration of how focusing on the immediate can build greater meaning.

Greater meaning is a result of the three R’s:  recognition, respect, and reward. In the case of the custodian, toiling away cleaning toilets, we typically fail on all three. Custodial work is rarely recognized, except in the negative, and thus is hardly respected and meagerly rewarded. How can you give meaning to toilet cleaning without paying the custodians huge salaries and convening feel-good meetings where false smiles and forced applause ‘recognize’ the their accomplishments?

First, please tear those plexiglas panels off the back of the restroom doors, the ones that hold a (usually outdated) calendar of boxes to be checked to confirm that the custodians, well, checked the boxes. These devices stifle and reduce meaning to the lowest possible denominator – checking off boxes. Can you imagine going home to tell the story of how proud you are to have checked every box right on time all week?

Next, set the current standards as a baseline, a given. And make that given a real priority in your organization. Falling below the baseline should be an emergency. An alarm should sound, and tangible measures should be taken immediately to solve the problem.

As part of that, give the people who do the work both the authority and the responsibility for meeting the baseline and for monitoring. They should be responsible for sounding the alarm if necessary, and central to deciding how to solve the problem.

And that autonomy should be harnessed to exceed the baseline. Not by top-down plans and demands, but by giving the front-line workers the authority to change, improve, and innovate. Does glass cleaner work just as well on porcelain as a stronger, more toxic toilet cleaner? Does a jury-rigged sponge on a stick work better than a mop to clean floors? What is the quickest way to clean a urinal without an increase in microbe counts? What would make people who use this restroom happier?

Recognize the importance of the tasks, and support and encourage efforts to change, improve, and innovate. Give inexpensive digital cameras to custodians, and time for them to take pictures in the area that illustrate other organization’s innovations, and time to discuss how to incorporate them into their own work. Distribute an occasional survey to other staff, and have them rate the work of the custodians on their floor. Have custodians from one floor rate the work on another. Limit the critiques to compliments only. Remember, dropping below the baseline is an emergency.

How about partnering with a research group to study cleaning effectiveness? Microbe counts, levels of toxic cleaning residues, effectiveness studies of alternative cleaners. Treat your custodians with the same respect you’d give a famous scientist, and they may become famous scientists. Your organization could be famous and build a new revenue stream – from the work of your custodians.

And even if you don’t, your workplace will be cleaner, more attractive, and your custodians will have stories to take home. Meaningful stories that build pride in their work and motivation to do better tomorrow. Because their work will be more fun.

The Bottom Line of Fun . . .

. . . isn’t.

I use that phrase (‘the bottom line’) because it’s familiar, but I dislike the image it brings to mind. In my work, which is fun (in both senses), I’m not concerned about the bottom line. The bottom line, the cash in hand, the outcome – they all derive from the top. The meaning. The passion. The fun. Fun isn’t the bottom line, it’s the whole picture. When your crew is having fun – all of you, from CEO to custodian, worker bee to top-level manager – your organization is rockin’. There’s no need to measure other metrics.

The nature of my work has mixed meaningful and fun. The meaning of my work is fun. Fun is the reason I get out of bed, the metric I measure my work by, the goal I aspire to professionally and personally. I’m biased by the nature of my work, but I believe that fun may be the unrecognized Meaning of Life. What do you work so hard for?

In this post I’ve emphasized the importance of story to making work fun. One of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, wrote that corporations have stolen all of our good stories. In a properly functioning corporate world, the good stories are all gathered up by the corporation and turned into the quarterly budget, the production target, the efficiency mark. No one goes home to tell the spouse and kids about meeting the quarterly budget target.

In this world, we go home and tell the bad stories. The story of Steve spilling his latte into the copier, or how the IT people screwed up email. We hunger for meaning in our lives, and we’re left with the dregs.

But even corporations have discovered that this doesn’t work. Not in the new world where innovation isn’t optional, where staying one step ahead means getting the best from your people. Even Microsoft is discovering that no fun means bad business.

I’ve told you how we would approach making something as mundane and beneath our notice as cleaning toilets fun. Not by adding foosball tables for the custodians, or painting their break room in bright primary colors. By making the work itself fun.

I’ve mixed up story and the middle distance fantasy. I did it because the middle distance fantasy is a story (and fun) killer. The concepts behind the middle-distance fantasy seem obvious, but examine your own work and tell me you’ve taken them to heart. If you think I’m making too much of the fantasy, tell me how many of your six-month (or six-week, or six-day) plans came off the way you expected – versus how many went straight off the rails.

In the end, story is a unifying principle for fun work. At Funshop, we measure fun by gathering people’s stories. We know we’re succeeding when they take home good ones. We market our business when those good stories spread.

When was the last time you took home a good story from work?


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