Your job isn’t supposed to be fun. But it can have purpose.

Work doesn't need to be fun

I don’t have cable and my rabbit ears suck ass, so I wasn’t able to watch the Oscars live last night. I hopped on every now and again and watched some hastily-uploaded YouTube clips, proving conclusively that I’m a digital native, and I monitored Twitter to see who the big winners were and any good acceptance speeches and nip slips and all that. (Proving that I’m a perverse digital native.) Instead of watching it, I watched the ScarJo movie Lucy, about a woman who eventually uses 100 percent of her brain (it’s odd and mostly terrible, but some parts are good), and then the 2014 movie Two-Night Stand, where Miles Teller and the babysitter from that Steve Carrell movie (and the girl from Manhattan Love Story, which got cancelled after about 2 episodes) have sex twice, then hilarity ensues.

Before I get into the actual point here, let me say that Miles Teller is definitely going to become the next Leo DiCaprio, because he has that mix of “can do the swaggy guy thing” and “can seriously act.” Plus, here’s what he does on his vacations away from sets:

We’ve seen the coming of the second Leo. But now, to the point. 

There are two distinct sequences in this film where Teller’s character talks about how ridiculous work is. In the first sequence, he says something like “Work isn’t supposed to be fun.” (That’s the essential narrative.) In the second sequence, he defines the middle class ethos: nothing is ever really good enough; you work 8 hour days like a dog to get promoted and work 10 hour days, and all you get is a little more money and more space for yourself. Who’s to say that’s good enough?

Now listen, this is a generally crappy (if sometimes heartfelt) movie feating Kid Cudi and Jessica Szohr from Gossip Girl, so I’m not necessarily saying any lessons from it should be taken at face value. But we talk about employee engagement A LOT in the modern era. It’s a big term and apparently, the C-Suite is starting to consider its relevance. (They will stop considering said relevance when the next under-projected quarterly numbers roll on through.)

“Engagement” is a squishy term and can meet a lot of things — even in its easiest-to-define sense, i.e. what happens leading to a marriage, it’s still a term that implies something else has to happen for that term to mean anything —  but most people construe it as some form of people “being happy” at work.

There’s the first problem.

There’s almost nothing in any employee-employer contract, implicit or explicit, that says employees need to be happy. That’s not how it works. Most companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their stakeholders; the employees serve that notion, at the broadest sense. You do work — and if you do work well, maybe you get more work to do and a little more scratch to take home to your family. That’s the basic idea. It’s also summed up here.

That’s the rub: work isn’t supposed to be fun, per se. 

Work is a series of tasks designed towards an end goal, which is often “the company you work for making money and keeping people happy, thus continuing to pay you.” It’s a means to an end at the individual level, especially in a period with stagnant earnings.

But here’s where it shifts.

Work can have purpose.

Purpose and fun aren’t necessarily the same thing — you can do something purposeful, like taking your friend to rehab, and that’s hardly “fun” — but purpose is relevant to work. Every member of the rank-and-file should be able to understand how (a) what they do relates to (b) what the company’s goals are. That at least puts some kind of purpose in place. In some ways, this is the essence of good leadership — providing context and purpose on projects your people are undertaking — but almost no manager seems to really understand that.

Companies often get it wrong about establishing “purpose” and they confuse it with “fun,” which is why you see stuff like “Beer O’Clock” or “Cool new conference rooms that look like tiki huts” construed as employee engagement. In a way, they are — sure. But those things aren’t necessarily establishing purpose; they’re establishing comfort and a good vibe, which is cool. But because you can drink at work doesn’t mean you understand how your deliverables relate to anything, or how your own passion projects could tie to deliverables.

So no, you don’t have to like your job. It doesn’t have to be fun. (When I meet someone who says, “I love my job; I love everything about it,” I always think “How long have you been in therapy and what’s the current rate?”) But it does need to have context and purpose.

That’s often where I think managers fall short, for many reasons — their own issues, “The Busy Trap,” the push-pull of being a middle manager, or just not understanding basic human emotion.

Say it loud and say it proud:

Work doesn’t need to be fun (cool if it is, though!), but it does need to have purpose.

Ted Bauer