IN early September 2001, barely a week before the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Basic Books published the hardcover edition of a book entitled, Good Work (Basic Books, New York, 2001), which three professor-educators collaborated in producing.
The three authors are: Howard Gardner, a cognitive psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a social psychologist, who writes from an evolutionary and motivational perspective, best known for discovering the psychological state called “flow”; and William Damon, a developmental psychologist who has focused on social and moral issues.
In 1994-1995, the three spent a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) in Palo Alto, California, a cloistered area overlooking nearby Stanford University.
One afternoon, their conversation turned to the question: “If you had the choice, what sort of problem would you work on for the next ten years of your professional life.”
High-level performance and social responsibility
It became clear to them, first, that each of them did have a choice; and second, that their envisioned projects were in many respects similar.
Each of them had begun to struggle with the relationship between high-level performance and social responsibility, between excellence and ethics.
They had been thinking about several key questions:
1. Is it true that most creative scientists and artists are selfish and ambitious, unconcerned with the common good?
2. Why is it that experts primarily teach techniques to young professionals, while ignoring the values that have sustained the quests of so many geniuses?
3. Is the impact of science, technology and communication predetermined—for good or ill—or do we have some control over it?
This set of questions led them to the idea of studying together what they first called “humane creativity”. They thought of interviewing and observing professionals at the cutting edge of a dozen fields that are essential to individual and social well-being – fields ranging from journalism and genetics to law and theater. The idea was to take stock of the kind of people who entered such professions and succeeded in them. They wanted to know about their backgrounds, values and goals. They wanted to look at how they approached their work, as well as the opposition they encountered, and the strategies they used to overcome it. They planned to ask them about their dreams and nightmares, about the future course of their chosen pursuit.
Because of their collective backgrounds in the study of creativity, leadership and moral excellence, they were particularly interested in learning more about those persons who succeeded in melding expertise with moral distinction.
After leaving Stanford, they started assembling research teams at their respective universities (each was a professor), and began applying for financial support so they could carry out their project.
They found much interest in their work in foundations. There was a growing interest in the object of their research: leading professionals face a growing challenge as they attempt to carry out their central missions, because conditions are changing rapidly, and market forces are extremely powerful, and their sense of time and space were being radically altered by technological innovations like the Internet.
Genetics and journalism
As their ideas coalesced and their planning proceeded, they moved away from the notion and terminology of “humane creativity” and toward that of “good work”—work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.
They asked: What promotes or impedes good work?
The first two fields they decided to investigate were genetics and the media.
They chose the two fields because they were two professions in which the practitioners are grappling with how to do top-quality, socially responsible work in a time of extremely rapid change.
One profession, genetics, was poised to control the composition of our bodies.
The other, journalism, had the potential to control the contents of our minds.
So, the authors decided to focus on the question of what it means to carry out good work “ – work that is both excellent in quality and socially responsible – at a time of constant change.
Thus was born the project which they then called “good work.”
From the beginning of the project, the research spanned diverse professional realms – law, medicine, theater, higher education, philanthropy, and more. They recognized in all of them the same set of forces operating, the emergence of powerful and still dimly understood technologies, the overwhelming power of market forces, and the common decline of various competing ideologies and ”isms”; the waning of an agreed set of principles and of an ethical framework that has been designed to govern the decisions and behaviors and of all members of a profession.
There was the loss of powerful heroic role models that inspire the younger members of a profession and a concomitant foreboding sense that the future course of the domain was wrapped in uncertainty.
In sum, the challenge of good work confronts every professional and every profession today.
The authors decided to focus on journalism and genetics so they could do an in-depth analysis of the two professional realms, and so they could tease out answers to the central questions they were asking and to gain a nuanced view of the challenges that professionals were facing.
They conducted in-depth interviews with leading practitioners in each field, and in several areas of specialization within journalism and genetics.
Since the time of their initial research, the unfolding of the two professions led to the confrontation of new issues. Genetics emerged as a profession in which the scientists, the general public, and the shareholders of corporations agree substantially about their goals.
In sharp contrast, journalism emerged as a profession in which the reporter, the general public, and the shareholders of corporations differ sharply in their aspirations.
Since the 1990s, both these two realms have increasingly come to dominate public discourse.
The human genome would come to be mapped by the turn of the millennium.
The Internet would become a principal source of the news. News organizations would face their respective crisis of survival.
Fundamentals of good work
I wrote this column in the hope of sharing with readers the insights of the authors of Good Work, and the illumination that they might shed on the professional work and challenges of others. They have helped in my professional life. They may help you in your own.
To conclude, good work is used here in a dual sense: 1) work that is deemed to be of high quality; and 2) work that is socially responsible.
The fundamentals of good work are excellence and ethics. When they are in harmony, we lead a personally fulfilling and socially rewarding life.
When they are not in harmony, either the individual or the community will suffer.
Since most people want to do work that is useful as well as meaningful, one important question to answer is: What can people do when conditions threaten a harmonious alignment?
What are the strategies that will allow people to maintain moral and ethical standards at a time when market forces wield unprecedented power and work life is being radically altered by technological innovation?
These are the questions at the heart of Good Work. It is enlivened by stories of real people facing hard decisions. It offers a powerful insight into a most important issue of our time and an important issue regarding the future course of science, technology, and communication.