Labor Day, 2019: Vocational Awe

image of deck chairs, end of seasonOk, yesterday was actually Labor Day.  I took the day off.

Now that I’m “blogging” at my newsletter, this space has become a bit ghost-towny.  I’ve decided to occasionally share some of the newsletter posts here, too.

“Vocational awe and (short)changing the world,” first appeared in Minimum Viable Passion:  On Management #37.  I’ve edited the original piece slightly for clarity.

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And if you don’t buy into it, if you’re one of those people who say, “Well wait a minute. Yes, my job is important. Yes, I really care about my career, but I also want to have a family. I also want to engage in a robust personal life.”

Then…you become someone who is seen as less effective, solely because you’re quote-unquote “less passionate” about your job. And if you’re seen as less passionate, and therefore seen as less effective, well, then there’s no room for professional growth.

Fobazi Ettarh in conversation with me, On Management #37

Fobazi Ettarh joined me to discuss narratives about changing the world and passion in the workplace. And a concept she named, and is exploring: vocational awe.

Is an organizational mission or profession so important that it’s beyond criticism?

There’s more from Fobazi in our audio. I edited our converation for length and clarity.

link to soundcloud audio

Fobazi’s work on vocational awe is informed by her experience as an academic librarian.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  Look for vocational awe when you see a workplace narrative about being mission-driven, or passionate.  I see it in tech and startups. In not-for-profits.

At best, mission is a roadmap to a goal, not a license to treat people poorly.  Passion is an emotional state, not an achievement.

Seek to understand what’s actually being asked of you.  Also:

Passion, devotion, and awe are not sustainable sources of income.

Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Fobazi Ettarh

Fobazi Ettarh is the Undergraduate Success Librarian at Rutgers University-Newark.  She specializes in information literacy instruction, K-12 pedagogy, and co-curricular outreach.

Her research interests include equity, diversity, and inclusion in librarianship, and the ways in which societal expectations and infrastructures privilege and/or marginalize certain groups.  You’ll find more of Fobazi’s work here:

Photo:  20091128 by Douglas O’Brien, via Flickr, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.  Chuck’s cottage looks awesome.

Margin Call: How Do We Choose?

Snowflakes are very small. Under certain conditions, their cumulative weight starts an avalanche. This is also true of our decisions in the workplace.

Margin Call has a wonderful cast, great acting, suspenseful story — and music that seems like a character itself.   Thumbs up.

With a takeaway that can form and inform thinking about our workplaces, it fits the bill for one of my Movies About Work.

Margin Call gives us 36 critical hours in a financial institution that might just blow up.

We meet a group of bankers at a moment of truth.   Having profitably sold securities based on a proprietary financial model, we see them as they discover their model to be invalid.

Past decisions approaching avalanche strength now threaten to take down the financial markets.

The bankers face the classic challenge:  when there are no good choices, how do we act?

Margin Call gives us the bank’s entire food chain, from front line analyst to the board chairman, contending with the crisis.  (A member of the cleaning crew also makes a memorable cameo.)

They’ve got to act, even though there’s no viable solution that preserves the bank’s financial standing and reputation.

Also lacking?   A central mission that could guide their decision.   Some characters grasp for a greater good, even allegiance to their firm.  Yet the foundation is not there, and individual motivation becomes the default.

It’s hard to pin down a villain.

Margin Call is about a banking crisis.   The story is universal.   Consider the mining, consumer pharmaceuticals, and energy industries.  Some of these situations ended well.

Others, not so much.  If you’re not squeamish, check the FDA recall list.  These stories unfold every day, in every type of institution:  don’t forget the church.

The film opened last week to positive reviews.  The opening night crowd at Lincoln Center burst into applause as the credits rolled.

Director J.C. Chandor spoke afterwards, with a couple of notable takeaways.

He chose to set his first feature film in a financial institution partly because he grew up with the culture; his father was a banker, and Chandor knew the language.  There was also a budget constraint:  it would have been more costly to research an unfamiliar culture and get it right.

(Indeed, not many films catch the nuances of today’s corporate life so well.  A lay-off scene unfolded with such painful truth that it played almost as comedy.)

Another financial challenge:  he met with pressure from potential partners/backers to change the story line.   Spoiler alert:  you won’t see the bank’s Chief Risk Officer (played by Demi Moore) making out with any of the other characters.

This really goes back to the moral of the story, so to speak.   Integrity means staying true to your story, regardless of the financial implications.  (Thank you J.C. Chandor, for a believable portrayal of a woman in today’s executive suite.)

Mission is a story.  As leaders, it’s our job to see that it’s a story that is told often, told truthfully, and told in a way that our people can use to create meaningful and coordinated action.

This is a leader’s imperative.  You can look to history to see what happens when leaders don’t step up.  Or you can check today’s paper.

Wall Street, New York by dflorian1980, used under Creative Commons License.