Are we having fun yet? The Fish Approach to Working

April 20, 2011

Is work a four-letter word to you, or a way to have fun?

A lovely little book, Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, authors Lundin, Paul, and Christensen use the real-life example of fun-loving fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market to weave a tale of the critical importance of fun at work.

Now, Pike Place Market is something of a phenomenon, but it’s one that, once experienced, is hard to forget:

Now think about your work. Are you thinking about how much fun it is, or instead are you thinking, “Yeah, but my job is (fill in the blank with whatever drudgery you may feel has been thrust upon you).” Now remember – these guys are fishmongers. When I look at the list of jobs that I might enjoy, that one is not near the top for me.

And yet – clearly these guys are having a blast. They are having fun, and they are most definitely creating something of value – they are working. The customers are feeling taken care of and entertained, the fish dudes are having a blast, and the owner is making money by selling more fish.

I have been on a lifelong quest to have fun while working. I once had a job that I enjoyed very much, doing assays of how much oil was contained in rocks. Now, I get it that many people would hate this job, but to me, at age 18, it was a grand adventure. It was like working out a puzzle. One member of our team would drive a truck to the west slope of Colorado and pick up the rock samples. At our lab in Golden, Colorado, the samples were crushed, and then our laboratory ran them through a process to determine the petroleum content. I felt like a mad scientist, surrounded by bubbling test tubes and distillation equipment. My supervisor had a wonderful sense of humor and took the whole thing both seriously and completely lightly.

And then one day, the rock crusher guy didn’t show for work. Seems he liked to party a lot, and there was often stress around whether he would show or not. And I drew the short straw that day. As best I can recall, the process involved a series of crushers, as I started with a sample of solid rock and ended with a finely ground powder.

For about an hour, while I was learning the process, it was interesting and engaging. And then… I can remember feeling that the clock had simply STOPPED. I remember so clearly looking at it, then giving myself a series of tasks to do and actually forcing myself to not look at that clock until I had finished the tasks, and… WHAT?! Only THREE MINUTES?! No WAY?!

Yeah, way, dude.

Work is what most of us do with most of our lives. And it must be fun. Now, all these decades later, I can’t remember enough of that day to come up with a game that would have made the work meaningful or fun, but I suspect that now I could do that.

But the lesson I learned there has carried over through managing others and managing myself. “Work” is a term from physics that means a force is exerted onto object, and that object moves some distance. If you push with all your might on a 1000-lb box, no work has been done.

So perhaps work is really not the best word for these things we do that move our economic engine. But whatever we call it, if work isn’t fun, life is staring at a clock that never seems to move, like being caught in a particularly bad version of Groundhog Day.

What do you do to make “work” fun? Or perhaps I should say – how do you have fun while earning a living?

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