Putting Olympic Passion to Work

(Bill Bott; August 13, 2012)

Every four years, my wife and I gather in front of the TV for the Olympics and find ourselves sucked into watching and cheering for a series of sporting events we would never watch any other time of year. Swimming, track, badminton and synchronized diving are just a few examples of sports that usually are so uninteresting that ESPN would rather show reruns of the 1995 World Series of Poker than put them on the air. But every four years, we light a giant torch and obsess over who will take the gold.

What never ceases to amaze me are the stories of how hard these athletes train for years to make it to this point. Some of my best friends are athletes. Some of them spent a limited time in the pros, but many ended their careers after college. They know what it’s like to stick to the diet, hit the weights, attend endless practices and capture the passion to do whatever it takes to win. (The most competitive I get is tirelessly listening to Pandora so I can beat my Facebook friends at Songpop. Not exactly the same level of competition.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked hard in my life. We’ve all been involved in projects that have pushed us and demanded more than the average work day. They are usually those efforts we feel most passionate about. They consume us. For example, for a year I kept a small dry-erase board next to my bed, a solution to my occasional waking from a dead sleep with potential ideas and then not being able to recall them by morning. Not quite the dedication that wins gold, but I have a few accolades collecting dust in the home office that reminds me that my hard work paid off. (Wanna know more? Click on the Public Great intro video at the right of this page.)

The point is, there are times in our careers when we see a finish line, a goal, a reward that makes the hard work feel more like a passion. If you’ve never had a project like that, I hope you experience one soon. For those of us who have, we often reminisce with peers about the long hours and trials along the way. These make up our inside jokes and serve as the foundation to the cultural pillars of our organizations.

Too over the top? Maybe, but I want to stress how it works when it works. We stress three truths about government here on Public Great. First, government work is noble. Clean air, educated kids, healthy communities — no one has a bottom line more important than government’s. Second, the people of government are amazing. Not all of them, but most of them. How else can you explain someone who chooses to investigate cases of child abuse for less money than they could make stocking shelves? Finally, that our government systems are an absolute mess. Which means that fixing how we work is the core issue we face today. We’ve been focusing on the mess for a while; please indulge me while I turn my attention to the first two points, because many of us are missing the noble and don’t feel so amazing today.

It’s been my experience that the further we are from the citizens — the less we see our customers on a day-to-day basis — the further away those noble outcomes become. When you tell a family today that they will eat because of your work, you feel good. But when you sit in a desk at the capitol and answer reporters’ questions about the 4 percent fraud discovered in an audit you requested, you are less likely to go home and feel the same sense of accomplishment. When we remember the “why” of government — our purpose for the careers we chose, apart from the fires of the day — we should be able to connect with the nobility of the work. That is increasingly hard when the work piles up, when the public opinion says something different, and when we disconnect from the people that benefit from us. That’s too bad, because there is no greater motivator than knowing that your day’s efforts will help a noble cause.

It is that connection to our outcomes, our profit, that unleashes amazing people. Of course, if you walk through your cubicled hallways and see an equal amount of people playing solitaire or watching the Olympics as working, it’s hard to see that amazing dynamic. But remember, this disconnect is often because our systems are a mess, not because the people government employs are uninterested in achieving nobel things. The systems have removed them from those noble ends. In other words, working in bad systems drives us to find other ways to occupy our time. Get them back to noble causes and see the amazing return.

Keeping with the Olympic theme, if sport movie clichés have taught us anything, it is that when we’re down, we need to rekindle our passion for our craft to truly be great. I would argue a lot of us are down. Our jobs are not paying the personal dividends we hoped for when we signed up. The tough economy, the mountain of work, the ever-changing political environment, the turmoil of not knowing what tomorrow holds for our jobs, our benefits, our pensions all contribute to being knocked over.

Imagine an Olympic swimmer on the diving block poised to start a race. Tensed on the side of the pool, she flashes over the years that got her to this point — training at the municipal pool, the coach who encouraged her to compete, the hours in the car driving from event to event, the sacrifices her family made, the money spent, the holidays missed, the move to be closer to an Olympic training center, the maxed-out credit cards to get family and friends to the Games. All of those sacrifices led up to this moment on the diving block. This is why the race is so crucial.

Now imagine that there’s no starting bell. Imagine if, instead, a voice over the PA proclaimed, “The new Olympic committee has decided not to hold a 200 freestyle this year and will instead reevaluate the direction of the event during the upcoming year.”

Our swimmer, this amazing athlete who’s invested everything to get to this point, is left deflated and disappointed. What will her opinion of the Games be now? How hard do you think she’ll train over the next four years? How miserable will she feel every time she sees a pool?

Haven’t we all been in that position? How many projects have you seen killed over politics, both intraoffice and beyond? How many folders on your bookshelf are full of potential but gathering dust? How many times do we shy away from the opportunity to be a part of a team because the last time we worked so hard, nothing came of it? How many organizational and administration changes must we experience before we lose our passion and “amazingness”?

So how do we pick ourselves up? We have to keep the nobleness of our work at the forefront. We need to remember that the tough and important work of government is the right work to do. We need to dive back into the pool for the next event because the Games are bigger than our one race. There is a reason we are called public servants. We serve. We sometimes serve people we like, and we sometimes serve people we don’t. Sometimes we serve those who share our political beliefs, and other times we work for someone with a different political agenda. Sometimes we serve in a direction we cannot fathom will be good for our organization, but we continue to serve nonetheless. Not for the money (if you’re in government to get rich, call me when it works out for you), but for the noble outcomes of government and the hope that we’re making life better for our communities.

It’s up to you. No one can motivate you but you. Money doesn’t buy passion and fear only motivates us to work hard enough not get fired. Passion is internal. If you need a shot of passion to get ahead, get to your customers, the people who need what you do. If you work in mental health, visit with families. If you work in enviornmental regulation, go to your parks and water sources, talk with the people who need you to do what they do. Listen to your businesses, your schools, your communities. Your work is noble. Connect with it, and let it recharge your batteries. You’re never going to get a medal for it. There is no podium, no anthem to echo through the stadiums. Yours will be a victory of the table tennis champ — you’ll be lucky to make page eight.

Let us know how you recapture your passion, and how you cope with everything that knocks you down. Several years ago at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ annual meeting, I heard Gopal Khanna give an impassioned speach about how, as a nation, we have to move forward with purpose past the politics and budgets and to a place where we simply do what is right to do. His passion for government has followed him from his post as Minnesota’s first CIO to a new venture aimed at giving structure to focusing on noble outcomes. He is a part of FearlesslyInnovative, providing his passion with a path to finding ways to innovate in government despite the obstacles. Regardless of politics and internal silos, how do we find new ways to serve? To be honest, I am not convinced we can do enough to overcome all of the factors that keep us from fearless innovation. It seems that the changes in political and organizational landscapes are often far too massive and destructive to defend against. The idea of the work of public service being put back in the forefront and somehow serving as a common ground for rational debate and direction above political recourse is intriguing to say the least. I long ago resigned myself to the fact that the government world is the world that I and many others choose to work in. But that worldview won’t get us to where we allow amazing people to be amazing and I am more interested in what you think of that idea.

Can we focus on our work in a time of such political divide?

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