Distracted by Talk About Multitasking

A recent debate on HBR.org, where I used to write a blog, has me scratching my head. Peter Bregman highlights the downsides of multitasking, citing both his own personal experiment in minimizing distractions and a smattering of research on why we shouldn’t do too many things at once. His fellow blogger David Silverman retorts with a point-by-point defense of multitasking, concluding “we need [it] as much as we need air.” As usual in recent discussions of this sort, much of the focus is on the pros and cons of electronic devices.

Both men are right, of course. There’s little to quibble with in either post. But I must confess I don’t really understand the collective point of this debate. It’s like arguing for sleep and for wakefulness. Yes, we need both. Thanks for that tip.

Negotiating a balance between concentration and distraction is one of the fundamentals of being human. We learn early in life how to self-monitor so that we can do all the things we must while managing to do the most important ones well. That’s the practical side of the equation. There’s also the question of pleasure: Spend too much time on one thing and you get bored; spend too little time on many things and you don’t feel a sense of fulfillment.

Children learn this basic principle as they play. Parents learn it as they raise children. Laborers learn it as they work. Everyone refines his or her approach with age. Most don’t bother to articulate the phenomenon, given that it’s just part of the fabric of existence. But articulating it isn’t hard, if one cares to bother.

A student of mine, who’s a mother, recently put it well: “Sometimes I need to focus on my daughter and sit with her while we do something simple. And sometimes I have to do 10 things at once to make sure my child gets what she needs. It’s like what you do in class with us as the teacher. It’s just what you have to do.” The wisdom of this observation is plain.

Electronic gadgets, complex and powerful as they may be, are merely another ingredient in the daily soup of concentration and distraction. They’re fascinating and sometimes frustrating, but I usually find research and reports about the “mental price” such devices extract from us to be utterly useless. Like most mind candy, the information tastes sweet for a few minutes but eventually leaves me hungry.

For instance, what am I supposed to do with the stray research finding that multitasking reduces a person’s productivity by 40%? Whether or not the methods of the study were rigorous enough to actually support the broad applicability of that data point, the information gets me nowhere. Ultimately, I have to navigate the waters of concentration and distraction in a particular context with a particular set of evolving challenges — month to month, day to day, minute to minute. The statistic is itself a distraction I relegate to the trash heap while I get back to teaching my student and my student gets back to caring for her daughter, both of us mono- and multitasking all the while.

And as for that word: “multitasking.” It may be a term that sprang up with the advent of computers, but it is not a new concept (Silverman, take note). Humans have long known what it was like to have many balls in the air at once, way before anyone had even invented a ball of the sort that one juggles. And people have had to reflect on this reality and refine their approach to it, instinctively, for just as long.

The more time I spend teaching students things that are not obvious (how to write an effective paragraph, how to solve an algebraic equation), the less time I’m willing to make for distracting discussions about what anyone with consciousness and an ounce of self-awareness can see for himself. That said, a friend of mine (completely unrelated to the present topic) recently issued me this wise reminder: “What’s obvious to you may be a revelation to some.”

She’s right, of course. We all have our blind spots. But no matter how I slice the issue of multitasking at this moment of idle musing on it, I still come to the same (perhaps obvious) conclusion: If you’re seeking revelations from bloggers about when, how, and why to concentrate on one thing at a time, your deficits in the simple, human art of self-reflection are very deep indeed — deeper than any discussion of multitasking in the age of gadgets can possibly fill.

Chew on that later. Right now someone who really needs you is calling. Click away from this silly blog post and get back to her.

Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?

In publishing circles today, there’s a premium on numbers. Editors, writers, and journalists often seek to crystallize or legitimize a story with an eye-popping statistic that will become the sound bite or “takeaway” of the piece. Yet most of these professionals have an aversion to examining the underlying data developed by expert authors or sources. Sometimes proudly asserting “I’m a word person,” they soil their hands with numbers just enough to make the story work but refuse to learn what the data really mean. In many cases, they don’t even bother to check the accuracy. No, I don’t have a statistic on this phenomenon to make you gasp. My evidence is anecdotal, but for those in publishing willing to be honest with themselves, I think it will ring true.

