Work Advice from Wise Americans

Karl Pillemer is a US sociologist who specializes in gerontology. He led an ambitious study over five years where over 1,000 older Americans were interviewed about various aspects of their life experiences. Participants ranged from early seventies to over one hundred years old. Pillemer had an inclination that with age came wisdom and this group of interviewees did not disappoint. The amount of information collected was substantial. Pillemer distilled his findings into a book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. In Pillemer’s book, the wisdom is segregated into six areas. One of the areas is the world of work. Much of our lives are spent in the work force. Many of us will spend some part of six decades of our lives working. From our twenties, through our thirties, forties, fifties, into our sixties, work is where we are spending our time. Some of us may start before our twenties and toil into our seventies. What is it that these seasoned Americans looked back on fondly or with wishes that they had done things differently? Plenty of people have come before us. We ignore the wisdom earned by the experience of others at our own peril. We don’t want to wait until we’re retired to learn what a good job looks like. Life’s too short to figure everything out from the school of hard knocks. Just like the palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware learned about the five regrets of the dying which offer guidance to intentionally create a life worth living, Karl Pillemer’s work draws on the experiences of many over time to help us learn what work satisfaction looks like. Let’s not waste their wisdom and look forward to learning from those who have come before.

Many of these folk came of age during times of hardship. Whether it was the Great Depression or being around World War II, scarcity was something they had come to know. The first rule of work was that it was simply something one does in order to survive. Pillemer writes, “On a fundamental level, we work to survive…we exchange hours of lifetime for money, and we use that money to live.” Pillemer notes that though we all share the similarity of working first and foremost in order to survive, we also share some additional common work goals. Insight offered by a large majority of interviewees looking back over their work lives revolved around finding something doing work that brings some kind of satisfaction. Money as a motivator wasn’t worth it; instead, trading pay for a satisfying work role was worth it. The Golden Handcuffs were the kiss of regret. Finding work or being part of a work group whose company you enjoy will lead you to be more interested each work morning. There was nothing worse than dragging oneself out of bed and to a soul sucking job for those looking back on their lived lives. Pillemer writes, “Most people who decide on a profession because of its material rewards at some point look back and gasp, ‘What have I done?’” He offers, “If doing what you love requires living with less, for the experts it’s a no-brainer.”

Pillemer’s project participants shared only their earned age. Outside of being older, they came from varied backgrounds. They were from all different parts of the US. Some had succeeded. Some had encountered struggles financially. They were from all walks of life and had participated in a full range of professions. Yet, even with this diversity, not a single one of the 1,000 interviewees offered that happiness followed working harder to earn more money in order to buy things. Not a soul. Similarly, not one participant suggested that it was important to try to keep up and be as wealthy as the people around which you live. None equated success with having more than others. Moreover, not one contributor, zero, offered that career decisions should be made based on future earning power. Beyond survival, money was not a reason to get out of bed in the morning and slog the way through days in a role they hated. “They consistently urged finding a way to earn enough to live on without condemning yourself to a job you dislike.”

There’s no question that there were multiple times in the work lives where the reality of their circumstances interfered with their desire to find fruitful, fun, and fulfilling work roles. Not all enjoyed satisfactory jobs throughout their careers. It’s important to be realistic and accept that there will be times, especially starting out, that one will be performing tasks that aren’t always fun and exciting. Moreover, there will be times during our work lives that the economy is better than others. Opportunities for satisfactory work may not be consistent throughout our work lives. These seniors looking back recognized the ebb and flow of their work lives and counsel to accept that a job may not always be perfect. Many of us will make decisions that may not be a fit for us. Independent from the economy, we may choose a direction that doesn’t match our skills. Pillemer writes, “the tragedy isn’t finding ourselves in the wrong jobs, it’s staying there.” As a result, they encourage us to live with awareness. We should recognize and accept we may not get things right. Getting any job, at first, may be more important than finding a fulfilling role. The seniors recommend being open to taking work but setting time limits to give ourselves a chance to see if we can learn to enjoy the role. If we can, we’re in the right place. If we can’t, after a few years (a time limit we set for ourselves), we’re encouraged to move on to another area. A good career direction follows knowledge of ourself. Knowing who we are is something we must spend time learning. What are our core values and capabilities? What do we care about and what are we good at? Knowing these things can help direct us toward professions where we are more likely to succeed and be happy.

