FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Random Acts of Business

In Essays on January 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm

By Kate Gace Walton

In 1996, I spent a night in the Georgia Dome helping to set up a display of the world’s longest hot dog, a publicity stunt designed to snare some Olympic buzz for my company’s brand. Once it was fully unwound from its giant spool in the back of a refrigerated delivery truck, this hot dog wrapped twice around the stadium’s athletic track. At a press event the next morning, former Olympians ran alongside the record-breaking wiener. Wielding oversized condiment bottles, these magnificent athletes squeezed out mustard, ketchup, and camera-ready smiles.

Back then, only a few years after graduating from college, this sort of work amused me more than it distressed me. The event seemed, even at the time, to sit somewhere between cheesy and tasteless, but, food service jobs aside, I had never worked for a big company before, and I felt that my entry-level marketing position was giving me a front row seat to Dilbert’s world. The absurdities were abundant and glorious. At that stage, many of my friends were doing something similarly inane, and the fact that I was, quite literally, a card-carrying member of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council brought welcome comic relief to us all.

Even stranger than my assignments in those early years was the fact that I worked so incredibly hard on every single one of them. Perhaps, with a shiny degree from Harvard but no actual skills, I felt I had something to prove. Perhaps I’m just hard-wired to try to delight others. Whatever the reason, I worked myself silly. I regularly pulled all-nighters. I cut short vacations. I tackled the task of writing a speech about packaged meats as though I’d been given the chance to draft a State of the Union. Throughout, I felt like something of an outsider—unable to shake the sense that I was watching a workplace sitcom—but I worked as hard as any insider. I always worked like a True Believer.

Over the years, as I moved through different jobs, the details changed, but the randomness persisted. After I joined a major communications agency, I went from promoting the world’s longest hot dog to promoting the world’s tallest building. Each new client required new “expertise.” One month, it was all about getting up to speed on toenail fungus; the next, it was collateralized debt obligations. (If only I’d known then how much they have in common.) A lot of it was actually quite interesting. I’m a nerd—I like learning about new things. Each project posed a problem of one kind or another, and there was certainly some intellectual satisfaction in cracking the puzzle.

The older I got, though, the more troubling the randomness became. Unlike many of my friends who by this time were Saving Lives or Seeking Justice, I felt I had no mission. There was really only one thread linking my various assignments: I was being paid. Handling those projects was my job.

Some days this seemed like enough. Every immigrant family I know including mine (we moved from South Africa when I was five) puts huge stock in having work of any kind. Earning a good salary and being able to save for the future was a big deal. Traveling the world was a genuine thrill. Certainly when I compared my work to my high school jobs scooping ice cream and making sandwiches, I felt like I had made great progress. But whenever I compared my work to what I hoped it would be, I felt a nagging sense of failure.

What I hoped for had nothing to do with money. I always knew that I would need to earn a living and, as someone who wanted a family, I also knew that I would need to be able to provide for others. But my work hopes have always stretched beyond financial security. What I have long wanted from my work is, for at least some of the time, to feel completely engaged by it. In my work world, I don’t want to be a tourist focused more on observing the locals than on building something of my own. I want to fully inhabit my work, to be wholly absorbed and utterly earnest.

I know, I know. It’s called Flow, and it’s been an obsession of many ever since Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I call him Dr. C) gave it a name in 1975. This craving of mine is neither new nor unusual. In some circles, it’s downright trite. Especially in tough economic times, it’s very easy to dismiss a desire for Flow as spoiled or even ridiculous; to yearn for Flow amid high unemployment can sound a lot like bemoaning the price of arugula. I get that, so I keep quiet a lot of the time.

But, just between you and me: I’m still searching. I’ve made a few changes in recent years that may be taking me in the right direction. I left a large company to become self-employed, giving me the autonomy to seek out assignments that don’t feel so random—projects for people I admire and whose mission I want to support. On the side, remembering that building things had always made me happy, I built a small online tool called VillageOnCall. Lastly, I undertook training to become a certified mediator; for some reason, peacemaking, on any scale and in any setting, never feels random to me.

My current work situation is messy. I have to think hard every day to know exactly where to focus; the time sheets I keep for my own records track a dizzying number of projects. Making it all work financially is a constant challenge as well. My husband is also self-employed and, while some months are good, others are scary.

Especially because of the financial uncertainty, I initially thought that having children might cause me, at long last, to give up my search for Flow. I knew that I would continue to work—both my disposition and our household expenses demand as much—but I figured that, steeped in the deep satisfactions of motherhood, I might not care so much about Flow anymore. A stable income and flexible hours might be more than enough. Now, with two young children, those deep maternal satisfactions are proving to be everything they were cracked up to be…but, much to my surprise, becoming a mom has fueled not ceased my quest for Flow. Now, not only do I want it for myself; I also hope for my kids to one day find Flow in whatever work they choose, and I feel compelled, as the parenting books say, to “model the behavior.”

Almost every night in recent weeks, my three-year-old daughter has chosen Cinderella as her bedtime book. I follow every word faithfully, except for the last line, which I read like this: “Cinderella and the Prince both found work they truly loved, and they lived happily ever after.” My son hasn’t asked for Cinderella yet—he’s only one—but I’d read it to him in exactly the same way.


