Having lunch with friends, playing with my kids, vacation days — these are all fun.
When we first started Morphic Therapeutic, our VP of Finance said it’s important to tell all candidates how much fun they would have at the company over the next few years.
But is fun the right language to describe work in a modern company? Or is it another even more positive feeling entirely?
We generally consider things fun if we engage with them naturally and effortlessly, often in the spur of the moment.
If you apply that to a workplace setting, this could mean texting and responding to email. Catching up on industry news. Ordering office supplies and business cards — and even attending a number of meetings throughout the day.
Actually, is that even fun? Our normal definition of fun clearly doesn’t fit the workplace setting.
So, here’s why you shouldn’t aim for work that’s fun, but for work that’s fulfilling.
Struggling for fun
In the workplace, we struggle to achieve excellence. We consider the struggle worthy of our time. We push ourselves—hard. We give up autonomy in order to pursue something bigger than we could do ourselves.
In sports, this feeling is equal to physical pain. You probably tell yourself, “C’mon you can do this. You got this.” I’ve said this to myself hundreds of thousands of times.
In an intellectual pursuit, we feel the frustrating pain of being stuck. I find myself saying the exact same thing, “C’mon. You got this.”
For complicated problems, many can’t be solved until they have been internalized. Until all aspects of the problem can be recalled in working memory in order to let your subconscious work on it. It takes a lot of effort to get a problem into working memory.
Think back to a time when you really pushed yourself to your limits, when you were trying to solve a problem at the edge of both your field and your capabilities. When people are solving these types of hard problems, it’s a different feeling than having a fun lunch with a friend.
Getting in the zone
Some people call this a “flow” state. This describes the psychology concept labeled by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, typically referred to as being “in the zone.” This is a mental state many achieve when their skill is equivalent to the difficulty levels.
The only problem with this is that if you are in that state perpetually, you don’t get any better.
Professor Anders Ericsson, an expert in the science of peak performance, says flow is not a feeling that makes you improve. You have to be pushing the difficulty levels if you want to solve increasingly difficult problems and improve your skills.
Is it fun when you’re mentally giving it your all and reaching your limits intellectually?
When a musician is practicing a song for hours to get it right, that’s not necessarily fun. In fact, one study of world-class violinists reported that these performers could be in that intense state for a maximum of an hour and a half. After, they were so mentally exhausted they would need to immediately take a nap.
But most people are willing to go through intense periods of work because they can envision a future version of themselves. That future version will look back and thank you for the effort you put in today. So, it’s not that every single moment is enjoyable. But there is a satisfaction that comes from the process. And of course, eventually, you’re rewarded with the accomplishment.
Perhaps we lack the vocabulary, and accomplishing tasks is just a different type of fun.
There are many instances where it takes effort to have a difficult conversation. Or tackle a pile of journal articles. Or spend time trying to understand someone’s opposing view. But afterwards, you think, “Wow! That was great.”
With difficult activities, the fun and fulfillment comes after completing the task.
Aiming for fulfillment
Every moment at work is not going to be fun, but you should feel a sense of accomplishment walking out every night. The time you put in meant something. And that feeling of making progress and increasing mastery—it’s addictive.
I tell all potential candidates that if they want to challenge themselves and push their capabilities, then Morphic is the place for them. We don’t work on simple issues. We solve some of the most difficult and complex problems out there, and we give everyone the opportunity do their very best work. Because at the end of the day, we exist to solve problems. And that’s why people join the team.
When I look at our employees, I see them doing meaningful work. When they’re absorbed in their work, it rarely looks fun. But when I see them spontaneously throughout the day, they look happy.
This feeling of overall accomplishment and fulfillment is what companies need to strive for.
Finding fun in fulfillment
We all gravitate to the things that are natural and spontaneous, such as opening up email or checking off a to-do list. We resist things that are difficult, such as reviewing a direct report so you can help him or her make progress on a major problem.
Ease is an extremely powerful urge, perhaps even more powerful than a flight-or-fight response.
When working, you have to stay vigilant to anything that is easy and spontaneous. Are you just following an autopilot response? There’s a good chance whatever you’re doing isn’t valuable or fun.
On the contrary, orient and steer yourself to anything difficult. Few will go this direction. There’s a low chance you’re wasting time. Tasks or problems in this direction are not spontaneous and will take self-discipline to accomplish. But there is a much higher chance that they will provide more fulfillment—and turn out to be fun in the long run.