Recently, I had the misfortune to have to do some work behind a knee wall in my converted attic. It’s less than three feet (~ 0.9m) tall and not all that wide. I’m about 5’10” (1.8m) so to work in there, I have to spend the entire time crouched down. To get anywhere, you either crawl on your hands and knees or duckwalk. It’s all very claustrophobic and very exhausting.
I didn’t even do much: most of my time was spent watching someone else do the work while I passed tools and kept an eye out for bats and wildly hungry squirrels. (Things have died in there before.) And I was still exhausted. Just being in there, hunkering down, made me tired. When I got out for a break after a couple of hours, I found that I couldn’t straighten out. I had to work up to it.
I had a similar experience when I went to visit my nephews several years ago. They had a little crawl space room where they played, an indoor fort of sorts. “S’uncle Forrest” was coerced into getting in their with them. They were walking around find because they were under three feet tall, but I was doing the same crouching and duck walking. Exhausting even though they felt fine. It was a problem of size, of course.
So what does this have to do with underachievers? How could this possibly relate to our discussion?
Glad you asked!
You see, that’s what being an underachiever of Byron’s type feels like. Every day, he goes to work to do a job where he has to really crouch down, mentally. Just being at his job is exhausting, even though he could have done it when he first got out of college.
Because people come in different work sizes, just like the jobs themselves do.
There’s work that’s your size right now and work that isn’t. Most people grow over their lives, making the work that they used to do less satisfying. As we increase in our ability to handle more ambiguity and complexity, we need work that also has more complexity, deal with more uncertainty. Sometimes we take on a job that requires us to handle more uncertainty and ambiguity than we can handle. Both are dangerous. When we don’t have a good match-up between what we can handle and the work we have, we can often feel out of flow, and even have psychologically debilitating anxiety or depression.
Andrew Olivier, a colleague in Tasmania, does a great job describing what happens in his article, “Our Working Journey and Stress: A different Perspective“:
Flow is when one is engrossed in a task, a hobby or work which we really enjoy and in which we lose ourselves and often our sense of time. Flow is an optimal work experience and when we love working, we leap out of bed in the morning, eager to get to the office or to our desk or to our tools. [We are] people who are engaged with their work, where their capability, sense of purpose, skills and sense of—being just right“ engages with the challenges found in the right work level at the right time. We are cognitively engaged, interested, being allowed to experiment, have accountability, responsibility and feel recognised, rewarded and fulfilled.
Working at the wrong level for you is to be out of flow. Which doesn’t sound bad, does it? You’re just not really grooving. You’re getting by and all. It’s not great but it’s okay.
Except that’s not how it works.
Olivier goes on to explain that being out of flow is on a continuum. Think of it as degrees away from perpendicular. You can try this right now where you are. Stand up and try to remain standing while leaning farther and farther to the right or left. Remaining standing while tilting 30 degrees takes an amazing amount of strength, balance and skill.
The same is true of working: the farther you are away from where you find flow, the more it takes just to keep standing. It’s just like my time working behind my attic knee wall. You’re spending a lot of energy just to keep upright. When your job and you fit, you can stand up straight. It feels “easy”. Working too far above where you fit (or too far below, in the case of “underachievers”) feels hard no matter what.
Right now Byron — our strategic-thinking friend stuck in the deadend government job — is working at what we can call Level 2, but he can work at Level 6. That’s putting a 12-year time horizon into a 9-month sized box. Or, using our metaphor, he’s trying to stand while leaning 60-degrees.
No wonder he feels bad!
Olivier even believes that these extreme cases of bad-fit can cause serious psychological damage:
Being underutilised or overextended for prolonged periods may cause people to resort to substance abuse, depression and withdrawal, loss of energy for life and a host of other related symptoms.
You simply cannot work below your ability like that and be happy without an almost supernatural capability to cope. Which by definition most of us don’t have.
(Next time, we’ll take a look at a couple of exceptions to this rule through the stories of three computer programmers: John, Paul and Ringo.)
Let’s close with this simple observation: Just because you find work beneath you or degrading does not mean that it is demeaning to everyone. It’s just plain insulting how often this is hefted onto good-hearted people in lower work levels. You may find working a lathe boring and mind-numbing, but some people enjoy it because it fits their capacity for work and their language of achievement. When you call that work “demeaning”, you demean their dignity.
The same is true when the work is part of a different achievement language. Artists look down their noses on the khaki-wearing corporate hordes. Corporate men and women look down on the lazy artists who should just go get a job. Both are necessary work. And neither is more dignified than the other.
So, take away three points today:
- There’s no better work than work that fits you today, work where you are in flow.
- What that is will change over your life, as you change and grow.
- Just because work doesn’t fit you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fit someone else. Respect the dignity of all workers, not just the ones doing work you like.
Because you are the killer app, no matter what your work level.
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Image Credit: “Flowing artesian well in the meadow near the ‘Laghi di Fusine-superiore’, Valromana, Italia.” (c) 2009 Michael Gäbler. (CC BY 3.0)
Thank you for this discussion, Forrest. I’m so happy I bumbled onto it. Once in a while I google “adult underachiever” to see if there’s anything new, and one day there you were!
I got stuck in dead-end jobs after marrying an abusive man. I escaped the marriage but the under-employment problem has persisted. It’s helpful to see one’s predicament with job size presented so clearly.
I agree whole-heartedly that it’s never OK to disrespect workers of all sizes. I’ve been guilty of this. A friend was so exasperated and insulted by how I was forever gnashing my teeth about the low-level work I’ve allowed myself to get stuck in (the work is a good fit for her) that she dumped me.
Today I applied for a job that would be an excellent fit for me. This discussion is helping me. Thanks again and I look forward to what’s next.
Thanks for coming by and I’m glad to hear that you’re moving forward!
When you have work that fits you, it’s a lot easier to respect others. There have been some remarkable examples of disrespectful behaviours falling away when people got work that fit properly, with the appropriate level of control and discretion over their work. (No bosses breathing down your neck!) Even outside of work, in the case of the CRA New Zealand Aluminium Smelter.
There’s more coming, so keep reading!
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