The grunt work privilege

One of the staff members at the nonprofit I work always find opportunities to make herself useful to others. She goes over and beyond her position in the organization and just focusses on helping others out as much as she can. I consider her as one of my role models in my career history.

While there are people like her, there are also, people in my organization that feels they are ‘overqualified‘ to do certain kind of work. I have seen this attitude in people especially doing data entry jobs. The attrition rate has been high for these roles in my organization.

When people initially apply for such kind of functions, they take pride in the fact that they are doing it for a ‘good cause.’ However, in a few months’ time, the cause and mission go out of the window as the repetitiveness of the task becomes more prominent. People, especially those with good degrees and qualifications, no longer want to do such repeated, monotonous tasks and ask for challenging tasks.

However, when they are handed over a challenging task, they fail to take accountability for it. It’s a difficult task, so there’s, of course, going to be a certain amount of risk involved. People simply want to claim the work without actually doing the work. This is one of the trends that I have been seeing in today’s youngsters and that unfortunately, includes people of my age group as well.

It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste!

We see it in recent lawsuits in which interns sue their employers for pay. We see kids more willing to live at home with their parents than to submit to something they’re “overqualified” to work for. We see it in an inability to meet anyone else on their terms, an unwillingness to take a step back to potentially take several steps forward. I will not let them get one over on me. I’d rather we both have nothing instead.

When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good, and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other children for the position wants to hear. It’s not what a Harvard grad expects — after all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity.

I have seen this attitude even in my closest friends’ circle. I have friends who had spent an enormous amount of money to get an American degree only to avoid the indignity of particular kind of jobs. When I was working in the IT sector in India, I had colleagues who took pride in being a part of ‘development’ work and looked down upon people who were a part of testing and application support groups. Eventually, what happened was the testing, and support guys landed several onsite opportunities for some real global clients. Similarly, I have seen some of my educated female friends, who had outsourced their household chores and childcare because they wanted to focus more on shopping, watching sitcoms on TV, and attending kitty parties and not because they had to look after their aging parents and do philanthropic work.

This is ego at work. When we are ruled by our egos arising out of the labels that we associate ourselves such as educated and highly qualified we fail to distinguish between what is work that matters and what is not.

There’s a scarcity to do repetitive, monotonous work. It’s just like how, in India, there’s a shortage of maids for household help since more people have started going to school to get degrees and seeking for greener pastures in the name of white-collar corporate jobs.

The scarcity of anything always creates value. My prediction is as more people go after ’challenging’ work, the market is going to pay more for the repetitive tasks that are still important to run a business or an institution.

So, the next time when you say ’no’ to a role just because it’s repetitive and doesn’t feed your ego and pride, think twice.

He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for.

Be quiet, work hard, and stay healthy. It’s not ambition or skill that is going to set you apart. What will set you apart, what is rare, is humility, diligence, and self-awareness.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room – until you change that with results. Be lesser, do more.

Hope we realize our egos sooner before it’s too late.


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