  1. Kate , I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay. It’s been a long sine I have worked in the paid workforce or worn a suit but after reading your essay, I think my Flow is my choice to Homeschool. It’s not financially lucrative but I’m hopeful for a deferred compensation eg scholarships for college?! Although it’s a constant challenge it provides a satisfaction that I never felt working for a big multi-national company. I too hope that I can pass on to my kids the value of parents directly involved in children’s education.
    I look forward to following your website. Bernadette

  2. What a beautifully written piece Kate. I love it, and you know I so feel for this topic right now. As I dig around to find my Flow, I’m keeping your enlightening words in mind. Thank you! And I love the new Cinderella ending. Perfect!

  3. Flow is a worthy ambition. There is a tao of work, and while one might not know if one isn’t in it, one certainly knows when one is. Congrats.

  4. This story is both funny and enlightening: we can see ourselves within these situations (although few of us have taken on meat products of such preposterous scale!) You have the knack for telling a good tale.
    Keep writing them…

  5. Katie – I am so happy for you – I found my rewarding flow in teaching, first after I left advertising and then after I returned to CT.

  6. I so enjoyed this post. Vivid, honest and captivating. In a way it read like my own story from start to now. Perhaps the Flow is what keeps us learning, searching, growing, improving. And I sincerely hope this energizes us (always) to do better things in life. I think I have found my Flow in what I do now, but the past years were very necessary to reach where I have and appreciate what I am doing now.

    On the personal side, lemme quickly congratulate you on your 2nd one:) God bless

  7. [...] Stew is six-months-old as of this week. When I published my own essay, the first in the collection, I felt an urgent need to address my personal work angst, to figure [...]

  8. Kate, this really resonates with me-esp the re-telling of fairytales which I too have twisted to have a “positive spin” for my daughters- “And the Prince and Cinderella never liked each other until they were 18 years old. The Prince was kind and funny and nice. Cinderella didn’t care what he looked like”. Thank you for articulating what I have been feeling about work and life. xoxoxo

  9. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this essay Kate! I’m doubly committed to reading one of the follow-ups to Flow now.

  10. In my career as a technologist, I worked for some high-powered Brokerage firms (Dean Witter and Morgan Stanley — which later merged) and a consulting arm of Control Data that provided service operations and software to multi-hundred brokerage firms — I was the officer who managed the installations — and I was damned good at it. Why? In addition to the skills and experience that I had, I worked very hard and I was able to get professionals under me to do the same. If you’re in a computer room, in your 19th hour of work at 3AM, on a Sunday morning — and you do it 5 to 8 times a year, you’re not doing it for salary — you love what you do — and it’s IMPORTANT! It’s important that this installation be successful!

    It’s only years later when you’re able to step back and realize that, in 200 years, the only things from my howorking life that may make the history books will be the Civil Rights Struggle, JFK Assination, Vietnam War and 9/11 — not a line about how well the Bruns Nordeman or Morgan Stanley system installation went! — so, maybe, it wasn’t so damned important!

    The strength of our capitalistic machine — and it is a machine — is that it sucks in “fools like me”, convinces them that what they are doing is really important, and rewards them well if they perform well — and I’m only kidding about the “fools like me” — I’ve had / have a wonderful life but it has been much better since I concentrated on writing and teaching. Having one student say “you changed my life” is a bigger kick than any bonus I received on Wall Street.

    Are our lives really intended to be machine parts?

    • Hello, since I do not professionally do hair, I am only fiamlair with what my products and routine are. When I was first a red head, I used to dye my hair using Garnier. You should just go to the store and check the colors out there! I am not fiamlair with the names and it was so long ago I forgot which color I used. You really want to ask a cosmetologist who is a professional for advice! Other than that, just experiment! Sorry I could not be any more help, I wish you the best of luck with your hair.

  11. Interesting thoughts, John. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Working like crazy, often through the night, I’ve sometimes had similar thoughts: even as the task at hand feels terribly important to me, I know even now–still in the thick of it–that it really isn’t that important in the big scheme of things and that it certainly won’t matter in the long term.

    But two things have so far kept me from throwing up my hands and skipping out the door. First, I feel like my relationships with my co-workers *do* really matter–at least to me and to them. Secondly, the work I do in the business world seems important from a learning standpoint, i.e. it seems that I might have more to offer down the line as a teacher and writer (two roles that, I agree, must be hugely satisfying) having first logged a few decades of heavy lifting as a manager of people and projects. Do you think there’s anything in that? Or does the machine just have me fooled? : )

  12. [...] Stew is now two years old. The first essay was published in January 2011, and the first interview was released a few weeks [...]

  13. [...] me (Kate Gace Walton, the editor of this site) in this inaugural effort is Lindsay Moran, a writer, former spy, good friend, and [...]

  14. [...] last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Wal­ton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me [...]

  15. I really like the essay and totally relate to “the flow.” I have been self-employed for 29 years and relate to the up and down months. Recently, I HAD to take a vacation, my two teenage boys insisted. On vacation, I realized that “the flow” was not all that it is cracked up to be. Heck, I was meant for the “scary” as well as the feeling like my pockets were bulging… It gave me a new outlook…truly God is in control or how would I have lasted in my business so long! I now have a new flow…give it to God!

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