Sins of Omission

Consider a hypothetical example similar to many I’ve encountered. An expert author, knowing that it’s difficult to use argument and expertise alone to persuade readers nowadays, conducts “research” to prove his point. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, he interviews 25 people and asserts that 94% gave thus-and-such surprising answer to an important question. An observant editor asks the author whether he really means 92% (23 out of 25) or 96% (24 out of 25), given that 94% is not possible, and offers to look over the data for him. The author casually replies, “Let’s just go with 96%.” The editor never reviews the original data to check whether 96% — or any of the author’s other figures — are accurate.

Another author asserts that in a survey she conducted, half of respondents said they never do something that you’d expect they do every day — a “Wow!” for the reader. Unwilling to “open a can of worms” or “get bogged down in details” (phrases I hear often in these scenarios), the in-house editors don’t ask the author whether there’s any contradictory evidence in what the other 50% of respondents said. The findings from one half of the survey takers are presented as if they tell the whole story.

To be sure, you shouldn’t weigh down an article written for a non-expert audience with extraneous contextual data. It’s obviously appropriate to make judgment calls about how much information the reader actually needs. But if no one at the publisher does the basic background work of checking the legitimacy of the numbers, how can the quality of what the reader is getting be assured? A colleague once said to me, “We’re simply not qualified to interpret the data,” straightforward as the data in question were. Such excuses for omission are, in my experience, rarely viewed as a problem in publishing. But I’ve found them to be insidious and rampant.

Sins of Ignorance

Much more widely discussed are the sins of data ignorance, of which there are many varieties. Take, as one example, a news article that reports that a particular lifestyle behavior increases the risk for a disease by, say, 75% — a staggering figure at face value. A check of the actual research reveals that the number of people who get the disease is so small that a 75% increase amounts to just a few more cases. Readers mistakenly assume that huge numbers of people who engage in the behavior are at risk for the disease. It’s possible that this was a sin of omission (the journalist didn’t bother to check the original data), but if you talk to the people who report on these types of stories, you’ll more often find that they just didn’t know how to interpret the statistics in the research. Either way, the reader is ill served.

Then there’s the ignorance of how the data were developed. If, for instance, 65% of workers at a particular site were deemed to be “inadequately trained,” what precisely were the criteria for adequacy? And how was the evidence that a worker did or did not fulfill those criteria collected? That’s the type of information that readers really must have to understand the context, yet frequently even the editors never ask to see it, thereby guaranteeing that the readers won’t get access to it either.

The Devil in the Unverified Details

Publishers of many stripes have become intoxicated with the reporting of numbers, in part because consumers have shown that they have a taste for that elixir. The compelling, sometimes shocking statistic dances seductively in the headline, the subtitle, or the callout — and the reader succumbs to its charms. A number, potent and seemingly unassailable, is worth a thousand words. As long as readers and producers of content alike are addicted to the allure of statistics but simultaneously allergic to the task of understanding what’s behind them, the premium on a well-placed, poorly vetted percentage will remain very high indeed.

Quitting a Job: An Act of . . . Poetry?

I’ve heard people say that quitting a job is having the courage to admit that work is not the most important thing in life. For some, that’s true — quitting can be about placing value on things other than earning a living or, more to the point, other than earning respect for earning a living in a certain way. In short, they resolve not to give work more of their time and energy than it truly deserves. It’s a perfectly legitimate point of view, and it leads many to make decisions that improve their lives greatly. These practical choices are acts of necessity.

For other people, the need to quit a job emerges from a deeply held belief that work really matters — matters too much to be done in the ways that the institutions they inhabit at the moment demand. They find it hard to watch the potential of human labor — especially their own — strangled by narrow aims that don’t amount to much in the end. These folks, who are often the most talented, don’t merely redefine their priorities and slot work in the proper place. They seek to redefine work itself and to restructure their “working selves,” not just their work schedules, accordingly. Their decisions are acts of conviction.

Whatever the reason someone quits, quitting is indeed an act. Even the most level-headed, drama-free exit from a job (the best kind) puts a person in a contemplative zone, not so much as the decision is being made but in the aftermath — in that curious, breathless void that only big transitions expose. It’s then, just as the lungs begin to fill anew, that it’s most valuable to give yourself the room to speak. That speech can take many forms, not all of them verbal. But I believe it’s important to articulate something while you’re in that space, to loosen the ties around the neck, some of which you may not even have felt before the untying. There’s something about the gesture — about the expressive act itself — that allows you to stretch and grow more fully than you would have otherwise.

