Author Talks: How to fall in love with work

Out of the thousands of moments in a workday, says Marcus Buckingham, you should spend 20 percent on your most beloved areas of mastery.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Stephanie Strom chats with Marcus Buckingham, a business consultant and motivational speaker, about his new book: Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life (Harvard Business Review Press, April 2022). He says that the most successful people aren’t those who do what they love; they’re those—from technicians to branch managers—who find love in what they do. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why write this book, and why now?

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My latest book is called Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do, and Do It for the Rest of Your Life. The point of the book is precisely that: how you can use the raw material of your own life to discover what you love and turn it into a contribution.

I wrote this book now for a couple of reasons. One is that over the last two years or so, we’ve become changed people. We’ve had some dark days thinking about who we are and what we do, what our identity is when we don’t get up and go to the office every day to the same desk and the same people in the elevator—all those cues that show you who you are. Now you’re all alone and looking at yourself in the mirror, going “who am I, and what kind of mark do I want to leave on the world?”

In that same period, I’d lost my dad, I’d left my marriage, and I’d sold my company. I came out of that and went, “Look, I’ve written quite a few books based on psychometric data about leaders and managers and employees, but in a country of 3.4 percent, 3.5 percent unemployment—where the power really does lie with the employee—what should we as employees do to be able to find meaning in our lives?”

Not that work is the only place where you find meaning in your life, but if you spend 40, 50, or 60 hours a week there, what can you usefully and intelligently do to be nourished by that? How do you find love in what you do so that you can actually end up living a life that feels like yours, as opposed to a life that feels like it’s almost deliberately separated from you?

Not that work is the only place where you find meaning in your life, but if you spend 40, 50, or 60 hours a week there, what can you usefully and intelligently do to be nourished by that? How do you find love in what you do so that you can actually end up living a life that feels like yours, as opposed to a life that feels like it’s almost deliberately separated from you? Let’s do that realistically in the context of actual work with real companies. That’s why I felt I had to write it.

Then there’s the personal stuff. Life is a story, and I’ve never really shared any part of my story. Mine’s the only story I know firsthand, and we’re all trying to tell our stories and make them up as we go along. How do we make sure the stories we tell feel like our own? How do we honor the unique person that we’ve always known ourselves to be—the person that, somehow, school and parents and work have quite often drowned out? That was the impetus for the book.

Love + work = ?

We don’t often think of love and work in the same context. How are they related?

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There’s a lot of people writing these days about how you shouldn’t expect your job to love you back. They say your work is not your family; your work is transactional. Stop expecting of it something that it can’t deliver. Yet when you study people who are really, really good at what they do—and I don’t think this will be a surprise to anyone—they find love in what they do.

The most successful people do what they love. That seems like a nice aphorism, but there’s no data to support it. There is a lot of data that the most successful people find the love in what they do.

The most successful people do what they love. That seems like a nice aphorism, but there’s no data to support it. There is a lot of data that the most successful people find the love in what they do. You might be confronting someone or presenting or performing a particular aspect of an operation or caring for a student. Whatever it is, if it’s one of the things that you love, you’ll have a chemical cocktail present in your brain: dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and anandamide.

We know what that does to your brain. We know it deregulates the egoic part of your neocortex, which is focused on outcomes and goal achievement. It deregulates that, and your mind gets opened to more information and inputs, and it gets more comfortable with those inputs, so you measurably perform cognitive tasks better. Your memory’s better; you’re better at pointing out other people’s emotions and naming them accurately, so you’re more empathetic; and you’re more creative.

When you’re in love with another human, it makes you feel safe, it makes you feel inquisitive, and it makes you feel uplifted. It’s the same cocktail when you’re doing something that you love. If companies want creativity, if they want innovation, if they want resilience, and if they want engagement, they have to engage with the word love.

When you’re in love with another human, it makes you feel safe, it makes you feel inquisitive, and it makes you feel uplifted. It’s the same cocktail when you’re doing something that you love.

How can a company incorporate love into the recruiting process?

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Love is an activity that you love, or what I call, in the book, “red threads.” It means that your day at work isn’t just one day at work; it’s thousands and thousands of different interactions and moments and situations and contexts—a bit like a tapestry. When you step back, it just looks like a picture on a wall, but when you get close, it’s made up of all these little threads.

