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Pop Psychology Book Club, Episode 3: The Good Enough Job by Simone Stolzhoff

Carrie Ott-Holland

Welcome back to Pop Psychology Book Club! Hopefully, you’ve been enjoying this special issue honoring the history of SIOP and TIP. We’ve accomplished so much as an organization and a publication—and if I know I-O psychologists, what we’ve done so far is just the TIP of the iceberg.

In case you’ve forgotten, this is a column where I read popular press psychology and business books in search of quotes, metaphors, models, and ideas that can provide additive value to I-O psychologists. In July’s episode, you were asked to vote for this quarter’s book, and you picked The Good Enough Job.

The book: The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work by Simone Stolzhoff

The background: Simone Stolzoff is an author and designer from San Francisco. He previously worked as a design lead at the global innovation firm IDEO. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He currently writes a monthly column on work/life called The Seesaw.

The general idea: Whereas last quarter’s Toxic Positivity sat squarely in the “self-development” subgenre of pop psychology, The Good Enough Job is written as a set of interconnected essays featuring case studies of individual workers. Think: less prescriptive, more journalistic reporting and social critique. The Good Enough Job focuses on two primary questions about the modern culture of work:

  • When and how did jobs move beyond a paycheck and start to become our primary source of meaning, community, and identity?
  • What are the consequences for individuals when they live in a culture that values work and career above all else?

Here are a few takeaways I found applicable and insightful for I-O psychologists.

Three Ideas I-O Psychologists Can Use

1. Occupations seen as “callings” are generally linked to inadequate pay and undervaluation of that workforce.

Stolzhoff tells the story of Fobazi, who followed her dreams of becoming a librarian. Throughout her education, Fobazi was attracted to the ideals of libraries, such as granting universal access to knowledge and resources. Fobazi’s “calling” to become a librarian is not uncommon in the field; one librarian Stolzhoff interviewed for the book said, “Librarians aren’t made, they’re born.” But once Fobazi started working as a librarian, she witnessed a reality that diverged from the occupation’s ideals: Workers were underpaid, overworked, and homogenous. 

Fobazi was deeply disturbed seeing other librarians describe their work as a “sacred duty” while also observing the inaction surrounding the systemic problems within the field. She wrote an academic paper about a term she coined vocational awe and how it impacts librarians. Vocational awe, as she defines it, assumes that workplaces and institutions like libraries “are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” She theorized that the passion that underpins vocational awe can be taken advantage of and can lead to job creep, burnout, and inadequate compensation. The paper drew so much attention within her field that Fobazi decided to become an academic focused on researching this topic.

Stolzhoff uses Fobazi’s experiences to illustrate how workers who believe “I would do this even if no one paid me to do this!” may be incentivized to ignore or silence institutional flaws. Furthermore, he suggests that the idea that work should be intrinsically motivating and not merely transactional ultimately benefits company leaders in a world where the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio has risen from 15:1 in 1965 to over 200:1 in 2021 (Bivens & Kandra, 2022).

I-O takeaway: Although different occupations may always have different working conditions (e.g., pay, work structure), this chapter had me wondering how we as a society develop shared beliefs and assumptions about specific career paths. From a practical perspective, when and why should employers apply differential treatment to workers based on their roles and occupations? Should we be advocating as a field for a more consistent standard of employee experience across the workforce?

2. Modern work culture glamorizes status and monetary rewards while neglecting the ultimate positive life outcomes (physical health, social support, meaningfulness) that these rewards should facilitate.

Stolzhoff makes this argument through stories and statistics drawn from economics and sociology. For example, he cites that when the Pew Research Center asked Americans what gives their life meaning, respondents were nearly two times more likely to name their career than to name their spouse (Mitchell, 2018). Another sobering stat from the book: Globally, more people die each year from symptoms related to overwork than from malaria (Ro, 2022).

I-O takeaway: Instead of viewing careers as singularly upward trajectories, workers today need the flexibility to hit the gas and the brake in their careers with dignity and the opportunity to view career success through a broader lens than money and status. How might organizations offer options for workers to increase and decrease their career investments over time so that they can focus on work and nonwork commitments throughout their employment?

3. When workers experience moral injury in their work lives, it can take years to regain professional confidence.

The book features stories of several people who did all the “right” things professionally—attending brand-name institutions, working hard, learning relevant skills, investing in their professional network—but ended up sidelined or exploited by the environments and people around them.

Stolzhoff describes a chef, Divya, who worked diligently for years to rise through the ranks from student to apprentice and eventually to working with a famous Michelin-starred chef. She developed an innovative food product idea and ultimately went into business with the famous chef, with the aim of getting the product sold in grocery stores.

After years of working to ensure the business’s success, Divya’s relationship with the famous chef started to dissolve. When she finally decided to exit the business and sell her share, she discovered that the original business documents did not have her listed as owning any portion of the company. The situation resulted in a multiyear legal proceeding and left Divya with a broken sense of identity and personal purpose.

I-O takeaway: As much as we do to influence policies and practices that promote supportive and ethical behaviors at work, it’s important to acknowledge that extreme events such as workplace violence or egregious ethical breaches do occur in workplaces, and these events can have long-lasting effects on workers. How might we as I-Os advocate for additional support and resources for workers struggling with their work and career identities when events violate their values and sense of security?

Should I read the whole book? Yes! This book was a quick read but leaves you thinking about big-picture questions about the future of work, the consequences of our modern workplace culture, and the importance of our work on building healthy organizations with human-centered practices.

That’s a wrap! Next quarter, I’ll be discussing a popular press book on higher education as part of TIP’s special issue on I-O in the classroom.

Want to read past columns? You can find the pilot column here, Episode 1 here, and Episode 2 here.

Have you read The Good Enough Job? I’d love to hear your thoughts via email: c.ottholland@gmail.com

Until next time!

References

Bivens, J., & Kandra, J. (2022, October 4). CEO pay has skyrocketed 1,460% since 1978. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-pay-in-2021/

Mitchell, T. (2018, November 20). Where Americans find meaning in life. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2018/11/20/where-americans-find-meaning-in-life/

Ro, C. (2022, February 25). How overwork is literally killing us. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210518-how-overwork-is-literally-killing-us

 

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