Lesson 7 — Our Engagement with Work

These days, most of us adults have a job that we work at for pay. We do something someone else wants done, and receive money in return. Even if we are self-employed, we are doing something for other people. There will be clients to satisfy, or customers. For some people their work is their life, deserving nothing less than total commitment. For others, work is an onerous necessity — deserving only minimal effort. Where does wisdom reside in all this? Is there an optimally skillful way to view our relationship with paid work? Let me share with you Cop’s Game Theory of Employment.

There are many things we can choose to do with our lives, there are many games we can choose to play. Some of these games have an economic payoff for the players; others don’t. Some, like art, music, and sports have an economic payoff for only a few highly-skilled players. Not many of us are skilled enough to be paid for doing art, music, or sports. We might paint pictures for fun, play music for fun, or play hockey for fun, but for almost all of us, those games won’t buy our groceries or pay the mortgage.

The way things are in our society, we are expected to prepare ourselves to play some economic game that has enough payoff to support ourselves. And we are expected to play that game with at least the minimum required level of skill, energy, and commitment. People who can’t or won’t do this are not quite condemned by our culture to freeze and starve, but life is not bountiful or easy for them. Things are made especially difficult for those who are capable of working but won’t.

At this point in our social evolution very few people are able to make a decent living doing exactly what they want to do. It’s too bad, but that’s the way it is. As a result, we compromise. In our jobs we look for some combination of interest, excitement, challenge, working conditions, work duration, security, and economic payoff that we can live with. At the same time, we don’t always love the economic game we finally agree to play.

When we take a job, however, we are really signing on with a team, and agreeing to play a certain game. The game has rules and standards of play, even though those things are not always explicitly stated. If we were getting paid to play a game like hockey, each game and each personal statistic would be a reminder about minimum standards — even if the coach and manager said nothing, which is unlikely. In most jobs, however, the boss does not remind us daily about minimum standards. Yet standards exist, and after working at any job for a while we get to know what they are. Furthermore, unless we meet those minimum standards the boss will someday fire us, and the paycheck from that source will stop.

Many employers would recoil at the idea of employees looking at their jobs as games — in part because it conflicts with the employer’s secret hope of getting total dedication and unlimited commitment from the employee. They would lose little by taking the game view, however, and perhaps even gain. In part because employers no longer honor their side of the traditional work hard and you’ll always have a job here bargain, fewer people these days live just to work. Facing that is simply being realistic. Yet it is also realistic to expect employees to play the game for which they were hired, in accord with a reasonable set of rules, terms, and conditions. It is reasonable to expect them to apply their energy and attention to the job while they’re on the job. From early childhood on we’ve been involved with games, and we all know what fair play is. The game metaphor helps us look at the working world from a fair-play perspective.

The game metaphor also helps us look at jobs with an appropriate level of seriousness. Because The Job plays a central, multi-faceted role in our culture, some people are intensely serious about their jobs. The job is for them the center of their lives; it takes first priority most of the time. Naturally, employers love this kind of attitude and do their best to cultivate and reinforce it. At the other extreme there are people whose jobs have very little importance to them. Many of these people move from job to job, and a few eventually luck into some job situation that couples a regular paycheck with few demands. Both extremes strike me as unfortunate for the employee. In the first situation, the individual’s life is intense but narrow. In the second, the individual is just putting in time, trading half their waking life for economic survival, with no other benefits coming from that expenditure of time. Treating the job as a game helps us avoid both pitfalls.

One reason that the Game metaphor fits the working situation is that games are both serious and not serious. Games are intense and serious enterprises while they are being played, yet once over, games are easily and quickly put aside and forgotten. In the job-as-game view of work, jobs are intense and serious enterprises during working hours, but once this day’s inning is over, it is appropriate to put the job aside.

Job-as-game fits well with the Eastern idea of living intensely in the present moment. When it’s time to work, we work. When it’s time to socialize, we socialize. When it’s time wash dishes, we wash dishes. In the Eastern view, this moment’s activity is worthy of being addressed with full energy and attention, whatever that activity happens to be. Each activity is worthy of the same wholehearted spirit that we normally bring to the playing of a game.

We all know what happens if we don’t bring a wholehearted spirit to a game: The game is spoiled; there is no point playing. Did you ever play cards or volleyball or some other game with a person who didn’t really want to play, or who didn’t respect the rules? The non-enthusiast spoils the game for everyone. Games, by their very nature demand energetic, attentive engagement. In the same way, people who don’t energetically play the workplace game they have committed themselves to play often spoil the game for their co-workers.

In any field, the game we are paid to play may eventually get boring. Or we may play intensely for a while and then burn out. Fair enough; these things happen. If our present problem is boredom or burnout, we might look for an answer in one of several directions. Our first approach might be to take a fresh look at the present work situation. Is there some way of modifying the game itself, or the way we play it, to make it more rewarding — more interesting, exciting, challenging, or fun? The powers-that-be in many organizations are open to such suggestions.

A second approach is simply to switch games. As I mentioned, one of the realities of our present age and culture is that most adults must play at least one economic game, and play it at an acceptable level. There are many of these games, each with its set of pluses and minuses. If the current game has ceased to be your game, and you don’t have a trust fund or other independent means of support, there’s probably no long-term alternative but to find another game.

Perhaps we find ourselves in a job for which we have no enthusiasm at all, yet one we feel we can’t leave. No, that’s not quite right. There is no job we couldn’t leave if we were willing to face the consequences. Let’s say, instead, that leaving this job would disrupt so much else in our lives that staying with it, at least for now, makes some kind of sense. How do we deal with a situation like this?

One approach is to redefine the game we are playing. Besides the paycheck, what is going on in the workplace that might be of value to us? Are there skills that we could learn if we put ourselves out a little more? Is there possibly some experienced and relatively wise person in the organization who might be open to mentoring us?

Let’s say that this kind of exploration comes to nothing. The co-workers are all nasty or lazy, the working environment is abominable, and the job itself is either totally boring, or demands every bit of energy we’ve got. Hopeless? Not if we uplevel the game. We can always redefine our game to be the personal growth game. From the personal growth perspective that horrible job situation was crafted by fate and presented to us as a magnificent gift. It is an ideal environment for putting our budding attempts at conscious growth to the test. If we define the primary game of our life to be that of growing in love and wisdom, then every life activity becomes a sub-game. Each becomes a laboratory of active play in which we put our present knowledge and wisdom to the test, and in which we further develop our ability to love and act wisely. Teacher after teacher has pointed out that any situation we have trouble accepting is an indicator of still-needed growth — as well as a workshop where that growth can take place.

Throughout our adult lives this matter of work and livelihood will be an ongoing issue. And if our aim is to constantly refine our life, we will be constantly refining our livelihood. There will be times to leave and times to stay, but never a time when attentive engagement with the work itself is inappropriate.

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

“At this point in our social evolution very few people are able to make a decent living doing exactly what they want to do.” Can you imagine a further “point in our social evolution” where things will be different?

Would the game metaphor Macdonald applies to jobs also extend elsewhere in life—to marriage, to citizenship, etc.?

How can you make your job “more rewarding—more interesting, exciting, challenging, or fun” or redefine it as “the personal growth game“?

How close is your work to “right livelihood”?

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.

(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)

Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.

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