For me, that act was writing a blog post about my decision to quit, and then the subsequent serial blog that, by twist of fortune, ensued on hbr.org and now resides here. A much more compelling act on the subject is an evocative poem by the late Robin Blaser, called simply “Quitting a Job.” You can watch and listen to him read it at an event in late 2008, just six months before his death and, strangely, just one week after I decided to quit, by clicking here (start at 17:50).

It’s in witnessing acts like Blaser’s that, I believe, you can begin to discover the poetry of your own act — to hear in your mind’s ear, and then articulate, the voice of what’s possible so that, as Blaser writes so pointedly, “You won’t die strangled.”

Thanks to Cheryl Clark Vermeulen, who introduced me to Blaser’s poem.

Call Me a Part-Timer, Call Me a Nomad

Many people who make their living working multiple part-time jobs aren’t thrilled with the scenario. They say things like “I don’t know if I’m coming or going” and “I’m spread too thin.” The situation usually arises out of necessity, not choice. For one thing, there’s the difficulty in securing affordable health insurance — it’s the 800-pound gorilla. But if you press these wandering workers about why they dislike the nomadic lifestyle, you find that even without that fat ape, their lives often feel like a zoo.

I, too, am no fan of constant chaos. But I also have a fundamental need for variety in the challenges I confront, the people I collaborate with and serve, and, most important, the ways I use my mind. Given all that, on balance I’ve come to appreciate the hodgepodge of multiple part-time jobs I do, even if it sometimes means feeling spread thin. I would rather keep moving and risk fatigue than sit still while the black flies descend.

For nomad workers like me, variety can have a temporal dimension as well. I work part time in new venues, but I also freelance for former full-time employers. Both connections require direct, ongoing collaboration with on-site colleagues. In this respect, the past phases of my work life persist in the present, so that my experiences feel cumulative and mutually reinforcing, not sequential and discrete. Plus, I retain a sense of belonging to, and remain invested in outcomes at, the organizations where I used to be a full-timer. The proof of that, I recently realized, is in my instinctive use of “we” when I talk shop with former coworkers.

That said, conversations about work identity can be a sore spot for me. When asked to label my career, I often don’t know whether I should call myself a teacher, a freelancer, an editor, a writer, or some wishy-washy-sounding mixture of them all. In general, I try to use verbs (what I do) rather than nouns (what I am), but that can sound to certain folks like dodgy language from someone trying to hide that he’s a jack of all trades but a master of none. The more specialized the profession of the person talking to me, the more suspicion I tend to arouse, especially when one of the subareas I mention as being in my repertoire is the one with which he or she identifies. “Call me a nomad,” I once joked in response to such a person. But that self-deprecating label doesn’t make me seem like someone whose labor you’d want to pay for. The proof comes in the work I eventually produce, and so far reputation has served well enough as evidence of my legitimacy (knock on wood).

I also place a premium on establishing strong relationships with the folks at the new places where I work. I involve myself in decision making when that type of participation is welcomed, and I do other extras when I can. Boundaries can, of course, be tricky to maintain when your zoo of responsibilities is populated with animals that don’t cohabitate comfortably. I try to use fences rather than walls as much as possible — to keep the inter-species dynamics interesting without compromising my own safety (read: sanity). There is that 800-pound gorilla, though.

For the moment, the zoo is my professional home, and the animals are the many jobs I do, each one with its own needs and risks but deserving of my affection nonetheless. An itinerant zookeeper with a feed bucket swinging from my hip may not be the most flattering look to sport. But it’s a small price to pay for the freedom, variety, and sheer fascination I enjoy from almost-daily exposure to the sights and sounds of diverse habitats. I’ll continue to wander through them for now, prepared to reassess my choice if my legs and arms and back tire out before my eyes and ears and brain do.

Are You a Specialist or a Generalist Editor?

Strict editorial boundaries have never really suited me. I’ve been a writer, a developmental editor, and a copy editor, and in all three roles I can’t help but wear all three hats. When I work with a piece of writing, whether or not the byline is mine, I allow every editorial detail to enter my brain simultaneously. That unfiltered receptivity, though it may seem indiscriminate, enhances the value of each decision I make, large or small. If I censor myself, even temporarily, something vital gets lost, and I end up treating the piece as if it’s a machine being assembled rather than an organic creature being nourished.

