In 1996, I dropped out of college and worked at the worst job in my life. During those miserable 6 months, I became an employee at an antique mall. Not that there’s anything wrong with antiques, but the job sucked. Particularly, one of the positions. In that position, I was assigned to sit in the back of the store, waiting for customers so that I could unlock one of a hundred glass cases when requested. It was the most boring job ever. I would spend hours sitting and waiting. Occasionally, I would get up and look at the items in the cases just to pass the time. One case contained jewelry, another dolls, a third one sporting memorabilia, and on and on. This job required no competence, required virtually no decision-making, and had only limited interaction with customers, most of whom wanted to buy things that made no sense to me ($50 for a lapel pin or $200 for a used walking stick – what the heck?).
Fast forward one year to the summer of ’97 and you’ll find my best job ever. That summer I worked as a lifeguard at a YMCA summer camp. The lifeguarding itself was not what I loved, although I did my job well (no one drowned that summer). The camp was located on a small lake with a beach, swimming area, and canoes. Every morning from 9 till 2, I watched the little tikes swim and helped teach them to canoe. Half way through the summer, a volleyball net was moved onto the beach, which meant we were forced to play beach volleyball between our activities (oh, the horror). Everyday, a couple of lifeguards and I would swim out to small island in the middle of the lake and back again; my stop watch tracking our progress. I’m still Facebook friends with many of the lifeguards and camp counselors today.
So why were these my best and worst jobs? Some research by Deci and Ryan suggest a reason why. Deci and Ryan have found that three basic needs fuel our intrinsic motivation and happiness. Those three things are autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Autonomy relates to your freedom to make decisions. The more freedom you have to make decisions in a particular context, the more enjoyable that context will be. This is true on the job, in the classroom, at home, and in politics. Relatedness refers to your ability to relate to people in a context. The more we can relate to people in terms of values and goals, the more enjoyable the interaction will be. When relatedness exists, we gain psychological visibility. The third condition is your feeling of competence or self-efficacy. We naturally crave challenging activities that allow us to test our skills fully. We don’t want things that are too easy nor things that are too hard.
So why was the job at the antique mall so horrible? First off, the work was not challenging. Sitting waiting to open cases could be accomplished by anyone. So I had no sense of accomplishment. Second, my autonomy was severely limited. My decisions were confined to a very, very narrow line of how to interact with the customers. I was not a salesman, merely the key man. But I couldn’t act inappropriately either. Boring! What about relatedness? While I got along with the other employees, today I don’t remember any of their names. The customers were generally much older than myself and interested in radically different things than me. So I couldn’t really relate to them either. All in all, a terrible experience. On the plus side, that job convinced me to return to school post-haste and complete my college degree so I would never have to work in that environment again.
My job as a lifeguard though had everything right. Our manager was off-site, so we exercised a great deal of freedom in deciding what to do and when to do it. We also had to use our judgment frequently to ensure the kids’ safety while having fun. Lifeguarding a group of 30-40 kids required continuous attention and focus, demanding a high level of competence. We also pushed ourselves while playing volleyball and while swimming with friendly competition. Fortunately, the other lifeguards and counselors were awesome. All of us were college aged, loved life, enjoyed helping kids, and wanted the job to be fun. We would frequently get together after work. We shared stories and friendly banter. We played games and dated each other. Good times were had by all.
The lesson I took away from these two experiences is that to have a truly amazing life, fill it with these three things – autonomy, relatedness, and a feeling of competence. Both of my jobs above paid minimum wage, yet the quality of life was immensely different. If you want the best in life, seek out jobs that offer autonomy to make decisions, work with people you can relate too, and find activities that challenge your competence so you can walk away with a feeling of accomplishment. If you do these things on a continual basis, your life will be nothing but awesome.