What may seem like inconsistent advice with the prior suggestion of setting a limit of how long you will spend in an unsatisfactory role, is guidance to make the best of where you find yourself. If you are in an entry level job or taking a role that’s not your dream job, make the best of it while you’re there. It’s up to you to make the most of your efforts. There’s no value in sulking and doing a poor job. These are opportunities to learn, to develop relationships, to craft new skills. We can’t always do just the things we want to do. Whether it’s the economy, our training, our financial needs, or our own choices; whatever has put us in a less than ideal role is no reason to do as little as possible. It’s our responsibility to find something worthwhile about where we find ourselves. How can we take the drudgery and turn it into something rewarding? How can we become very good at what we’re doing? How can we add value to our employer, our team, our customers? We can still show that it’s cool to care. Taking pride in an honest day’s work will not only make you more pleasant to be around, it will provide you with some personal fulfillment as well. One of Pillemer’s contributors highlights the recommended approach, “It doesn’t matter what job you do—do the very best you can and be proud of what you’ve done.”

An additional work related insight our American seniors offered is that time spent learning how to get along well with others is well worth it. A common element across jobs is that you’ll be doing whatever it is you’re doing along side others. If you struggle to get along with others, you’ll struggle in the workplace. Pillemer writes, “Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant—you must have interpersonal social skills to succeed…Success traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolve conflicts are fundamentals in the workplace.” A seventy year old former engineer offered, “One thing is the same, no matter what work you do: you will be doing it with other people…And I know a lot of times in my work it was frustrating that not everybody saw things the way I did…I certainly know that I don’t know everything, but I have learned how to ask better questions. You have to understand every issue from somebody else’s perspective.” A separate senior, a veteran of World War II gave the following advice, “I’ve learned to accept people until they give me a reason not to. I don’t care who you are, what you are, how you are—you’re fine with me until you prove the opposite.” A connecting factor amongst the social skills suggested as important in the workplace was the idea of humility. We’re encouraged to guard against our default defense of our perspective. We don’t know everything because we can’t see everything. We need others to shine the light of their lens into the corners of our perspective that aren’t clear. We are better when we allow others to contribute their differing views.

The final area that the seniors of Pillemer’s study agreed upon related to crafting a satisfying career related to autonomy. Circling back to where we started in terms of trying to find work that we find satisfying and enjoy we find that a big component to enjoyable effort is being able to control how we allocate our attention and time during our work day. The more flexibility and freedom we have to deciding what and when to do things, the more satisfied the work experience. Interviewees consistently stated that the worst jobs they had were those which involved not just routine, repetitive work, but those that involved little discretion or decision making. When the worker didn’t have a say in how things were to be done, they felt worse about themselves and the business for which they worked. These truly were soul sucking jobs. As it was with respect to being willing to trade compensation for enjoyment, so it is that these folk advised giving up pay in order to get greater freedom and flexibility in a job. The quality of work environment is of more importance than the pay grade.

What led to satisfaction in work was primarily a combination of meaning and autonomy. Where these two were achieved, the work experience felt effortless. The workday consisted of more “get to” than “have to”. The sentiment of Pillemer’s seniors mirrored the recommendations offered by Daniel Pink in his book, Drive. In Drive, Pink details the three factors that tend to lead to compelling work environments: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Workers that have a say in what and/or how they do their job and who are given an opportunity to learn and develop in their role enjoy their work and become committed, longstanding employees. If the work is meaningful as well, employees become further engaged and it’s a virtuous cycle where both employee and employer benefit from the exemplary environment. The litmus test to determine whether your work meets these criteria is your answer to the question: “do I wake up in the morning looking forward to the work day?” If your job offers autonomy, meaning, and purpose, you’re more likely to answer affirmatively to this question. If this is the case, more often than not, you’ll greet the day with a good mood and look forward to being at work on time.

Pillemer’s experts with their thousands of years of work experience amongst them offered some sound principles we would do well to keep front of mind in our own careers:

  1. Work isn’t meant to be perfect. Be willing to do your part even when it isn’t fun. Set time limits to review your satisfaction in a role periodically and be willing to walk away.
  2. Compensation and satisfaction aren’t the same. Chase satisfaction over compensation.
  3. Whatever you do, you’ll be doing it with others. Be nice. Know who you are. Recognize that others differ. Appreciate differences.
  4. Given a choice, select a career that affords autonomy. Making work less have to and more get to is the path to a fulfilling career.

We’ll dig further into the characteristics of a great job in our next article with hopes of achieving the advice of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who wrote, “If you can get your work life to where you enjoy half of it, that is amazing. Very few people ever achieve that.”