Effort vs. Reward

I am currently reading the book “Outliers, the Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell and while I am very interested in the entire book so far I was very struck by a specific passage about half way through dealing with job satisfaction.

The quote is, “three things – autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward – are, most pople agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” I found myself rereading that passage because it sums up so well my experience in working in technology. I have to add that I also found these qualities in my time as an Infantry Officer in the Army. If you are searching for work try to communicate that you want these things to the person doing your interviews. I want this kind of person working for me, but I find that often some of these qualities turn out to be a wish that many regret once fulfilled.

Lets start with Autonomy. I chose the Army rather than the Navy or Air Force precisely because I wanted to have a hand in my fate. A Navy officer in combat dies based on where the ship is sailed by the captain. Twenty yards one way or another on deck rarely matters when the ship is sinking. You can find the same analogy for the Air Force where you life is hanging by the performance of a piece of high tech gear working against gravity. As an Infantry Officer I could choose my path within hundreds of meters most times and the mistake of stepping on a mine was mine to make. Often people get autonomy and then squander it. Autonomy is a form of trust. Can you work at home in your job? If so it is probably because you either work for yourself or your employer trusts you very much.

Complexity in tasks it welcome, especially to technical people. We like a challenge because there is accomplishment in resolving it. The hazard here is to mistake a job with complexity as a license to behave arrogantly and to feel entitled. If you work for a company and make a fair wage by any objective standard (not just your own) then you are unlikely to ever be considered to be given a share in the company. That is reserved to those who take the risk of starting the company and those who negotiate for that right at the right opportunity (which rarely arises).

A connection between effort and reward is the easiest to understand and represents the point where employers should take the most note. If you have two people working for you of equal ability and one works like a dog while the other skates, your treatment of them will be instructive to both. Praise only goes so far and eventually becomes hollow if there is no material benefit included (even if only occasionally).

I like this book very much and recommend it to anyone who wants to conquer the world, but with one caution. It does not sugar coat what it takes to accomplish outstanding success and that means that your long standing beliefs, some of which are likely comforting, will probably be changed fundamentally. I always preferred hard and useful truth to comforting fables anyways…

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