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.