I Just Realized How Miserable I Am

Recently, Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer, asked, “What makes you happy or unhappy at work?” I pulled part of my answer from an old post from my LiveJournal, “Things to Make My Life Perfect.” This list of things I actually wrote in response to a writing prompt for the (now defunct) Alchera Project. At the time, I was in a deep depression, brought about by a demoralizing job.

If I had to sum up the “Things to Make My Life Perfect” in two words, those words would be freedom and responsibility. These are basic qualities of my creative personality. I’ve worked in an environment that nurtured these. I loved working there. Of course, some of the items on the list are basic to human nature, regardless of what kind of a personality you have:

When I wrote the Things, I looked at my job at the time as well as where I had worked before.

What makes me happy or unhappy at work?

In response to Alexander’s post, I pulled some items from the Things. But I drew much more from my current job. Here’s what I came up with.

Things that make me unhappy:

  • When someone who is not doing the work armchair-quarterbacks.
  • When my manager tells me what to do rather than what to accomplish.
  • When I am pressured to sacrifice my professional standards for expediency when it would not be expedient to do so.
  • When my manager tells me what I do that upsets him, but never what I do that makes his job easier.
  • When management makes decisions about my work but never asks me about them.
  • When I express my ideas regarding my own work and end up being labeled “confrontational,” only because I have a different take on it than management does. (That’s collaboration, not confrontation.)
  • Management assigns blame rather than looks for solutions.

Things that make me happy:

  • What I do affects someone else.
  • Focus on one thing at a time, and see it through to completion.
  • I sit physically close to those with whom I must work daily.
  • When I grow hungry, I eat; when I grow tired, I sleep. (Actually, my current situation puts much pressure on me to listen to the clock rather than to my body, and this makes my unhappy.)
  • Unconditional love.

It’s incredible what just writing up a list like this can do. I’ve been focusing so much on my new business that I didn’t bother to evaluate my current situation. This is understandable. I’m committed to my business. That is, I can’t waffle anymore. If I’m going for it, it’s now. Because my current job isn’t forever. It may not even be for much longer. I’m moving on, and if it isn’t to another job, it’s as an entrepreneur.

When you leave normal, you can’t go back.

I’ve turned down interviews for good jobs because of this. The first time I did so opened my eyes. A friend and colleague of many years, whom I’ll call “W,” contacted me on behalf of her employer. She begged me to come work there, because they were positively desperate for people with my skills. I’m a software engineer. I went in and met with the VP of Engineering of this small company. I interviewed for a tech-lead position. Aside from W, three other people I used to work with also worked there. One of them heard I was interviewing and walked right into the VP’s office to recommend me. I didn’t ask him to do that. Aside from those four, the VP also personally knew three other people I had worked with.

So here I had an interview for a better position at a good company. The interview went well, and I saw a lot of opportunity for personal and professional growth. I also liked the people I met, and I think they liked me. And I had personal references coming out the wazoo. I felt like I was a shoo-in for the position. Whether that was true or not, I’ll never know.

What I do know is that the VP called me to set up another interview. By then I had mulled over the opportunity. Staring an opportunity in the face is a great way to focus yourself on a decision. The more choices you give someone, the more likely they are to get analysis paralysis. If you want to go for the hard sell, you have to ask them to choose: to buy, or not to buy. As long as I was “just looking,” I had the luxury of time. When I encountered an opportunity like this, I had to come to terms with my own choices.

I told the VP how much I appreciated that he asked me to interview. The opportunity he provided forced me to examine my career. And I decided that I really want to start my own business. I’d been playing with the idea for some time, but I really want to give it a go.

Have you ever had a feeling like the whole Earth has just changed direction?

I’ll have a happiness sandwich.

Alexander has also written about the happiness sandwich in a chapter of his online book The Happy at Work Book. The happiness sandwich is made of two slices of bread, Security and Perks. Security that our basic needs are met, this makes happiness possible. Perks are the extras that actually make us feel valued.

But two slices of bread do not make a sandwich. These two need something to hold them together. And this something is the profundity of the happiness sandwich. What joins Security and Perks is Choice. Choice is magic. It makes us want to be happy.

Have you ever heard a manager or executive say something like “Look, we’re doing so much for our people. We give them a good salary, a gym, child-care and much more – and they still complain. They’re still not motivated and energized”. That’s what happens when a company disregards the middle layer, and creates a workplace where people don’t want to be happy. In this case there is nothing you can do at the perk level. No matter how much money the company spends on perks, they still won’t be happy. Conversely, in a company where people truly want to be happy they’re almost impossible to rattle. No matter what happens they just keep on going with an unshakeable determination and motivation.

Security and Perks are easy, because you can provide them by investing money. You can buy Security and Perks. But in order to provide Choice, you have to invest power. You can’t buy it with cash. As a manager, you can only buy it with part of yourself.

The biggest thing I had to learn is how to be human.

