For Whom Do You Work?

“Who do you work for?” is a common question in the Midwest where I grew up, but aside from the bad grammar (ending a question with a preposition–horrors!), I think it overlooks a more interesting and important question: for whom do you work? Yes, you might have an employer or client, but all that says is who provides you with a paycheck. Phrased that way, you’re really asking who (or what) motivates you to do what you do. The answer(s) you give say a lot about where you work and why.

My History of Motivations and Missions

When I was fresh out of college–and for several years after that–I was collecting a paycheck from the Walt Disney World Resort. The work itself wasn’t that great: merchandise host at Epcot, then front desk at what was then called Disney’s Dixie Landings Resort. The work was what was available, given my constraints:

  • I had practically no work history, except a retail job up in the Chicago suburbs (Osco Drug).
  • I wanted to live and work in Orlando, where it was sunny and warm, I was close to my dad and bonus mom, and I could go to the parks and have fun.
  • I didn’t want a boring job.

I was collecting a paycheck from Disney; I was working for myself to the extent that I wanted to be happy and have fun after a chaotic four years at college. And while there were other opportunities here and there, there were few writing jobs. So while the work was boring and occasionally stressful (“We’ve got 1200 checking out and 800 checking in today; hope you’re ready to work a double”), it was in a location that suited my immediate needs, which were fun and warm weather.

Eventually I started getting jobs writing: first, answering guest complaint letters. I still wanted to live where it was fun, but now I was working to prove that I could be a good business writer. I was at least using my skills.

Sometime in the mid to late 1990s, I went to a space advocacy convention and found a purpose in life. I was going to work for the grand vision of human beings living and working in space. I decided to go back to school, pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in engineering before learning that I could get a master’s degree in technical writing and wouldn’t have to take more math or computer programming. With the degree in work, I also started doing technical writing for Disney. I was building my skills to show that I could add value to wherever I was until I could write for the space business.

That purpose–the goal of working for space–continued even after I left Disney and took a brief detour to the Washington Beltway to work for a defense contractor. I was doing interesting work, but the thing that kept me motivated in my free time was my volunteer space advocacy work. When an opportunity came up to write for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, again I moved. Now I had the job I’d been aiming for over the previous ten years. I was now working for the mission, and poured my heart into it, trying to do the best writing I could to keep the program supported. I even took a leap outside my introverted shell and volunteered to pitch and then lead a space advocacy conference in Huntsville. I was all about building the space community.

In the midst of organizing my conference, the program was cancelled, and I was a mess. I managed to hang on at NASA, but it wasn’t the same. I kept waiting for the next shoe to drop, even when they replaced the Ares Launch Vehicles with the Space Launch System. So when I got an offer to shift to a small company supporting commercial space ventures, I decided it was time to go. I was then helping grow a small company support both NASA and commercial space. Then politics and other factors intervened. Budgets were cut, work stopped flowing, and suddenly I was looking for work again.

I decided after that to work for myself again, the goal of my work being to get out on my own and keep myself fed. I took whatever work I could find, any customers, even low-paying ones, because I kind of liked eating and keeping a roof over my head. Eventually better work found me–first instructional design, then actual space work again.

I’m pretty well established right now, supporting a couple of large corporate clients, one space-related, one not. I’m keeping myself busy. But for what or whom am I working? It’s difficult to say. At one point, I could say I was working to make myself better for a significant other. When I failed at that, I threw myself into my work, with the goal being to keep busy so I wouldn’t realize what a mess I’d made of things. It’s been a few months now, and the busy-ness continues, but I’m a mission-driven sort of guy. I like to get up in the morning and know what my motivation is, besides doing a good job and keeping the bills paid.

The Future of Missions and Motivations

While I’m about as far as one can get from being a Marxist, I encountered a saying by V.I. Lenin while I was reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson that caught my attention:

Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.

I suppose my working term for motivation, “mission,” is the ideology I use to define my relationship to work. Employers in the job market often doesn’t care if I’m motivated by greed, need, or the desire to succeed. However, I’ve found that having enthusiasm for your work, however defined, is an a definite aid toward getting and maintaining your job.

Do I know why I do what I do now? Not all the time, but for the moment, the mission is to keep doing a good job so that I’m useful to my clients. For now, that is enough. Eventually, though, a new mission will come along, and where that will take me, not even I know yet.

Do you know why you do what you do? Does it keep you motivated?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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