This post is the final one of a series exploring what it really means to love our work. Make sure to check out the table of contents for other posts in the series.
The best way I have for illustrating why achieving flow is not enough for truly fulfilling work, comes from my own experience.
From 2000 to 2003 I worked in an industry that allowed me to travel the world 11 months per year producing special advertising sections on developing countries (so called “emerging markets”), distributed with several of the world’s most widely read business publications.
I can fairly say that besides providing me with a lifestyle of the “rich and famous,” this line of work allowed me to achieve states of flow with reasonable frequency.
I was in charge of the editorial for the supplements, so I had to “interview” CEO’s and key government officials on their views about the attractiveness for business of their countries and companies.
A typical “interview” was structured as a 30-minute conversation that had to strike a delicate balance between gathering information for the copy of the supplements, and most importantly, making the interviewee say the right things that would allow my accompanying colleague — invariably an attractive, sharp, aggressive saleswoman as most people in positions of power in the developing world are still men — to construct the arguments for selling him an expensive ad in the supplement.
“So Mr. X, as you said during the interview, your company is the fastest growing luxury hospitality provider in your country today, and Europe your most important market by any measure. As you very well know, readers of Time magazine’s European edition, with which our supplement will be distributed, belong to the very elite of the European business community — people who are always on the lookout for new, exciting options for enjoying a luxurious holiday… of course, they would also surely be interested in looking into solid investment opportunities, such as the ones offered within your company’s ambitious expansion plan… so we truly feel that you should strengthen your company’s presence in our supplement beyond the editorial coverage with a full-page advertisement for 95,000 Euros. What do you think?”
Conducting these interviews was a challenging exercise. Most of our interviewees were very busy and powerful people, so we had to make the most of the precious 30 minutes they granted us. A good “interview” had the right mix of questions, making the interviewee feel intellectually challenged, admired, and entertained at the same time.
If I didn’t strike that balance, my colleague would find it significantly more difficult to sell him an ad. And the process of striking that balance was a surefire way to achieve flow.
I became totally focused on listening attentively to my interviewee’s answers, taking notes, and coming up with witty comments for sparkling the space between questions and adding flavor to the conversation. I had to pay close attention to my interlocutor’s body language to gauge his emotional state: if he was tired, bored or angry, the pressure was on. I needed to wake him up somehow, to find which buttons to press in order to put him in the right frame of mind for a sale, while still feeling he had been “interviewed” by a journalist. Seeing his mood change subtly in the right direction was exhilarating, each favorable micro-expression getting me a bit closer to signing an advertising contract, and a commission of several thousand dollars.
Hunting for virgins
There were, of course, interviewees that were being interviewed for the very first time for a special ad section, and therefore much easier to get sold on the idea — we called these interviewees “virgins.” Interviewing them was much less challenging, and less conducive to flow.
But the process of finding “virgins” in the country was an art that required lots of strategic thinking and resourcefulness, providing an alternative path towards flow. For instance, sometimes the countries we covered had been hit by several teams producing ad sections before us, and most of the large, prominent companies and government institutions were not interested in spending any more advertising money on the concept. So the name of the game was to find enough “virgins” that could be sold on a larger number of smaller ad spaces.
In our hunt for “virgins”, we scoured the countries searching for them, storming into office buildings, taking advantage of relaxed, unstructured, friendly local cultures to steal 30 minutes of the boss’s time, and walking out with a 25,000 USD ad contract from a small stock brokerage firm that didn’t make a million USD in yearly turnover. Or for that matter, from a truck-manufacturing company that had no exports, no international expansion plans, or any other minimally rational reason for advertising with us.
The euphoria of achieving success under these circumstances, totally against the odds, was intoxicating, even if all it took to sell these companies were a couple of very basic questions and a very simple sales technique: nod at whatever the interviewee says, and take copious notes even if what you’re really writing is the grocery shopping list — when well executed, even Tom Peters can fall for this!
Yet another strategy that required a great dose of cunning networking ability and relationship management was figuring out which minister or other powerful political figure could give a call to any of the large companies of the country for exhorting, or even ordering them to advertise with us. We would interview the minister, and they would almost always get free exposure in the ad section in exchange for the “magical phone call”. When we succeeded at this, the euphoria was comparable to signing an ad contract, as this significantly increased the odds of actually signing one with the company at the other side of the minister’s phone line.
From economic hit man to espresso entrepreneur
So what can possibly be wrong with a business that gives you the opportunity to become an expert of sorts in persuasion techniques, earn good money and other perks in the process, and on top of everything, to access a state of flow on a regular basis?
Of course, it’s the fact that this business lacked a meaningful purpose beyond earning as much money as possible for myself.
