Work has never been just a job to me. Rather, it is and always has been woven into the fabric of my life. This predilection to deeply commit myself to my work probably started way back when I began school at age six. School is the work of a child, and I did the same thing then; I embraced school and its activities with joy and intense engagement.
I have written here before about how work takes such a big chunk of my time and attention that it often has thrown my life out of balance. I have written about the distress I feel when I have not enough time to do things I enjoy or am passionate about because I am giving the biggest part of my time to work. I also have written about the ways in which excessive work has a negative impact on my health. But I don't think I have described what I get out of work, and why it is such a strong focus and motivator for me. The fact is, I don't think I fully know the answer to that question.
This week at work, I was trying to get things finished up prior to my summer vacation. It has been a long hard year, and I now find myself in a state of exhaustion and very much in need of a break. Usually in decades past, things would slow down over the summer as students left, the schedule of meetings eased, and most people took some holiday time. But in recent years, as everyone tries to do more with less, big projects and hiring schedules have been pushed into the summer months as there no longer is enough time to complete everything in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. So, as always happens in my line of work, my last week before holidays has been especially intense.
I made a list of "must do's" -- those projects and tasks I simply had to complete before I left. These included extremely overdue reports, budget decisions, performance appraisals, requests to review and provide feedback on or to approve so that others' work would not be stalled while I was away, and meetings and training to transition certain responsibilities to others to manage in my absence. But, hearing that I was about to take some time away, staff and colleagues rushed to send things to me "to take a quick look at" before I left. (Most of this extra work came pouring in via email.) So suddenly I had a much bigger pile of work to complete in that last week. This happens every time. I know that when I come back, there will be a huge heap of work waiting for me too, all of it seemingly urgent.
So where is the joy in all of this?
Well, for me, it is satisfying to work through a complicated problem, whether interpersonal in nature or operational, and find a solution that allows people to start working forward again. I enjoy mentoring people, such a staff member stepping into a new managerial role, or a new hire just joining the institution. I find it interesting to take the lead in drawing others into a team to work together on developing new approaches or programs, and I love to conceptualize and design new approaches from high level systems and abstract models right down to small practical procedures. Conceptualizing, seeing the big picture, problem-solving, synthesizing, building, creating, and doing it all with people -- it's personally satisfying, and I believe it makes a positive difference, at least in my little part of the world.
After a busy week, from 3:30 pm onward on Friday afternoon, having finally finished the last meeting of the day, I carefully worked through one task after another. I wrote requests, suggestions, explanations, and instructions. Then I hit send, put a line through that task on my list, and went on to the next. Yes, I had to jettison some of the tasks I had intended to complete. They will be waiting for me when I come, back. I set my proxies, drafted my out-of office message, recorded my voice mail, filed everything that was on my desk. At 8 pm, I turned off the light, locked the door, and left.
It took a week's worth of 12-hour days, but I left feeling it was a job well done.