The advantage of discrete editorial roles is, of course, that each specialist in the process has the space to focus on her assigned job without distraction and is empowered to make judgment calls in the area she knows best. But what also tends to happen is that individual specialists cater, sometimes without realizing it, to separate internal constituencies instead of a common, external audience. To be sure, specialist expertise can be essential to an editorial endeavor, and the need for it must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If, however, the default arrangement is that every editorial role is specialized, it can be very hard to work out all the kinks and truly unify the final product.

I often wonder whether more editors should instead behave as generalists, simultaneously attending to the forest, the trees, and everything else in the editorial ecosystem as they produce, shape, and refine the whole — while bringing a writer’s sensibility to bear at every twist and turn. That doesn’t mean I long for a world without editorial collaboration, where one person does it all. I firmly believe that nearly anything worth publishing is best produced through collective effort, and I consider the basic need for both a writer and an editor to be fundamental. But I prefer to collaborate with people who can operate expertly and without inhibition in all domains at once yet who appreciate the value of a second — and a third — set of equally unencumbered eyes and ears.

My sense, though, is that I’m an outlier in that regard, and that to most people in editorial arenas the advantages of specialization far outweigh the drawbacks. If you’re a writer, an editor, or both, where do you come down on the specialist/generalist question? I’m all eyes and ears.

Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.

I Ain’t the Boss of Me

I don’t have a home office. There’s no room or cordoned-off area where I retreat to do my work, prepare my invoices, and rule over my freelance roost. Technically, I’m called a “sole proprietor,” yet I own almost nothing that’s exclusively work-related. Sure, I have a laptop, but it migrates from room to room, even sometimes from town to town, as I piece together my living.

Freelancers vary, of course, in how they define the boundaries of their work spaces, both physically and psychologically. On the opposite end of the spectrum from me is my soon-to-be landlord. I recently went to his home office to sign a lease on a new apartment. His professional domain was a mini-empire, with all the machines, tools, shelves, cabinets, and other trappings that make a freelance entrepreneur feel like the king of his castle. Sure, the dividing line between professional and personal was not absolute (his wife was changing the baby’s diaper mere steps away), but this man made clear that he enjoys lording over his territory. If I hadn’t seen his infant son pee in his wife’s face with my own eyes, I might have assumed the odor of urine was from the father’s scent-marking. In short, he is a businessman, and I am his client.

In my relationships with the people who pay me, “clients” is definitely the wrong word. What I do for them feels like work I took home from the office, not tasks I am “contracted” to perform. I treat these folks like colleagues rather than customers, whether or not I have previously worked with them face-to-face. There’s some risk in that approach in the short run, but in the long run everyone wins.

My non-proprietary attitude, odd as it may strike you, is also essential to my psychological well-being as a freelancer. You see, I’m really a full-timer in my soul, in the sense that I prefer an elbow-rubbing informality as I collaborate with people and create things of value. Overly prescribed professional niceties tend to inhibit my work. And a rigid proprietor/customer mind-set gets in the way of producing high-quality results, at least in editing and writing, where the bulk of my freelance activities lie.

So why in the world did I quit my full-time publishing job a year and a half ago if I’m not really a freelancer at heart? Without rehashing my many blog posts on the subject, I would boil it down to a desire to feel unencumbered in a variety of domains, not just one. I teach English and math part-time, for example, and I need the dynamism of the classroom and the give-and-take I get from fellow educators to sustain me. Yet I also want to have the time and the opportunity to be stimulated by an array of professional activities in publishing, where my impact is much less immediate but where I feel connected, albeit indirectly, to larger audiences.

Where that leaves me as a freelancer, though, is without a single domain that I can claim as mine. I have no urge to hang out my shingle, lay down a welcome mat, and fill a little plastic rack with crisp business cards. I don’t even want to be my own boss. Indeed, I’ve come to accept that my bosses are many — but they don’t own me either. Ownership, in the business sense, is not what I’m after, no matter who holds the purse strings. My professional philosophy is strongly independent, yet my day-to-day actions quietly serve others, and that in turn serves me.

Territories are hard to mark on this sort of landscape, and that may seem frustrating to those who prefer to know precisely where they stand in the professional world. I guess I’m more interested in the topography.

