Who, where, when, what, in that order

Once you read the next two sentences you won’t be able to forget them: Is working with people you don’t care for, in an environment that isn’t right, at a time that is unideal, your game plan for life? Focusing on “what you do” is the wrong answer for a rich and fulfilling professional existence.

Intro

In 2016 I developed a basic working philosophy – “If you have to choose between who you work with and what you do, choose who.” This was the axiom of my business development approach.

This philosophy has since expanded to “all work is negotiated through the lens of your priorities, the first priority should be who you work with, the second concerns space and time (where you work and when you work), and finally, if you even have this choice at all, what you are actually doing.

As a second clause, “you probably only get to choose one and have a good say in another, so if you get more, be grateful.”

Who, where, when, what, in that order.

Notice also that I’m excluding why. This isn’t because it isn’t important. It is. The most important, really. But it’s been abused. And this is largely the fault of business and really good sales people.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle (the power of why) is a good example. I agree with everything he says, and simultaneously see that this is the business sales pitch to employees for the purpose of developing some type of loyalty plus productive vigor in the workplace.

The answer to why, stated by the executive to the employee, is really an answer to “what you (they) do.”

Employee: “I need to know that what I do is meaningful.”

Sinek-styled-Executive: “Here is WHY your tasks have meaning – they serve a bigger purpose, [insert ethical claim], [ensure that they see me as an empathetic leader].”

These things are nice. But I see that as a pretty low bar, because who, where, and when carry a greater significance.

In short, Sinek’s Golden Circle is not the apex answer to the question of work-philosophy. It is embedded within a larger context, perhaps, my own view – who, where, when, what.

Because the why is already there – you first work in order to acquire resources so you don’t die. That is a really good why. A foundation we shouldn’t dispense with.

Excess of this is meaning. Sinek proposes “why,” which as I’ve shown, is really just a marketing pitch about “what.” And “what” you do has FAR LESS MEANING than who you work with, where you are working, and when you work.

Here are the basic assumptions. You spend approximately eight hours a day, five days a week, with the same people, in the same place, at the same time, and doing the same things.

Advertisements make the claim that we should “do what we love.” Why? There are arguably many things you could do that you find joy and meaning in. Also, should we have the expectation that everything we do is “what we love?” No. Conducting administrative tasks is dry at best, but they are necessary for record-keeping and organization. Reviewing processes is complex and requires dissenting opinions. Sales have a 2-3% success rate if you’re at the top of your game. Most businesses fail. Virtually every major corporation making billions today will be dead in a generation. The price of what you do has almost nothing to do with you and everything to do with the market, technology, competition, etc. There, that’s what you do.

How on earth is trying to control the answer to that question more important to your lived experience than trying to answer “who you work with.”

How many people will you truly love sitting beside and working with, every day, for eight hours, for years?

I would rather plant rice in the Philippines with good company than ostensibly do something I loved while surrounded by people who I don’t like and who don’t like me everyday for years on end. Perhaps this is why mental health is such a big issue in modern culture and modern workplaces – we’ve grouped together a bunch of people where:

  • At best 2-3 people are your sometimes friends
  • Twice that many have actively tried to harm your career
  • 50%+ don’t know you, and you don’t know
  • 20% don’t like you, and you don’t like
  • 80%+ of people don’t care about you at all, and you them

This isn’t a healthy environment.

But we’re sold on why – sold someone else’s version of meaning – in the what, and only the what.

We write/search for job descriptions that are all about what. We negotiate on what we do and for how much. We then shake hands and get placed next to people we didn’t choose, whom we’ve never met, and where the majority at best don’t give a fuck about us. We’re sitting in a chair at a desk in an office that was designed to be cost-effective. If you’re lucky, the business spent extra on design, but the rule of the thumb was still cost savings. Therefore, you’ll spend eight hours a day, five days a week, years and years, in a space characterized by cost savings. And you’ll do all this at a time that apparently didn’t matter too much to you. Independent of when you work best or what time(s) best suit you or when your children get out of school or what time x, y, or z important things occur on a weekly basis.

We sacrificed all this choice in the name of “do what you love,” in the name of The Golden Circle, in the name negotiating dollars per hour.

Is working with people you don’t care for, in an environment that isn’t right, at a time that is unideal, your game plan for life?

I suggest a different approach.

Pick a few what’s. Something that makes money. Don’t bet the farm on the perfect what. Because you don’t damn well know anyway. And, more importantly, in 5-10 years, almost all the what’s you picked up will be redundant. You’ll have to keep learning new what’s until you’re dead. Don’t base your entire working philosophy on loving what you do and only that!

Here are the steps I follow, in order, and why I follow them in this order.

Who

I’ve often heard that you can’t choose who you work with. This is true, if you are only looking for a career based upon what you do. To put another way, yes, you’ve lost the battle when you pre-surrender. Don’t pre-surrender on the choice of who.

Finding your work takes time, regardless. Spend it wisely and invest in who, not what.

