When someone I meet for the first time asks me the usual question: “So, what do you do?” I like to answer that I have two full-time jobs. Then, my question to them is: “Which one would you like to know about? The one that pays me a more than decent salary, allows me to have stability, benefits and a comfortable pension? Or the one that is nothing but challenge after challenge and actually costs me a few thousand dollars every year?”
Most people will pick the second one. And I don’t even need to add: “Oh, against all odds, the latter one fuels my soul and enables me to thrive.”
I am not sure exactly why. Is it due to sheer curiosity or because they guess that the second job is, in fact, my real passion?
Some of you might have deduced that I am employed by the federal public service. My second “job” is to develop my craft as a fiction writer. Why am I losing money because of writing? Last year, I decided I needed to find a purpose, feel engaged in something, and asked for a 20 percent cut in my salary to benefit from a day off. I basically bought time.
My economically irrational behavior did not surprise most of my friends and colleagues. Their reply often was: “You’re so lucky!” I kept wondering on the bus back home what was wrong with the system. Why was it that, as Gallup noted, in 2002 70 percent of U.S. employees were not engaged or actively unengaged at work? Why couldn’t their job motivate them?
The answer to my questions came when I read literature on public service renewal. I started putting down a list of what characterized my alternative job to understand what motivated me, with the hope of transposing it into work. All in all, the questions boiled down to one: why am I putting a ridiculous number of hours into something that doesn’t bring me any external rewards, in other words, no money or fame?
It didn’t take long to figure out that what I get from writing are intrinsic rewards, or more accurately, intrinsic motivation. I love playing with words, designing epic plot lines, and giving life to characters. I enjoy the act of writing fiction in itself; it enables me to reach the state of flow more often than anything else. I am on the way to mastering a craft with the knowledge that I may never reach mastery, and it doesn’t matter.
There is more to it, though. I discovered that the feeling of freedom is also a great motivator. One day, a good friend of mine asked to be part of my creation process. At first, ideas started pouring, but when I decided to hand him the role of “Motivator” and “Keeper of Discipline,” everything went wrong. I started writing with the unpleasant feeling that he was breathing down my neck, pressuring me to perform. I had just gained a supervisor and the autonomy that walks alongside intrinsic motivation was lost.
How does it all relate to changing the work environment? How could we apply at work what keeps our fire burning elsewhere? In a knowledge economy where creativity must be used to solve complex problems, disengaged employees will accomplish the job but will rarely exceed expectations. How does one make public servants, any employees for that matter, feel more passionate and motivated? Including elements that feed our passions could be a start. Autonomy over how we do our work and over what we work on, inside the organization’s objectives, would enable us to find out what motivates us and in what areas we wish to pursue mastery.
My uncle once told me, after hearing my complaints “You know, son, when I was your age, I was glad just to have a job.” And I am grateful I do. But when I imagine all we could accomplish, as a society, if work didn’t feel so much like a chore, I am tempted to tell my uncle: “Shouldn’t we aim higher?”
Jean-Philippe Veilleux is an aspiring author who has written two novels and numerous short stories, yet to be published. To pay the bills, he joined the federal public service in 2008 and now works as a foresight and policy analyst at Policy Horizons Canada.