If Your Job Stinks, Go With the FlowJanuary 5th, 2010 by Santtu Parikka
Whether you’re currently at work or relaxing after a hard day in the office, if you’re reading this it probably means you’ve got a spare minute.
In this minute, try to imagine for a moment being born into someone else’s shoes. But this time, rather than dreaming that you’re bending it like Beckham (or buying it like Victoria Beckham), pretend that you are Rakesh.
Rakesh is not a footballer – or even famous – so it is unlikely you’ll have heard of him. He lives in Delhi, India. To imagine walking a mile in Rakesh’s shoes takes some effort, so you’ll need to concentrate.
The Worst Job in the World?
Born into the lowest level of Indian social hierarchy, the untouchables, Rakesh’s opportunities in life are severely limited. To feed his family, he works in what may just be the worst job in the world.
Wearing only loose underpants, it is his task to wander around in the dark, suffocating stench of Delhi’s overcrowded sewerage system, shoveling the rotting excrement of 16 million people.
“The first thing you notice is the unbearable smell,” explains his colleague Rajender Kumar. “Next are the cockroaches, and then the rats—big rats.” Amongst the obvious complaints, Rajender suffers from of skin rashes and sore eyes, respiratory and liver problems.
Admittedly, imagining walking a mile in Rakesh’s shoes is pretty tough. Most of us are lucky enough to have little concept of what it must be like for him and his 8,000 co-workers. Such working conditions simply do not exist in the Western world.
But of course, there are many crappy jobs in rich countries too. On the same shitty subject, imagine what it must be like for people working for private diaper cleaning companies in the USA. It is their job to feed handfuls of dirty diapers into a giant washing machine so that the parent clients don’t have to clean them (or feel bad about using disposables). The fact that your job is eco-friendly is probably little comfort when you are up to your armpits in the waste products of mummies and daddies’ precious treasures.
Go with the Flow
Ok, so it’s easy to see what makes the world’s worst jobs. But what makes a good job? Lots of zeros on the end of your pay check help, but it is well documented that money does not necessarily correlate with job satisfaction and enjoyment.
We all know those annoying people who seem to enjoy whatever it is they do. But if you take away that personal subjectivity, studies have shown that really good jobs have certain things in common.
Of course there are a huge number of studies and an equal number of theories, but one that appeals to me is as argued by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the book Flow. To cut a long, interesting story short, Csíkszentmihályi talks about a state of flow that people can achieve when their emotions are channelled in the performance of a task.
People are most likely to get into this flow when set a clear, challenging goal that requires concentration and the exercise of their skills and abilities. There should be direct feedback and also a sense of person control over the activity. Often the state of being is accompanied by a loss of both self consciousness and sense of time.
The most obvious activities which induce flow are games. If you’ve ever participated in a “good” game of sport, or a close chess match, then you know the feeling. If every job was as enjoyable as a good game, imagine how much happier the world would be.
If Your Job Stinks, Join the Crowd
Csíkszentmihályi discusses how even people with boring jobs can incorporate the essential components of the flow idea to make their jobs better. This is probably true to an extent, but for many people, making these elements a part of their daily job is easier said than done. Rakesh could time how long it takes him to fill his basket of faeces, every day trying to do it a little faster, but it is unlikely to make him enjoy his work.
The problem is people like Rakesh, who perform the worst jobs in society, are generally those with the fewest options (for example immigrants without legal work permits are considered “untouchable” by many companies). For such people perhaps the only way they can bring some flow into their work is by squeezing a new job into their schedule.
While in the past this meant working a night shift in a burger joint, the rise of crowdsourcing (where firms offer up tasks to the online community) now provides anyone with access to a computer the opportunity for greater satisfaction from work. They can do it in their regular job’s “down time” or instead of reading rambling blogs at night.
Unlike flipping burgers all night, people who join the “crowd” have control over what, when and how they work. This control is one of the reported reasons participants like crowdsourcing, presumably because it gives them the freedom to make the work more enjoyable.
Even with developments in computers and robotics, it seems likely that there will always be jobs in society that nobody wants to do. Whether this job is cleaning a sewer or washing dirty diapers, just because the unfortunate souls who get their hands dirty know what makes a job flow, it is probably impossible for them to make their tasks rewarding. For these people, spending a few minutes crowdsourcing every day may be one way they can make their work life stink a little less.