I reached a point where I just couldn’t believe that neither the companies that sponsored our editorial products nor the countries that we covered were getting anything close to fair value from these products as marketing tools. I couldn’t understand how I was selling people on something I would never do myself if I were one of the CEO’s we “interviewed”. But somehow I managed to rationalize the whole thing. At the end of the day, I was just being a “good salesman,” judging by the selling-ice-to-Eskimos standard — a standard that is pervasively embraced by many businesses in free market economies. If you need any evidence on this, just look around you. The world is in the midst of its worse financial crisis in a century thanks to it.
I had become a sort of small-scale “economic hit man,” an expert on selling ideas and “projects” to people on the belief that they were doing something good for their companies and countries, regardless of whether this was true. But to be sure, in the great majority of cases the sale wouldn’t go through unless the man at the other side of the table had some self-interested reason, however bizarre, to sign the contract.
In the Middle East, most CEO’s simply felt flattered and proud that sophisticated western media people were apparently so thrilled to be promoting their country. And due to the gargantuan size of the marketing budget of large companies in the region, they saw doing business with us as a harmless gesture of gratitude.
But in many other cases, more bizarre motivations were present: wanting to advertise in the ad section simply because competitors or other important people in the country had done so; appearing as patriotic and socially responsible in the eyes of government officials who were supporting the ad section; the need to spend money for exhausting advertising budgets and avoid financial cuts in the next year due to incapacity to use the funds; bragging about the financial strength of the company, about the interviewee’s capacity to sign big contracts on the spot, or simply being so carried away, so drunk on the egomaniacal high produced by answering so many questions strategically aimed at making him talk about his executive super-human abilities — or the nationalistic pride produced by talking for 30 straight minutes about the grandiose “economic potential” of his country — that all his capacity for a rational evaluation of our offer was effectively suppressed.
In the last stage of my career in the special ad section industry I quit freelancing for larger media groups and established my own small media company with a friend and colleague. We did put all our heart and soul in delivering ten times better value than the competition. This wasn’t difficult to do due to the appalling quality that many of our large competitors’ ad sections deteriorated to over the years due to their extreme mentality of extracting as much money as possible from advertisers at the lowest cost. We were producing 60-page, well written and decently researched magazines for a country at the same cost that our competitors would produce a 6-page ad section (it has to be said though that the magazines and newspapers we distributed our magazines with were less influential and had a smaller readership than our larger competitors).
But the nature of the business severely constrained the editorial quality of our magazines — we just couldn’t afford to be as objective as we would have liked to about a country when its government and key companies were paying us to promote their image abroad. And when you’re covering a country like, for example, the United Arab Emirates, you inevitably end up biasing your coverage towards the 7-star hotels and luxury spas, and away from the labor camps and problems with environmental sustainability.
This added a whole new dimension to the moral dilemma of the business beyond the value delivered to stakeholders. What was the broader impact of promoting a country’s positive developments without openly addressing its problematic issues, which sometimes actually were much larger in scope and importance than the former? In many cases, what these countries needed was more international pressure, not international promotion.
These were the kind of questions I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer to, and that ended up killing all my motivation to continue in the industry. There was no amount of money, fun, excitement, or for that matter, flow, that could compensate for the fact that I was spending most of my time and energy in an enterprise that didn’t deliver any meaningful value to others.
Back in 2003 I took a break from the country-promotion business and set up a small Argentine-themed cafe in Barcelona, Spain (the city was my base for several years) in association with a friend from childhood. Setting up that business was a blessing. I remember how good it felt to work towards providing others with a truly valuable experience. It all seemed so spontaneous and natural: an espresso and a pastry in an uplifting, cozy environment, for a fair price. A simple conversation with the customer. An exchange of smiles. No strings attached, no need to pitch anybody for anything. It might be debatable whether working behind a bar serving coffee 12 hours a day can provide you with anything that you can properly call flow, but the experience was perhaps even more satisfying than that — specially for someone who had been working without any sense of higher purpose for so long.
When I eventually went back to the country-promotion industry in mid 2005, those days of espresso, spontaneity and sincerity kept haunting me until the end. That is, until that day in October 2008 when I decided to quit the country-promotion business for good.
Making sense of life looking backwards
After going through all this, I gained a very sharp sense of clarity on what’s important for work to be truly rewarding and fulfilling. In a way, I feel that having worked in such an extreme industry as the country-promotion business was exactly what I needed to learn about the importance of meaning in whatever activity one chooses to pursue.
Actually, looking back at the whole process, I can’t help but seeing it as a form of mystical experience that I was meant to live and that has changed much more than my perspective on work — I can fairly say I am now a new person. And although I can almost see many of you grinning with cynicism at this claim, specially many of you who are very close to me and know how cynical I used to be myself about anything resembling a “mystical experience,” I’ll let it all out and give you all the details of my journey in an upcoming post.