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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


I Like My Work: A Reflection.

I feel fortunate, because judging from popular opinion, liking one's job is relatively rare.

March 17, 2019

Writing recently about how miserable Harvard M.B.A. graduates are in their work has caused me to reflect on my own work. First, a confession.

I like work. Or maybe I should say, I like my work, because there is definitely work that I am not a fan of. I was talking recently to a friend going through their three-year review towards tenure and the description of that process sounded like work I would definitely not like.

I’m grateful, in that I generally get up in the morning looking forward to what I have to do that day. 

This tempts me to write a self-help post on how to find satisfaction in your work, but I don’t believe that would be helpful. The problem is beyond  the bounds self-help.

For one, it’s not just Harvard M.B.A.s who don’t find satisfaction in their work, or who are burned out by their work. We have seen a recent rash of writing on the ways and whys of how work makes Americans miserable. 

At Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Peterson writes about “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”

Jonathan Malesic argues that “Millennials Don’t Have a Monopoly on Burnout.”

The problem most agree, is that for too many, work lacks “meaning.” This was evidenced by Charles Duhigg’s experience at his Harvard Business School reunion, as he moved among the “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable.”

We have been undone by the Protestant work ethic. While hard work may result in riches, that wealth is increasingly divorced from emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Anne Helen Peterson argues that when it comes to Millennials who are more likely to be saddled with debt, it doesn’t even come with riches.

The crisis, in one way or another, is spiritual. Derek Thompson at the Atlanticsays work has become “workism,” where work takes on religious dimensions as we see our deepest selves as inextricable from our jobs. Unfortunately, according to Thompson, this sets us up for burnout because “our desks were never meant to be our altars.”

Malesic believes that we need to find spiritual and communal spaces which value rituals that exist outside of work, helping to put work in its proper place as an economic, rather than spiritual endeavor. This could be, but need not be religious practice.

This all makes sense to me. I’m for it, but it occasionally has the whiff of self-help. These authors all acknowledge the systemic problems which create these conditions, but in the end, it falls on the individuals to lift themselves out of the morass. 

I am not in that morass (again, very lucky), which has me thinking about the conditions and experiences that have put me in this place. What are the ingredients behind my good fortune, and how can we create those conditions for more people?

1. I am economically secure. I am not rich, but neither does my household worry about paying the bills. I went to college when full cost of attendance at a state school was less than $25k for four years, so I have not experienced the kind of debt that confronts Millennial and younger students. Even when I was personally broke (post grad school), I knew I had a family who would take me in as I regrouped. When I’ve changed jobs as an adult, my spouse has provided a financial cushion that allows for these transitions. 

I am tempted to end the list here because without number one, the rest almost don’t matter, and our first moves towards a solution should be to make these conditions more possible for more people, but I’m assuming there’s folks who meet this condition who still don’t enjoy their work. 


2. Money is a poor scorecard for my success. Being a writer is so unlikely to result in big money that unlike careers in finance (like those profiled by Charles Duhigg), questions of how much I make writing are largely irrelevant. That I can earn a modest living is a success beyond what I could ever dream, and beyond what the vast majority achieve.

3. I enjoy the act of writing. Writing is often frustrating, but it is fundamentally the kind of problem I like to solve, so provided a solution does eventually arrive, even the frustration is a kind of fun. Teaching is similar. I do not expect every moment to be bliss, but I also have experienced an emotionally satisfying payoff to that hard work. That emotional payoff is what kept me in the classroom even as I knew it was unwise economically.

4. I write about subjects that are interesting to me and matter to me. I believe in what I do and why I do it. Again, this is similar to teaching. I have lost much of my faith in educational institutions, but that loss of faith has not extended into the day-to-day work of the classroom. That work will always “matter.”

5. I have freedom to explore the ideas that matter to me in ways that enhance my own freedom. Because I am a relative small fry, I am not subject to the kind of scrutiny that writing for an outlet like the New York Times may entail. I also have no need to be careerist or curry favor from those higher on the ladder.[1]I like my niche. 

6. My time is my own. As I say, I work a lot. I’m typing this draft on a Saturday morning having worked a full-week at my new job, but this is by choice, and I’ve actually been anticipating getting the chance to work through this particular writing problem. (See number 3.) 

7. I like and respect who I write for. My Inside Higher Ed editors have given me freedom and support and guidance that has made me a better thinker and writer. The same is true of my editor at the Chicago Tribune. The checks also always arrive on time.[2]

8. I get just enough attention from readers. I am a small fry, but in the comments here or emails, or running into people at the MLA conference, I hear from readers who are impacted by my work. (For better or worse.) It’s nice to be read and to hear that my work sometimes resonates with others. That matters when it comes to my own work satisfaction.[3]

9. I’ve experienced, and recovered from, many professional disappointments. My novel barely sold, and it’s been an uphill climb trying to publish another one. I failed to secure a tenure track job at the institution where I’d been successfully visiting. An eponymous publishing imprint - The Original Warner (TOW) Books – imploded when the books I thought were slam dunk brilliant (because they are) didn’t sell in sufficient numbers to make it through the recession. The book that was going to sell big and launch that imprint was torpedoed by an 11thhour lawsuit threat (long story). 

There’s plenty of others, but after getting past the initial pain of disappointment, those knocks have only reaffirmed that I genuinely enjoy the work, and as long as there’s enough support for me to keep doing it out there, I’m winning.

10. My work has changed with the times and I enjoy a lot of variety. I have a pretty odd Amazon author page, and my full CV reflects someone who has been around several different blocks. I’ve never had enough success with any one thing to make it the focus of my career, which has meant my career requires me to do the work that’s available. That variety has proved sustaining in ways more focus likely couldn’t match.

11. Lastly, I’ve been mindful of monitoring my own happiness with my work and checking in with my values. If this is to be a self-help post, I guess this is the advice. I left teaching not because I stopped enjoying teaching, but because I feared rising bitterness over the systemic issues I had to navigate to do the work. I took a new job because I missed being part of a team, and felt my core writing getting stale. That job, which has made me significantly busier, has revitalized my other work. Working more – while staying within the limits of what I can handle - has made me happier.

But there may come a time when that’s no longer the case, which means I’ll have to check in with myself again and adjust as necessary.

I don’t know that there is a universal recipe for success in my experiences, but I hope they’re helpful to someone.

Does anyone else enjoy their work? Why?


[1]I was permitted a small look behind the curtain of these elite dynamics in reading about the email exchange between New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, and one of his critics. Stephens essentially signaled that one of the reasons to not send intemperate emails to people like him is not because it is rude but because people like him occupy positions of power and it is bad for one’s career to antagonize people like him. If shutting up about how bad a writer and thinker I believe David Brooks to be is a pre-requisite for achieving access to the big platforms, count me out. 

[2]This is unfortunately rare in the freelance writing world.

[3]I wanted to be one of those writers who could squirrel themselves away in a garret, descending every few years with a weighty tome, but I learned pretty quickly that’s not me.

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