When Editors Are Used by Their Editorial Tools

Even the fussiest, text-driven editor has to admit that the boom in interactive, infographic, and other visually engaging content has greatly enhanced the value of what publishers of all stripes are now able to offer readers. “How can we show what we say?” is a question that publishing professionals now routinely ask themselves as they develop material. That’s a good thing, for the most part.

But with the allure of what’s possible comes the illusion of what’s necessary. Many editors, intoxicated by the power of new tools and techniques, have begun to assume that visually arresting presentation adds value by default. Got information to share? Create an infographic. An interactive feature worked here; let’s use it over there. The availability of the medium starts, in effect, to drive — rather than to serve — the content.

Witness “Infographic of the Day,” a feature on Fast Company’s website that I was amused, but also disturbed, to come upon last year. The title says it all: We’re creating an infographic every 24 hours, come hell or high water. Quite a few of my editorial colleagues got all jazzed by this initiative, like they were rooting for the local sports team’s new rookie.

One of these daily infographics that made folks swoon was called “McDonald’s Heat Wave,” a U.S. map in which points of light were used to visualize the distance to the nearest McDonald’s from any given location in the lower 48 states. The result was an eye-catching image of, for lack of a better term, “Big Mac density” in the U.S. It looked cool and kind of made you go, “Wow, dude, you really can’t get away from Mickey D’s east of the Mississippi or on the west coast.” But then I quickly realized that if I put this sparkly thing next to a simple population-density map, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between McDonald’s density and pop density. And if there were a difference, where was the comparison population infographic to prove it? In short, if something new could be learned from the map, the map makers hadn’t bothered to teach it. But, hey, it was an infographic — a picture worth a thousand … no, a million — maybe a billion … served. I mean, words. Are you swooning yet?

You see the phenomenon on TV, too. CNN developed a truly excellent, interactive, wall-size U.S. map, deftly manhandled by John King during the 2008 election season. But then the so-called “magic wall” started being employed, in an enlarged form, for every two-bit display of information that the network could force into it. We viewers lapped it up once, maybe we’ll keep licking our chops every time the thing gets used. The tasteless CNN news editors now seem to pay little mind to whether the tool actually helps to illuminate the substance of a given story. The magic plaything entertains the kiddies, so go ahead and crack the lid of that toy chest again. And again. And again.

So does this unrelenting blitz of the at once brilliant and banal mean we should pout and whimper as we pine for the editorial substance of yesteryear? Of course not. Besides, yesteryear had its own overused dazzlers, even if they weren’t quite as glitzy. Today’s have the power to do much more, though, and in the hands of folks with sound editorial judgment they really can turn good content into great content. But it’s incumbent upon editors and publishers — and everyone in the chain who works for them — not to allow themselves to follow “hell or high water” dictums about when and how the new tricks of the trade should be used. If tools drive your material, haven’t you, in effect, become the tool?

Does Quitting Your Job Seem Sexy?

Quitting a job without a new position in hand is an act that sticks with you for a while, even if you’re sensible enough to do it coolly. It doesn’t quietly recede into memory, precisely because it’s both risky and calculated — and because the danger period lasts, certainly longer than a bungee jump or even a week-long wilderness adventure. Thrill-seeking might be part of the allure, but it is not the reality. Most people who see quitting as a ticket to liberation are tilting at windmills, making something mythic out of the mundane. Quitting might very well be the right choice for you, as it was for me. But its aftermath is usually quotidian — Ps and Qs, not Xs and Zs.

It’s been almost 18 months now since I quit my full-time job. At the time I had a sense of where I wanted to go — back to teaching at least part-time, freelancing to pay the bills, doing my own writing where I could make time for that, studying foreign language again if possible. For those of you who have asked for an update, here’s the short version:

On the teaching front, things could not have been more positive. I quickly found two part-time posts that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve become involved with a group that works on standardized testing in adult education. If anything, I have to watch myself to ensure I don’t say yes to every request that comes down the pike, especially given the low pay. But it’s mission-driven work that sustains the soul, and that is priceless.

Freelancing has sustained other parts of my mind. I continue to have the chance to work with great thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in a variety of fields. That said, the nature of being an outsider as you contract with clients isn’t without its frustrations, as I’ve discussed in several posts on this blog. On balance, however, this segment of my life has provided intellectual stimulation of a sort that I continue to need, not to mention the bulk of my income. And, for now, I’m enjoying the freshness of an outsider’s perspective.

