Are You Doing Great Work? Or Merely Good Work?


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Milton Glaser

You may not know the name of Milton Glaser, but you probably know at least one of his works of art – the “I ‘Heart’ NY” logo. In his book, Art is Work, Glaser provides these provocative definitions of work

1. Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.

2. Work that is conceived and executed with elegance and rigour we call good work.

3. Work that meets its intended need honestly and without pretence we call simply work.

4. Everything else, the sad and shoddy stuff of daily life, can come under the heading of bad work.

I combine Glaser’s second and third distinctions to have just three categories: Great Work, Good Work and Bad Work. (And by “Work”, I’m talking all of “the stuff you do”. It’s not only about what you do in the office, but what you do 24/7. Work includes looking after your children, watching TV, preparing meals, exercise, being with friends, being by yourself, and so on).

How do you know what’s what? Here’s my litmus test.

Great Work

Great Work brings with it both exhilaration and terror. You’re delighted when someone asks you what you do, and they have trouble getting you to stop talking about it. You tap into reserves of courage and chutzpah to get done what needs to be done. You often have no idea how to do what needs to be done – and are only a little fazed by that, because you are certain that this is truly what needs to be done.

Great work is a place where impact and effect trumps over efficiency and process. It is often a place of waste, because creativity needs waste to thrive. It is a place of inspiration, where suddenly all your past makes sense (“A-ha! That’s why I did that, learned that, experienced that”). It is a place that honors your skills, your passion and your experience.

Great Work is also a difficult place to be. The temptation to “downgrade” to the comfort of Good Work is constant. Your “inner critic” is rampant, whispering “Who are you to try this? Who do you think you are to be this ambitious? Don’t you know you’re doomed to failure?” Great Work can also be elusive, because it can degrade in a moment to be simply Good Work. To do Great Work, you must be ever vigilant.

Good Work

With Good Work, there is no shame attached. You’re doing work that uses your skills, it gets stuff done, it may well pay you a wage. It’s comfortable, because you know what you’re doing. It is probably something of a routine or a habit.

So it’s not that you’re having a bad time. It’s just that when you’re asked by strangers what you do, sometimes it feels like you’re trying to convince yourself more than them that this is great. Good Work is often about “being efficient”, without ever asking the difficult question “is this the right work to be efficient with?” (Peter Drucker says this: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things”). In a year’s time, you won’t remember the Good Work you were doing a year ago.

And as for Bad Work, the test is simple. It’s when you have that sudden flash of realization and you ask yourself: Why exactly am I wasting my life with this?

Take action

Here’s a quick exercise. Draw a biggish circle on a piece of paper. Now, divide it into three segments that represent the proportion of each of these types of work in your life today.

How much Great Work are you doing? More than 80%? Less than 20%?

In my experience, many of us are doing a fair amount of Good Work – but very little Great Work. The goal is to remove Bad Work from our lives, and continually increase the amount of Great Work.

What would you have to say “no” to, to double the amount of Great Work in your life? What would you have to say “yes” to, to halve the amount of Bad Work in your life?

Resources for Great Work

  • Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes
  • Michael Bungay Stanier, GetUnstuck & Get Going… on the stuff that matters
  • Richard Carson, Taming your Gremlin

    Copyright 2004 Michael Bungay Stanier, Box of Crayons

    About the Author Michael Bungay Stanier is a keynote speaker , keynote speaker and the author of the best selling business coaching tool , Get Unstuck & Get Going . . . on the stuff that matters. A certified coach and Rhodes Scholar, he works with coaches, trainers, teams and organizations to help them get unstuck and get going on the stuff that matters. For more information or to sign up for Michael's free Outside the Lines ezine visit:

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