Last summer when we moved into our new house, we wanted to get the exterior painted. We had a quote, and even looked at paint colors, but we decided to wait and save money. As this summer rolled around, I got the bright idea of painting the house myself. It would save money, I had all summer long to work on it, and the all-knowing YouTube would instruct me! The funny thing is, a massive undertaking like this is super motivating to me. What is it about a “big” task like this that appeals to me?
This isn’t the first time I’ve set a lofty goal for myself. In the past I’ve watched all three Lord of the Rings Extended Editions in one day, written a sci-fi novel, and spent all summer in the garage making math materials. Standing on a ladder 15 feet in the air, for hours on end, has provided me a lot of time to think about work and goals.
Finding the Value in Hard Work
The last three weeks have been a blur. I remember waking up early, scraping paint, patching stucco, and putting plastic over the windows and doors to prepare for paint spraying. I would wake up with a sore back that took a couple hours to stretch out. I’d clutch the paintbrush in my hand, reach overhead to paint the eaves, and my hand would cramp into a human claw. If I pushed through the pain, eventually the cramping would subside, and I could push on for the rest of the day.
There were several times that I felt a sense of panic, like I’d taken on a project bigger than I could handle. For some reason the work pushed me to finish, and that’s not my natural inclination. Without a specific purpose, I find myself sleeping in, relaxing, and vegging out. Not only did painting the house have me working all day, but I was even setting a 5:30 a.m. alarm…during the summer!
There’s an interesting dichotomy between work and relaxation. On one hand, working is far more difficult than relaxing. Waking up every day and working until your whole body aches sounds terrible. Lounging in an air-conditioned room watching TV is much easier. While consuming might be less painful, it’s also less rewarding. There have been times where I’ve burned a few hours watching TV or playing video games, and then I feel empty afterwards. It’s like I was given precious time to use, and I frivolously threw it away.
Working might be less enjoyable than relaxing when I’m in the thick of the work, but when I’ve accomplished whatever I was working on, that can feel very rewarding. There’s a sense of accomplishment that follows hard work, and a feeling that I’ve used my time wisely. There has been fruit from my labor, and that can make the work worthwhile.
Accomplishments and The Reasons We Like Them
Painting the house feels rewarding because I’m proud of my finished product. When the work was wearing me out, it was the promise of accomplishing the project that kept me going. When I finished painting the house, I took a step back, stood in the street, and admired my handiwork. It was reaching that moment, the finish line, that made the hard work pay off. Accomplishments can motivate us to press on when we feel like quitting.
Real accomplishments don’t come around every day. They feel special because they took hard work, time, and perseverance. I’d even say that creating opportunities to accomplish tasks is a good thing. Taking on new projects that challenge us can help us grow and give us purpose. We can make our lives and the lives of those around us better.
I’d be lying if I said I wanted the house to look good just for me. I wanted my wife to appreciate what I had done. I wanted her to acknowledge my hard work, and validate not only the quality of my work, but that I was needed. When a neighbor walked by, I secretly hoped they’d compliment me. I want people to notice my hard work, because it feels good to receive recognition.
We see this in our social media world, where we post pictures of our dinner in return for likes and affirmation. With a few taps on the screen we can receive praise for ordering food at a restaurant. Painting the house to protect the integrity of my wood siding is a healthy goal, but trying to impress my neighbors is not. Work can be a good thing, but we can easily turn it into a self-serving means of seeking praise and validation.
Something Bigger Than Myself That Impacts Others
Thinking about this desire to work for others and have our accomplishments recognized seems to lead down two different roads. There’s a healthy road, where we can serve others, and tackle constructive projects that are good for our relationships. This type of work brings us fulfillment largely because of how it makes others feel.
When we go on Facebook and fish for likes, this is largely about how it makes us feel. These aren’t accomplishments that improve the lives of others, but instead it’s about ego stroking. We want people to notice us, and we like the way that affirmation feels.
The problem with the second road is that the affirmation is fleeting. It doesn’t sustain us over the long run. Those 17 likes you got for taking your kid to get a haircut is like eating a spoonful of sugar. It doesn’t fill your tank in the same way that something meaningful does. When our work improves the life of someone else, or improves us on a personal level, that satisfaction is far more fulfilling.
When I was done painting the house, I posted some pictures on Facebook. I enjoyed the compliments that people gave me, but it pales in comparison to the personal victory I feel for having accomplished the task that I set out to complete.
Pursuing Work That Makes Us Better
Working and accomplishing our goals can fulfill us in a way that consuming cannot. We all want our lives to mean something. We want to leave our mark on the world. That doesn’t happen sitting around staring at a phone screen. That doesn’t happen by constantly trying to impress others. We need real accomplishments that push us to improve ourselves. We need work that brings lasting change to the lives of others. Done for the right reasons, work can bring lasting value to our lives and the lives of those around us, and provide a level of self-satisfaction that consuming simply can’t.