Horatio Alger always conveniently left out the part of the story when Our Hero was toiling for a few years under the flickering fluorescent light of a cubicle farm, staring down a future of middle management. I don't blame him and the other American Dreamers: That doesn't sound that glamorous, and it certainly doesn't inspire anyone to chase down a dream job or opportunity.
The now-global quest for what we called the American Dream is strong--and perhaps the reason for the hundreds of thousands of worldwide students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and management. I can't tell you for sure, but there aren't many programs that challenge students to not just consider financial success, but also how their career might fulfill the idea of a job they want to do. Paychecks generally look the same, and at a certain point, so does the work.
That is, unless it's Good Work. You know, that kind that we all believe we deserve that certainly isn't what we are doing now? The legendary Good Work that we can't seem to get, even if we don't know what it actually looks like? Good Work is either an unattainable thing that everyone else we know has found, or, at least, it is something so distant that it would require us to abandon the security of the Work We Have.
Good Work takes many forms, most of which would make Mr. Alger proud. It's the opposite of an oppressive management style, the antithesis of tediousness and/or the deconstruction of dead end career paths. To find that elusive Good Work, someone in the business world will likely be uprooting something about themselves--a comfortable vertical, an established knowledge base, the reliability of the next paycheck--to go out and find it.
Yet, in all of this, it feels like we are defining Good Work by its relative negative. It's hard to define exactly what it is--just that we want to get it. Many may never drop the path they are on, and there is nothing wrong with taking that pursuit of career.
How do you define Good Work? In one sense, it is everything I've already noted: comfortable, established, reliable. For others, though, the passion of pursuing Good Work overcomes Our Hero, setting him off on the course for something new. Is it a strong paycheck? Is it a sense of ownership? The flexibility of running your own show? Or is it the ability to wake up every day and work on solving one problem that means something to you? There are so many options (and I'm curious to learn from others on it, so please let me know).
My own answer to that question is that it is still a bit of a quest for Good Work. That's what led me through four jobs and three industries in a little more than eight years. I haven't been able to quell that passion, and I find myself around people like that more and more often as a part of Boston's tech and startup circles. There's the short version and the long version of my story, but what drove most of it was that I would be willing to trade in paychecks (even those that come in slightly bigger sizes) if it meant Good Work could be waiting somewhere else for me, fungible definitions and all. It is easy to call these things career changes, but that assumes that career and Good Work go together.
I like the challenge of not knowing what Good Work is, as well. It forces me to keep thinking about it, and having discussions with others on that quest. It can take so many forms, the conversations really never end. I plan on continuing the discussion here in upcoming columns and on Twitter with the #GoodWork hashtag--I hope you'll join me.