Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Untouchables

Writing a grant is a very valuable skill; if I've learned anything in my fundraising career, it that good writing is precious, and good writers are hard to find. Writing a grant requires precise thought, clear written communication, and the ability to analyze a project from start to finish, in words and numbers. The reward for all this hard work is funding for a project--a project that the grant-writer won't work on, except to keep the books.

Plenty of people my age work in a setting like mine: thinking and pushing ideas and managing, but without producing an actual tangible thing. In my first job out of college, I made a university department work, but I couldn't actually show you the product of my work. When I moved on to development, I was again part of the machinery that brought in the money, but I still had a difficult time explaining the semantics of what I did all day. And in my current job, I still can't put anything in front of you; last week on the phone my father asked me, "So what is it you really do?"

It can be frustrating to explain the nuances of my work. Especially when for so much of my life, my achievements were definitely quantifiable. In fifth grade, I made a presentation on Ancient Egypt in the school's Interest Fair (think Science Fair with hobbies instead of science). After weeks of hard work, I could show you my clay model pyramids, painted posters, and a replica mummy in a mummy case. I won a trophy for the project. I still have that trophy--it's the only trophy I've ever won. My college career was dotted with successful exams and papers; the best ones I would take to the local Copy Cop and have bound for my own collection. These were all things I could point to and say, "look, I made that!"

Apparently, I am not alone in this strange frustration. A Wall Street Journal article points out that there are whole swaths of workers who suffer from the inability to see the tangible result of their work.

At closing time, work doesn't seem completed, just temporarily abandoned. As much as he loves his job, insurance broker Ryan Bowles envies Fred Flintstone's exit from work in the quarry at day's end. "He seems so happy sliding down that dinosaur's tail when the whistle-bird blows," he says.

Similarly, Jane Vawter, a management consultant, is jealous of ground-control engineers celebrating their spacecraft's first flight. "That must be a tremendous feeling," she says, "one I will never know."

She has learned how to garner a sense of accomplishment from the work she produces, instead of the response it receives. She loves to do needlework in her spare time just to control the process from start to finish.

These are words that resonate with me. I make it a point at the end of the day to put away papers and folders, pile to-do items into the designated Inbox, and write a brief note to myself of what I want to accomplish in the next day. It's a relief to look at a list of ten things and cross those tasks off at the end of the day, secure in the knowledge that you can some quantify your accomplishments. This little ritual also marks the end of the day, that time when you can slide down your own dinosaur tail to the Flintstone-mobile.

My hobbies in my spare time are similarly process and goal oriented. I love to sew. Sometimes there is no greater satisfaction than putting on a skirt you've made yourself, start to finish. I like gardening, standing on the graveled path in the back yard, looking at the plants that I've succeeded in coaxing to grow.

And I enjoy writing. The whole concept: hook, premise, thesis, supporting evidence... it's a major construction effort. I freely admit that I can be vain when it comes to my writing. But I think it's a well earned vanity, considering the beauty of the finished product.

1 responses:

WorkingDefinition said...

I'm glad you wrote this post as I think this malaise is quite widespread in today's "service" economy. Although much of what I did as a teacher was satisfying, it was hard to see the results. My friend Sarah pegged it though, likening the work to planting seeds that will later sprout. Perhaps this lack of tangibility is part of what had been bothering me about my current job... I'll take your day-ending rituals and try to adapt them to my situation - it's a simple but fantastic idea.

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