Here is one way to think about it. What is your favorite thing to do? Picture it in your mind. Picture you doing that thing. Now, add to the picture five people you don’t really know or care for. You have to do that thing you love with them. Every day. For several hours. One of them really gets on your nerves just by existing. One of them doesn’t like you and you don’t have a clue as to why. One of them does the thing that you love in a way that disagrees with everything you believe.

Are you enjoying life? Do you think this is a good system to launch you into a successful career and happy, healthy, meaningful life?

Let’s flip the script.

What is your least favorite thing to do? Picture yourself doing it. Things that commonly make the list for most people are “public speaking,” “doing the dishes,” and “filing taxes.” You’re not having fun doing these things. But now picture yourself with two of your favorite people in the world. Public speaking just turned into a guaranteed hilarious memory for all of you. Doing the dishes probably just turned into a bizarre – yet highly efficient – game. Filing taxes, well, it’s still not fun. But you all were able to effectively complain about the process.

How’s life now?

I could see my life like that. And I did. This is me just describing what my work life is like. Philosophy is how you live, not what you claim.

Surround yourself with people you really enjoy being with. Don’t negotiate.

Why is who before where? Apply the same logic as above. Would you rather be in paradise with people that annoy you, or in the mud with your favorite people? My bet is that choosing my favorite people is a pathway to paradise. If I don’t get to paradise, at least I was surrounded by people that made the journey worthwhile.

Where

Many workplaces have changed due to COVID-19. People are working from home and struggling because everyone is home. Stories are coming out about a rise in divorce, domestic violence, and child abuse because families are doing something they don’t do very often – existing near each other for extended periods of time.

If this isn’t evidence that WHO matters more than anything, then I don’t know what is.

But where is a close second.

The environment you are in for several hours a day for the plurality of your life is significant. This can be analyzed from many perspectives.

Are you able to get up and walk easily and often? Because sitting for several hours without moving will result in you living a less healthy life and dying sooner.

Are you closer to coffee, water, fruits, and vegetables, or soda and fast food? The thing that is closer to you will be what you consume more often. The latter will result in you living a less healthy life and dying sooner.

Do you have any connection to nature, art, or fresh air? A lack of these things for several hours a day will result in you living a less healthy life and dying sooner.

At this precise moment, it is 4:44 pm on a Friday. I am sitting outside, and have been sitting outside since 11 am. I can hear birds, see the sunlight peer through the trees, feel and hear the wind, and on occasion see squirrels chase each other, much to the displeasure of the neighbor’s dog, who howls quite hilariously.

These are locational factors that inspire me and make me feel really good about how I’m spending my finite time on earth.

Here’s a chart.

I’m now in the housing market and the only locational criteria that matters is “how many minutes is your house from work.” Which is another way of saying, “how many months of your life will you spend in a traffic jam.” The extent to which you’ve analyzed the value of “where” with respect to your professional existence deserves greater attention and far more sophisticated thinking than that.

Where is not just an address. It’s the art you are able to see on a wall 20 times a day. It’s your view. It’s the extent to which you are free to move. It’s the relationship between the elements in your very-near environment to your future self.

When

If you get this far to have an actual say, let alone a choice in when you work, then congratulations. The choices here are far more binary, however.

  • Do you have a fixed or flexible schedule?
  • Do you have guaranteed holidays or not?
  • Do you clock-in (employee, manager) or do you basically work all the time (entrepreneur, executive)
  • What time(s) of the day do you work?
  • Does the word “weekend” actually mean anything to you, or not?

Hopefully you get a say in these things, or at least you consider them, because they are governing your life, everyday. Making this at a minimum acceptable for you is worth your effort.

The actual negotiating power we have in this domain is usually pretty limited. Most businesses are operating at a certain time for reasons far outside our opinion. But if you can exercise choice, do so.

As an example, a professor I’ve worked with teaches online. This means she can work where she wants (at home, and in a different country). While she can’t set class hours (the university determines the date and schedule for classes), because she can work where she wants, it means she is exerting maximal influence over when she works (the timezone). She prefers to work in the afternoon and evening. A US university has classes in the morning and early afternoon. So for her, working in Europe means she is working in the afternoon and evening.

What

“And one person in their time plays many parts…” To borrow from Shakespeare. You may have heard the proceeding phrase – all the world’s a stage. That’s the appetizer, the rest is the meat. We will play many parts in our life, and that’s “the what.” This is both due to the nature of human beings (we evolve as we age, which is what Shakespeare is saying), and by the nature of economics (innovation kills existing jobs and creates new ones, and this is happening faster today than at any time in history).

We can all learn something new (be re-trained), and indeed, we must.

But you can’t learn to find exhilaration in spending time with people that you just aren’t exhilarated by. You can’t learn to be inspired by an environment that you don’t find inspiring. That’s because what you like and don’t like probably isn’t something you choose. It just is.

Now, you can adapt to a new schedule. If you aren’t a morning person well, tough it out for a few weeks and keep to a morning schedule and you’ll have adjusted.

The point is, the easiest thing we are able to change in our lives is what we do. Be ready to adapt because your industry and the economy are changing rapidly and you don’t have any control over it.