I arrived home from college one summer to find newspaper strewn between my parents’ teak furniture. Atop each sheet was a different hunk of greasy machinery. My sixteen-year-old brother, Alfredo, had bought and disassembled a derelict Volkswagen beetle with the intent of transforming it into a functioning vehicle. As the summer progressed, the mechanical adornments steadily disappeared from our living room and Alfredo meticulously rebuilt the faded yellow bug. One afternoon, we heard an engine roar to life. Success!
Well, sort of. The car ran, but with a quirk. It had four reverse gears and one forward gear. Alfredo had inverted some mechanical contraption.
The entire family found this deeply amusing, but no one more than the self-effacing Alfredo. With a twinkle in his eye and keys in his outstretched hand, he offered, “Want to drive fifty miles an hour in reverse?”
I backed out of our driveway onto the streets of Caracas and, well, kept going. Everything was a struggle. With the steering wheel doing the opposite of what I expected, I meandered side to side. Having to twist my head 180 degrees was awkward. The massive blind spot was frightening. I don’t know how fast I managed to go because the dash was behind my head, but it wasn’t over twenty miles per hour. After ten minutes, I hadn’t gotten far, was exhausted, had throbbing neck pain, and, judging from the honks, made enemies. It was a hellish ride.
If you’re anywhere near normal, you are a bit like Alfredo’s beloved bug: you’re trying to drive your career forward using the wrong gear. It’s not your fault. Parents, teachers, economists, and other respectable members of twenty-first-century society taught you that your Inner Egotist, the part of you that protects your survival, drives success. Yet, your Inner Egotist is like the reverse gear. It’s designed for episodic maneuvering out of tight spots: protecting your pay if someone tries to dock it, sprinting to the exit if your cubicle is on fire or otherwise helping you manage an acute threat.
If your Inner Egotist decides what to say in meetings, which projects to take on and how to treat colleagues, it will derail your career and wellbeing. Your work life will be unnecessarily shaky, unpleasant, frightening, slow, enemy-making, and painful. Despite what we’ve been taught, a different part of you performs better in this role: the part that happily serves others or a societal cause without expecting a return, known as your Inner Giver. There is ample evidence that a giving attitude at work boosts performance, wealth and wellbeing.
Fortunately, there’s a way to shift control from your Inner Egotist to the Inner Giver. It’s called job purposing and involves helping others or a societal cause from work, often through refreshingly simple acts. An office worker might offer to sit at the front desk so that the receptionist can take a walk; on weeks when her team performs well, a manager might donate $25 to a nonprofit selected by the team, a Lyft driver whose father died from a stroke might offer to educate passengers on how to detect if a loved one is having a stroke. Each of these workers benefits from their Inner Giver reclaiming its natural territory from the over-burdened Inner Egotist.
In his classic book, Working, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Studs Terkel contrasted the path of the job-purposing Inner Giver versus the narrow-minded path of the Inner Egotist. “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Your Inner Egotist will deliver on the daily bread and the cash but, unaided by your Inner Giver, it will burden you with torpor and a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying. You can do better. You can promote your Inner Giver to workplace captain and let your Inner Egotist rest on the sidelines until needed. You can make work about meaning, recognition, astonishment and a wondrous sort of life. You can job purpose.
Terkel, Studs, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, (New York: The New Press, 1997).