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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 27, 2006

Great workers challenge conventional wisdom

By Andrea Kay

It seems that too many people are having trouble doing good work these days, let alone great work.

What's good work? The book "Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet," says that every worker has the right and responsibility to be a "professional" who produces work that's "good" in the technical sense of being performed with skill and in the moral sense of responding to the needs of society.

Workers are most likely to do that "if the field in which they work is 'well aligned,' " meaning that employers, workers and those affected by the work want more or less the same thing, says an article in Harvard Magazine.

But that gets threatened when those involved are "motivated by things other than achieving these core professional ideals," things like the corrupt influence of money and other temptations that compromise ideals.

What is great work? "Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great," said Fernando Flores, philosopher and former Chilean minister of finance and political prisoner under Augusto Pinochet.

Greatness requires many attributes, skills and attitudes, according to Fortune magazine's exploration of what it takes to be great. One secret of greatness is being a contrarian, someone who takes a position or attitude that challenges conventional wisdom. An interview with Michael Lewis, author of "Moneyball," cites such examples of contrarianism, like acting on your own judgment while everyone else is going down another path.

This is hard for most people, because "they face ridicule and ostracism. It's a kind of nerve," says Lewis. "(There's) a trigger that goes off in their mind, a switch that flips when they sense that everyone is going one way and it's stupid."

It means going a different direction from everyone else "while behaving with confidence and assurance as if you're just doing it the way things should be done," he says.

Greatness takes the ability to imagine the world as different from how it is now, he says. "If you are the kind of person who has a gift for changing things, that capacity is intoxicating and addictive. And having changed one thing, you can see how you can change other things too."

Being great is being able to evaluate yourself independent of the world's evaluation of you. "The pressure's always going to be to draw you back into doing things the way everybody else does them. Doing things differently is inherently threatening to people because if it works, it's damning of the way they've been doing things."

In a more traditional sense, greatness is also the ability "to respond to challenges and overcome difficulties and suffer and endure and to think under pressure and act under pressure," says Lewis.

This can be hard in today's workplace, where there is relentless pressure to do more with less, to learn and incorporate new technology, to constantly be plugged into your work and for some, work for a company or management whose ethics or practices are questionable.

Despite these difficult circumstances, you will never find personal fulfillment in your work if you do not aspire to do good work. "We can make ourselves what we will," says University of Michigan business professor Noel Tichy in the article.

I urge you to apply the secret of being a contrarian to your career. Use your good, ethical judgment, even when others around you compromise their ideals. Imagine things different than they are now and how you can change them for the better. And in doing so, you can will yourself to not only be a good worker, but a great one.