It’s the same with any workday: it’s not a Wednesday, it’s thousands of these little threads. Some of them are red, black, gray, white, or blue, but the red ones have those qualities where, before you do it, you positively look forward to it. While you’re doing it, you vanish into it and feel an almost innate sense of mastery—it’s just easy and natural for you. Those are red threads. Your day needs to be 20 percent red threads, every day.

Of course, no one teaches you this. We do years on geometry because we think geometry’s very important, and we do zero years on self-mastery—zero. We teach you about a theory of making decisions or a theory of building relationships or even a theory of creativity, but we don’t teach you how creative you are or how you build relationships or how you make decisions.

The only genius about your red threads is you. The first thing we do wrong—all the way through education, and it continues into the world of work—is to convince you that you don’t know the right answers: “We are your bosses; we have the right answers about your goals, the competencies you’re supposed to have, and how good you are at those competencies. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to give you some feedback.” All your life, you’re hearing “you’re not smart, we are. We’ll tell you what the right answers are.” When it comes to love, you know what you lean into better than anyone else—you know what your red threads are better than anyone else.

We do years on geometry because we think geometry’s very important, and we do zero years on self-mastery—zero. We teach you about a theory of making decisions or a theory of building relationships or even a theory of creativity, but we don’t teach you how creative you are or how you build relationships or how you make decisions.

The first thing for companies is to say, “tell me about your previous work” and then, “when you’re thinking about your previous work, what did you love about it the most?” Once people get through that little door of love, a whole undiscovered country of vividness and detail emerges. Just start off with those two questions in every single job interview, and then shut up and people will talk. For me, it’s riveting to hear someone look at their own life through the lens of what they love.

How can a business apply your concept of love to teamwork, where each member brings different loves to the table?

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All work is teamwork. Sixty-five percent of people say they work on more than one team. You have 100 trillion synaptic connections in your brain by the time you’re 19, and no one will ever have that pattern of synaptic connections again, ever, anywhere. At school we teach you a lot about the differences of race and gender and age and sexual orientation and so forth. But we don’t teach you the most important question for you, which is why you’re different from your brother or why you’re different from your sister.

In this day and age, we talk about who you are because of your biography, because of your traumas: “Well, my parents did that, so that’s why I do this.” There’s no you in there. There’s nothing in there. You’re not you, you’re just empty. Of course you can grow. The question is where you will grow the most—and science actually knows that. You have a unique network of synaptic connections, and you grow the most where you have the most preexisting synaptic connections. That’s how nature works.

You as a human are uniquely weird. Companies think, “I’ve got 300 nurses. They’ve all got to do the same job. The uniqueness of my nurses is an impediment to getting the job done—it’s not just irrelevant, it gets in the way. Your uniqueness is actually something we’re trying to grind down.” I’m overstating a little, but not a lot. Companies have uniformity of method. They don’t say this out loud, but uniformity of method is their way of ensuring uniformity of outcome. The funny and silly thing is, of course, that that’s not the way humans work.

The oldest human art ever found is in a cave in Sulawesi, 1 and it’s a picture of a team. It’s 44,000 years old. Somebody looked at the different people sitting in the cave across from them and thought, “wait a minute. He’s fast, she seems to instinctively know where the animals are, and he’s brave. I’m going to put it together into this little technology called a team.” We figured out ages ago what we do with enduring human uniqueness—we put it together in teams where each person is not well rounded; they’re specifically different from one another, but the team is well rounded precisely because each person on it isn’t.

Companies have uniformity of method. They don’t say this out loud, but uniformity of method is their way of ensuring uniformity of outcome. The funny and silly thing is, of course, that that’s not the way humans work.

Mostly we talk about teams in the context of “there’s no ‘I’ in the word team” or “you are not as important as the team.” That’s a complete 180-degree misunderstanding of the purpose of teams. Teams are designed to make homes for weirdness. That’s what they were for. There are lots of Is in teams.

The word of 2022 is going to be “teaming,” particularly remote and hybrid teaming. When you see great teams, it’s because a manager or team leader has created such a vibe of trust that people are able to describe their red threads. That’s what teaming looks like in a love-and-work world, and that’s how you get a superhigh-performing, high-functioning team out of uniquely weird individuals.

Listen to your brain

What role does fear play in a world where love is embedded in work?

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It begins with all of us changing our mindset toward fear. We have a very strange relationship with fear. We talk about it as though you should live your life without it, and yet when you do feel it, we’re told it’s not really that important. But a life without fear is not a human life. From an evolutionary, biological standpoint it’s very useful to have fear because it’s “fight or flight”: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?

