You Don't Have To Care To Do Good Work
Recently I’ve written about emotional caring through the lens of engaging with the world. And I’ve touched on accountability, authenticity, meaning, happiness and self-worth. I want to combine these into the Frankenstein of uncomfortable topics:
Our relationship with work.
Specifically, can you be good at your job without emotionally caring about it?
And better yet, can we create an approach to caring about our work that doesn't involve the weight of passions or meaning?
Yes. Welcome to The Caring Quadrant.
Side bar: In order for this to make sense, we have to differentiate between two definitions of "caring." One bolded, one not bolded.
Caring = highly regard; desire, love, cherish (think: passions, emotions, meaning)
Caring = tend to; effort, alertness, exertion, (think: duty, diligence)
In this post, I'll talk about how assessing and focusing on your level of care at work—not how much you care about work—can get you around career roadblocks and towards a job experience you enjoy.
It's about nuts and bolts, not puppies and rainbows.
What The Personality Profiles Miss
You know those personality profiles or strengths finders that people fill out at work? Disc, Myers Briggs, Strengths Finder, and all the others? They're fine for ideal states and general dispositions Sarah's an ENTP! Don't box her in!
But they don't take into account life circumstances, your bank account, or student debt. It doesn’t know if your spouse is sick or if your parent just passed away.
It’s blind to your opinion of your current project, employer or client.
It doesn’t look at the promotion that you didn’t get, the raise that somehow got lowered, or the months of extra hours you put in for a happy hour of mozzarella sticks, chicken wings and nachos plucked by the hands of everyone else on your project team before you could even get to the restaurant.
In short, these profiles and assessments don’t look at where your priorities are in your current work and life circumstances.
Would you leave your job if you got a better offer? What if it was a similar offer but you worked 5-10 less hours per week? Would you borderline murder someone for 4 more weeks vacation, or to stop working at 2PM everyday? How willing are you to do the things your boss/employer/client hopes you do without complaining about it?
Where do you fall on what I call: The Caring Quadrant?
The Caring Quadrant
First, we need to understand four derivatives of the word “care”:
Careful, Carefree, Careless, Carebound
Three words you know and one I invented. I do think it will make sense. Stay with me.
Careful - Cautious, Deliberate, Meticulous
Careless - Without sufficient attention; irresponsible, negligent
Carefree - Lighthearted, untroubled, no pressure
Carebound - Confined, involuntary, necessary evil
These make up the cartesian coordinates of care.
And we can separate these out on two axes.
Carefree <-> Carebound (Your work circumstances; the “freedom axis")
Careful <-> Careless (Your work deliverables; the “accountability axis")
The first is how you approach work, the second is how you approach your work.
Carefree <-> Carebound* (Freedom Axis)
This is the "freedom axis." Are you at work by choice or necessity? Or some combination?
* In thinking of the derivatives of care, conspicuously there is no opposite to "carefree." The dictionary tells me that antonyms of carefree are: depressed, dissatisfied, troubled. Those aren’t how we would describe the opposite of “carefree” at work (although if they are, we have to get you off of that crypt wall you’re shackled to), but we know it’s not pure joy either.
That is why I came up with carebound, or: caring about something because you have no other choice (see: you need the money)
E.g. I don’t want to be at this job but I’m carebound. I have bills to pay. I have kids to feed.
It’s not that you’re careless about what you have to get done—you still do it—it’s that you’re obligated, and that bothers you.
At its most extreme, feeling carebound is a sort of employment captivity. You only think about how losing your job would destroy you. You time your arrival & departure (or activity online) depending on other people’s schedules. You’re worried that if you take a vacation you’ll be seen as a slacker. You often find yourself trudging “the extra mile” (even if it turns into a country mile), and you feel like the only payment you get for it are brownie points you can’t cash.
This is the opposite of someone who is carefree about work, light of heart and unstressed. It’s not that the carefree don’t want to work, or to provide value, it’s that there is a sense of freedom in how they approach their circumstances; either they are confident in their skills and their value in the open market, they have other things on their mind, or they don’t really need the money.
We all fall somewhere on that axis, probably not imprisoned by our work reality, but also not zippididoodah about it either.
Ok, but what about how we approach our actual work deliverables & responsibilities?
That’s what our Careful <-> Careless axis is for; the accountability axis.
