A Job as Creative Quest
A questing reframe & tools can help a burnt-out worker find purpose
Posted Oct 03, 2012
Mindset. Method. Place. It’s not a formula. It’s a working tripod that any individual, group, or organization must consider to lift themselves and one another out of an “eh” work world and possibly toward an “Ah!” work world.
One of the first bits of Southern wisdom I assimilated as a malcontent teenager applies here: Either change your circumstances, or change your mindset. Easier said than done for the less “rosy” among us. To change a mindset incrementally requires a creative cognitive reframe and some cognitive tools.
For some despondent or near-burnt out workers, a quest might be the thing to change their channel.
A quest mindset
Mindset matters. It’s not about starting with passion. Young flames can burn quickly. I’m more interested in helping people nurture abiding fires for what they do. And telling someone who doesn’t love her job to “Just start finding your passion in your job” often breeds more antipathy than passion.
If you or someone you work with (or, worse, someone you work for) has lost that loving feeling for work, begin with this reframe:
Treat your job as part of a creative quest. Psycholgists Alexander and Helen Astin’s seminal work in higher education notes that those who consider themselves to be on a quest “tend to exhibit an active, open disposition toward tackling the perplexing issues that many individuals face when trying to establish their place and purpose in the world.” (29)
You might not be a confused 20-year-old anymore. But if you’re like most 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings I work with, you are seeking something.
A quest by definition involves seeking, and by seeking, it’s assumed you don’t know the answers to something. It means you are after something that matters - to you and possibly to a group or organization. Quests awaken a desire for meaning & mastery.
But seeking in a quest also means that uncertainty, ambiguity, and novelty are part of the game. Seeking in a quest also requires facing - not avoiding - challenges and taking risks.
Problem-tracking, not problem-fleeing
That last trait raises a big shift in attitude. It means that a gratifying job by definition is not problem-free. Gratification comes most consistently after tracking problems and by pushing your wits and skills to a new level to solve those problems.
Optimal risk and novelty lead to enduring flow states. That’s the conclusion of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University after he researched, interviewed, and studied thousands of deeply gratified writers, scientists, artists, rock climbers, and others who persisted in their work despite no or little guarantee of fame or fortune.
What kept them going? Not profit or high performance reports but feeling. It was the feeling state they experienced when consistently engaged in stimulating activities that involved optimal risk and novelty.
I spoke to a group of leading executives, presidents, and administrators whose organizations coordinate and train grant-makers that in turn fund non-profit groups. Think of how the economic crash and recession of 2007-08 whammed this chain of funding better education, healthcare, public arts, communities, and more.
In my pre-talk research and surveys, participants told me via email something like, “My days are spent fixing technology problems, preparing for meetings, and responding to board members’ complaints. Hardly the climate for creativity.”
And there’s the rub. A creative mindset is not one necessarily centered upon painting Hudson Valley vistas or writing a poem about the smell of burnt wood on an autumn evening. It’s often about acknowledging an “itch” - something that needs addressing, tracking, resolving.
Creativity is more about problems than painting or poetry as I explain in myth: the creative life is romantic & problem-free.
That “itch” on the job can be as minute as “Respond to this client’s request,” something as mid-league as “Find a new system for responding to prospects,” or something as grand as “Devise a new strategy for our marketing calendar.”
The creative mindset, the questing mindset, expects problems as part of the job. So much depends upon “how” those problems are approached.
Live in a hut of questions
I asked a client - an acupuncturist with a booming clinic and shop - how she gets herself “back on track” when she feels burnt out. She said, almost automatically, “I usually step back and ask if I can change the way I’m doing something. It’s usually a matter of tweaking something simple. Like changing how I schedule clients to allow for more space and time with each client. Or how my assistant fills herbal orders.”
A pragmatist and problem-solver, her response offers three telling traits: One, she innately directs attention toward how she is doing something instead of blaming circumstances or other people whose actions are beyond her control. Two, she focuses on the “how” more than the “what.”
Three, she asks questions - of herself. Questions extend out of quests.
- “How am I doing something that is contributing to my disgruntlement?
- “How could I change the way I do _____ to lead to _____?”
- “How could we change the way we do ______ to lead to ____?”
Asking these questions every day on the job establishes a new mindset groove. Asking these kinds of problem-tracking questions opens up our minds to new possibilities instead of closing off on the victim blame game.
Asking these questions also elicits a sense of autonomy and of some control over our moods on the job - strong correlates in the research on people who thrive and not merely survive at work.
Another questing question to raise relates to mastery:
- “What new skills or what new knowledge would lead to ______ (positive outcome for individual or group)?”
Carol Dweck’s research on undergrads is telling about what motivates most of us for the long haul.
Dweck discovered two groups of students according to what motivated them. First group, I’ll call the Praise-seekers: People who are motivated to learn mostly to get high grades, pats on the back, and praise - and then profit post-graduation. Second group, I’ll call the meaning-makers and mastery-seekers: People who are motivated to learn mostly by a desire to make meaning, to advance their own knowledge and skill set, and to use knowledge and skills toward a greater goal beyond their own advancement.
In a longitudinal follow-up, guess which group, ten years later, was more content with work and life?
Yep, group two. There’s incomplete evidence on how to help a person who is patterned by extrinsic motivation (rewards, material gains) to shift to motivating herself intrinsically.
But our centuries of human experience coupled with a few decades of consistent research on human motivation makes clear how passion and profit relate.
An issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on this relationship. In one article, researchers Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath studied workplace factors that led to people thriving. “Thriving employees have a bit of an edge,” they note, “they are highly energized - but they know how to avoid burnout.” Here are two take-away statistics:
Thriving workers are 46% more satisfied than their peers.
They are 125% less likely to burn out than their non-thriving peers.
What’s characteristic of thrivers?
They have passion mixed with mastery. They love what they do, but they actively pursue more knowledge and skills.
A sub-title on the a Harvard Business Review cover sums it up: How Passion & Purpose Drive Profits. It does not read, “How Profits Drive Passion & Purpose.”
If you cannot change your work environment today, you can change your mindset to a more questing reframe. Your active questing on the job just might change the attitudes of your co-workers.
Who knows? Maybe you can change your work environment from the inside-out.
I’ll pose the question to you: When you find your mind getting “off-track” and approaching burn out, how do you get back on track and re-connect to good feelings about your work? Scholars, what other studies or perspectives can you contribute here?
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is an author, creativity consultant, book-shaper, and speaker. He shows artists, social change-makers, and people with bright ideas for art, books & business how to thrive amidst challenge.