I’ve recently taken up swimming again after a gap of several years.  It isn’t any better the second time.  Apart from the fact that every time I put my face in the water I think about drowning, the whole activity is so, well, tedious.  A colleague of mine told me the secret is to “get into the rhythm of the water” – like most advice given by members of my profession, it manages to be at the same time deeply profound and of little practical value.

As I inched my way into my 30th length, with only the flapping feet of the person ahead of me for distraction, I reflected on how the repetitive nature of many forms of sport is completely at odds with the enthusiasm and admiration they arouse in spectators.  Wherever you look, you will find roomfuls of managers paying large sums of money to listen in awe to an athlete talking about his or her craft: a craft which, let’s face it, involves what?  Running up and down for hours at a time, in preparation for an event once every few months in which you run in one direction for a couple of minutes.  I’m sure leaders have much to learn from this, if only that you can make money out of anything if you package it correctly.

I first started thinking about how boring it must be to be a sportsperson during the speed skating at the Winter Olympics.  Watching two lycra clad figures hurtling along, bent double like someone looking for a contact lens while late for an appointment, I thought about how in training they probably did this for several hours a day, 365 days a year.  Don’t they get bored?  I swim twice a week for 40 minutes and I’m losing the will to live.  In speed skating, the only exciting bit seems to be the possibility that at any moment you might fall over and lacerate your face beyond recognition.  Makes you yearn for a career in Compliance really.

And why not?  After all, what do athletes have over all the individuals in offices up and down the country spending day after day doing repetitive tasks to the limits of their capability?  Why is Double Entry Bookkeeping not an Olympic event?  I could get quite excited in the closing stages, as the two competing figures hunch over their spreadsheets trying to be the first to reconcile written down Goodwill before the auditors arrive.  And yet accountants feel compelled to apologise for their ‘boring’ jobs.  Maybe one day I’ll meet a Winter Olympic contender who tells me: “Well, my job’s quite boring actually: I sit on a metal tray and slide down an icy hill.”

I have never forgotten a conversation I once had with a man from the local council who came to spray my house for fleas (don’t get me started on my mother-in-law’s dog; I just wish I’d listened when a friend offered to arrange an ‘accident’).  As he moved around, engaged in the essentially boring task of spraying every inch of the carpet with something distinctly environmentally unfriendly, he was singing to himself with gusto.  I observed (in that fatuous way that is the hallmark of the professional facilitator) that he seemed to enjoy his work.  “I love it,” he said, without a trace of irony.  He explained that he approached it like detective work, working out what kind of infestation he was dealing with from the evidence, then working to catch he perpetrator.  With a simple piece of reframing, his job had all the glamour and excitement of Murder on the Orient Express.

Since that encounter, when talking to people about their jobs, I have stopped asking “Do you enjoy your job?” A subtly different, but much more useful question is “What do you enjoy about your job?”  It sometimes takes a while to answer – but the answer never once sounds boring; and it often encourages someone who feels stuck in a rut to start thinking about building more of what they enjoy into their current role.

In sport, it is the pursuit of excellence, and the passion with which it is pursued, which transforms a profoundly dull task (such as swinging a lead ball on the end of a chain round and round, then letting go of it) into something that attracts a global audience.  Boring job owners of the world, therein lies your challenge: Frame your work to suit your passion, then aim for excellence.  Before you know it your colleagues will have gathered round, whooping and cheering, as you complete your analysis of the projected demographic patterns of combination padlock users.


© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.