Writing has been a mixed bag. Yes, I’ve been issuing posts for this blog every week, and I like the regularity of that self-imposed deadline. But I’ve been so busy with teaching and freelancing that time for non-blog writing has been pretty limited. I am currently enrolled in a poetry workshop, but beyond that and the blog, the yield has been thin.

On the foreign language front, I’ve taken just one Spanish refresher class (last summer). And I practice that language briefly with a couple of my night students on our way out of the school building twice a week. Pretty paltry, I know.

All in all, my new professional life feels pretty workaday. For the most part, I do things on my own terms, and that’s a change. And my own results on my quiz titled “Does Your Work Matter to You?” have greatly improved. That’s progress, of course, but it’s not the awe-inspiring transformation that so many quitters want it to be. I didn’t really harbor those kinds of illusions from the get-go, so I haven’t been disappointed.

“Quit” is a funny English word. It’s pithy, and in the right mouth it sounds potent. But I just think of it as a quirky curiosity that, when you boil it down to its essentials, is unremarkable, even humdrum. As an English teacher, I can’t help but reflect on its identical principal parts: quit, quit, and quit (the base form, simple past, and past participle, respectively). It’s a rare verb in English that exhibits such sameness (“burst” is another). I guess your point of view depends on whether you want to be seduced by the sexy rarity or reflect soberly on the sameness. I obviously tend toward the latter. What about you?

Did That Employee Motivation Plan Come in a Can?

Everyone wants to feel motivated at work, and managers know that motivated people produce better results. So it’s not surprising that the literature on motivating employees is vast. But it’s hard not to feel depleted when you sense that “motivating the team” is a line item on your manager’s agenda, a means to an end, a notch in your boss’s belt.

Articles and books about motivating employees don’t put it that way, of course. The tone is usually energetic, even inspirational, and certainly practical. Confronted with low morale, managers who read the literature looking for tips and solutions have learned to wheel out the team-building efforts, listen more actively, increase positive feedback, and use an array of other no-brainer tactics to make people feel valued at work. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The end goal is a worthwhile one.

But most employees know when they’re being tinkered with, when attempts to motivate them are coming from a calculated place, when there’s simply too much deliberate effort in the endeavor, well-intended as that effort may be. People, especially the talented ones, recognize the prefab packaging of an off-the-shelf purchase. Sometimes you even see it lying around, like when I noticed a dog-eared magazine article about employee motivation on a manager’s desk, only to find myself a participant in the article’s recommended team exercise two weeks later. Sure, the effort was better than apathy and inaction, but I felt pity for that manager, and that’s pretty much a downer.

I have never conducted rigorous research on employee motivation, as many who write about it claim to have done. But one thing I know is that data-hungry managers seeking valid, usable evidence of best practices will eventually see, if they’re honest with themselves, that they’re on a wild goose chase. Even the rare manager with enough research savvy to analyze the data astutely will find that the very act of casting about for solutions and trying to apply them in a troubled situation looks pathetic at best — and cynical at worst — to the people he wants to motivate. That perception is inherently depleting, not motivating.

What to do then if you’re a manager with an unmotivated team? Give up? Well, maybe so, if you find yourself routinely in need of imported tools and prefab crutches as you try to motivate people. But the problem might instead be that you’re looking around for answers instead of looking within. People get most excited when motivation is incidental to the task at hand, not an end in itself. Motivation endures when you learn from someone who is enthusiastic about the intrinsic value of the work, is fascinated by how colleagues and subordinates think, is able to articulate her keen observations, and is just plain good at what she does. I’ve seen that happen time and again in both the workplace and the classroom. Never have I witnessed anyone respond in a genuine way to a canned motivational plan.

Motivation, like laughter, is casually infectious. It blindsides you when you least expect it. Administering it via syringe doesn’t work, precisely because people see the needle coming.

Sure, some managers get deft with needles and seem to obtain results despite their inorganic approach. All sorts of little tricks are out there to help you in that effort. But tool kits and bags of tricks make me feel numb. And you’d be surprised how many people would admit that if you weren’t the one assigning them grades or writing their performance reviews. “Yes, sir, thank you for giving me this motivation. Here it is on my desk. I love it. Very beautiful.”