I have a theory, and it’s probably right. Most bad managers don’t mean to be bad. They just don’t know what they’re doing. They’re ignorant and incompetent. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being ignorant and incompetent, as long as your goal is to become more knowledgeable and competent. Unfortunately, ignorance breeds incompetence, and incompetence breeds ignorance, because you can’t learn if you aren’t competent enough to know your own ignorance. Getting out of this cycle requires a kick in the butt, so to speak. If you’re ignorant and incompetent, you need someone who’s neither to give you a reality check.

But bad managers are not only ignorant and incompetent; they’re also insecure. And that means that not only are they unable to learn, they’re unable to accept advice from the only people who can teach them what areas they need to work on. These people are their employees. Your employees are the only ones who can tell you what the results of your management are. Insecure managers treat this feedback as a challenge.

Then, Teresa M. Amabile (from Harvard Business School) talked about her research on the creativity of workers. I started seeing my own life in every word she said:

The team leader’s behavior is critical. I found that there are five leader behaviors that have a positive influence on people’s feelings… One of these is supporting people emotionally. The second is monitoring people’s work in a particularly positive way, and that has to do with giving them positive feedback on their work or giving them information that they need to do their work better. The third behavior is just plain recognizing people for good performance, particularly in public settings. The fourth is consulting with people on the team—that is, asking for their views, respecting their opinions, and acting on their needs and their wishes to the extent that it’s possible. And the fifth category was a grab bag of things. But the most important aspect here was collaborating—that the team leader rolled up his or her sleeves and actually spent time collaborating with somebody on the work.

We found three leader behaviors that had negative impact. One was the under- or overspecification of assignments. Much of this has to do with giving people either too little guidance or too much guidance by overconstraining the assignment. The second one is monitoring in a negative form—that is, checking on assigned work too often or not often enough. Or, checking on it for too long, like hanging around and going too much into the details of what people are doing, and giving unconstructive feedback. The third negative has to do with problem solving—either avoiding solving problems that crop up in the team or the project, or creating problems.

In fact, I think I wrote that first. Of course, I used different words, and I didn’t have any research to back up my conclusions.

Happy choices.

The reason I want so badly to work at my own business full time is because I want to be able to choose. As the boss, I can do whatever I think will make me more productive. If I want to sleep in until 11 AM, I can do so. If I want to work from 6 PM until 11, I can do that, too. And I don’t have to give anyone any justification for it. If I want to focus on one thing at a time and follow it through until completion, I don’t have to deal with my manager acting like he had to go out of his way, as though it’s a special privilege. In my own company, I can choose how to run it, and Choice is the desire to be happy.

Okay, that’s simplistic. We always have choices. In an especially dramatic episode of House, M.D. last season, in which Foreman contracts a painful and deadly disease, and Cuddy refuses to allow the tests that could isolate the pathogen and save his life, I couldn’t agree with Foreman more.

FOREMAN: … I’m not gonna forgive you just because you come by here and ask how I’m feeling.

CUDDY: You know I’ve had no choice.

FOREMAN: (yelling) Of course you had a choice!

CUDDY: Regulations are clear.

FOREMAN: And the punishment for violating those regulations?! Is it death?! Hm?! Because frankly, I’m okay if you get a fine, a suspension— Hell! You can spend a couple o’ years in jail if it saves my life!

The reality is that I do focus on one thing at a time. If I were not to, I would get nothing done. And if my manager asked me to focus on several things at once, I would disregard him. In his mind, focus may be a privilege, but it’s one I’m taking regardless of whether he gives it to me.

Likewise, during the fall months, when the days get shorter and my sleep schedule shifts later, as I fight with my own body to maintain a daily schedule that allows me to get work done… I may not get into work until after 11. My manager hates that. It doesn’t interfere with the work. But it means he doesn’t know where I am at some of the hours between 9 and 5. I go out of my way to try to work the hours he wants. But it’s my choice, not his.

And when he tells me what to do, what code to write, I re-frame the problem in terms of goals and accomplishments. What user feature am I adding? What are the requirements and constraints? Because once I start actually doing the work, I will surely find something that requires a different solution than the one he conceived. This makes me “confrontational” (his word), and I’m proud of it. Because solving problems not only gives me satisfaction, but it’s also what they pay me the big bucks for.

These are my choices, not his. But choosing what my manager does not want threatens my job security. This doesn’t bother me so much as a professional. But it does slash my happiness. Security makes it possible to be happy, and without Security, happiness is no longer a choice.

So I choose to build a business. I’ve set up a website at LucrativeGames.com. All that’s there right now is my free guide How To Tell a Story With Advergaming and an introduction to subscribe to my Infogames newsletter. An infogame is a direct-response advergame. Think “infomercial,” but interactive. I’m still working on it part-time, but on the road map are much more web content and several infogames.

I’m far enough along that today I actually felt like my resignation might be just around the corner. That’s a liberating, happy thought.