Careful <-> Careless (Accountability Axis)
On the careful end of the spectrum we have the hypervigilant individual whose effort borders on anxiety and paranoia.
Think: The perfectionist, polishing some corner of a Powerpoint, deep into a nowhere Tuesday. It’s the person who fine-tunes the unmeasurable, who takes project setbacks personally, and who, flat out, is addicted to the work.
On the other end of the seesaw is the careless, zero fu*ks given, representative whose “minimal effective dose” approach to deliverables suddenly looks like a placebo that’s lost its effect. Their silent sabotage of doing any real work is teetering on actual sabotage.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, some shade of the “good enough” crew. We can still take pride in—and be vigilant about—our work, but we know what is adequate and we are cognizant about how that work plays into social expectations in the office.
If we map these axes on an x-y plane, we can plot our freedom vs. accountability.
Throwing in some midway points on the x and y axis gives us our quadrants of care.
On any given day, at any given job, we all fall into one of these quadrants, regardless of our personality type or career assessment. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how much your coworkers "cared" about their work, today?
Let’s look at the description of each quadrant.
Quadrant 1 - Careless & Carebound: Probably the worst quadrant to be in. You feel above the work, but you can’t quit. I believe victimhood is a good word for the extreme lower left corner of this quadrant. Out there, you take accountability for nothing, but you need the job. Behind your back, people probably describe you as “the worst.” You are playing with fire. Actually, a firing is certainly in your future.
Quadrant 2 - Careful & Carebound: This is the quadrant where you'll find the lion's share of us. We’re mostly present at work and we’re cautious about our work output. We don’t want to be fired, but we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t have to be. At this quadrant’s zenith (bottom right) lies fear, unbearable stress and neuroticism.
Quadrant 3 - Careless & Carefree: In order to succeed in this neck of the woods you have to be super smart, and a master of interoffice politics. In fact, work is just a game for you. Other reasons you might have meandered into this area:
You kind of want to be fired
You already have another job opportunity
You have a side hustle that fuels you
You’re just going through the motions either because you want a change in your life or because life is demanding you focus on other things right now, and you’re hoping no one will notice
Too far into the upper left of this quartile, and you are likely on the path to getting yourself killed. If you do still have a job deep in the thicket of Quadrant 3, you might be the recipient of some wealthy nepotism or you have prosecutable dirt on a higher up (or both). At best, you’re a nuisance; at worst, you’re a liability.
Regardless, no one takes you seriously because you don’t do anything.
Quadrant 4 - Careful and Carefree: The dream state. You are methodical and intentional with your time, but you are happy in it, not doing it simply because outside pressures make you do it. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take it seriously or that you won’t be nervous at times, but you’ve found a place to showcase your skills, without feeling tethered by it.
At its upper right corner this quadrant is perpetual flow. You call the shots on your day.
Quadrant 4 is where everyone is hoping you get to when you go chasing your dreams. A balance between intentionality and leeway.
The Snapshot Of Extremes
Here's what it looks like in the depths and corners of each quadrant.
Your presence in any one quadrant is temporary and can change at any time. In fact, you could graph your location on this chart vs. a period of time. Maybe you were excited when you started your job but you’ve lost interest in it (blue line). Or maybe you didn’t know what the hell you were doing when you started but you got in a groove, gained knowledge, impact and independence (red line).
So what do we do with all this "caring"?
Pandemic aside, if you're in a funk at work, hopefully this post got you thinking that maybe it has nothing to do with your passions; maybe it's because you're stuck in a quadrant you don't want to be in. Moving to a new job or industry that seems better aligned with your interests might not automatically change your spot on the Caring Quadrant.
To do good work, you don’t have to care about the work, you have to care about your work and the freedom you have to express yourself.
Meaning isn't the driver of good work, it's the result of it.
Emotional expenditure is separate. That would be the third axis on this graph, giving us your full GPS coordinates of your current work situation: your freedom, your accountability, and your passion.
Too often I hear the notion that unless you are chasing your passion or doing "what you were born to do” (a silly statement), then what you’re doing is less than who you are. No, don’t conflate the two.
If you only think in "passions," you're only thinking in one dimension.
Newsflash: I'm not passionate about work. I'm passionate about sports, friends/family, writing, reading and exploration. But I'm able to find joy (and create value) in my work by getting into Quadrant 4 as much as possible, no matter the job.
You can care less without being careless.
Don't chase passions, move quadrants.