We have a very strange relationship with fear. We talk about it as though you should live your life without it, and yet when you do feel it, we’re told it’s not really that important. But a life without fear is not a human life. From an evolutionary, biological standpoint it’s very useful to have fear because it’s “fight or flight”: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?

A life without fear, first of all, is not a human life. In the book, I was trying to say that fear is your life’s companion, and you should do with fear what you would do with any life companion on a long train journey. You would engage them in conversation. You would ask them what they’re about. You would ask them what they pay attention to. I actually called this “make love to your fears,” which in my framing meant that your fears are trying to show you some aspect of what you love—you’re probably frightened because there’s something about it that you care about so very, very deeply. That’s not a source of weakness; it’s a source of strength for you.

So, examine your fear and have a conversation with it because it will show you what you love, which is powerful. Frankly, fear hurts you when you don’t examine it. If you’re fearful of taking a new job because you have the impostor syndrome and you push the job away, fear leads you to formulaic, safe work that stagnates you. Fear of your partner cheating on you, if you don’t examine it, leads to instinctive possessiveness, and it’s the possessiveness that kills the relationship. Fear doesn’t hurt you. Fear shunned—and what it metastasizes into when you shun it—is what hurts you.

In the book, you call ‘sucking it up’—doing a job you don’t love out of necessity or for money—the biggest foe of love in work. Why is that?

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The whole suck-it-up thing is in the ether right now. People say work is work, work is tough, and stop expecting of it things that it can’t give you. Yet you have in your brain this incredibly complicated synaptic network that’s similar to no one’s, and it leads you to love some things and loathe others, so love is a force. Like all forces of nature, it has to flow, it has to be expressed. If you don’t express it, love turns into a caustic, abrasive, acidic substance that eats you up from the inside out.

Love unexpressed deteriorates your resilience really quickly. If you think to yourself, “Well, I’ve got two kids, so I’ve got to do it” or “I’m going to hate the work, but I’m going to make so much money that in five years’ time I’ll quit and open a bed and breakfast in Vermont”—it’s a terrible trade-off. The people who feel the effects most, if you’re going to spend 40 hours a week lovelessly, are the people at home.

When we ask people, “Do you have the freedom to modify your job to fit your strengths better?” an awful lot of us say, “Yeah, I’ve got some freedom.” But only 18 percent say they love more than 20 percent of what they do. In psychology, we call that an attitude–behavior consistency problem. We know we can maneuver our job to fit ourselves better and find more love in what we do, but we just don’t or we don’t know how to or no one tells us that it’s really important.

When we ask people, “Do you have the freedom to modify your job to fit your strengths better?” an awful lot of us say, “Yeah, I’ve got some freedom.” But only 18 percent say they love more than 20 percent of what they do. In psychology, we call that an attitude–behavior consistency problem. We know we can maneuver our job to fit ourselves better and find more love in what we do, but we just don’t or we don’t know how to or no one tells us that it’s really important.

Love unexpressed will burn you up from the inside out. Some jobs are tough, but if you interview maintenance workers in a factory—which I’ve done to the nth degree—and you talk to the people who love what they do, it’s like a totally different job. One chap was, like, “I name all my machines.” I was, like, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Yeah, I name them. They’ve all got personalities. I love going in and trying to figure out which one’s going to break down. There’s always one of them that chooses to break down on a day that I wish it wouldn’t.”

I suppose the point is that there’s love to be found. That doesn’t mean companies aren’t designing really boring, deeply mistrustful jobs; they are. One of the most egregious examples of this is the role of nurse supervisors in hospitals. In all the discussion about burnout of nurses, no one’s talked about the fact that love develops in response to another human. Someone needs to see what you’re doing and help you figure out how to do more of it, or at least be attentive to who you are as a human. If you’ve got one nurse supervisor to 60 nurses, the nurse supervisor can’t do that.

In all the discussion about burnout of nurses, no one’s talked about the fact that love develops in response to another human. Someone needs to see what you’re doing and help you figure out how to do more of it, or at least be attentive to who you are as a human. If you’ve got one nurse supervisor to 60 nurses, the nurse supervisor can’t do that.

We’ve designed hospitals that are deeply unloving and dehumanizing, and then we wonder why we’ve got such a chronic nurse shortage. Well, we’ve designed it so that it’s impossible for the nurse supervisor to see the people on her team or his team, and you can’t love what you can’t see. What this gets into is organization structure and organization design. We call it span of control, but we shouldn’t—we should call it span of attention. We should design workplaces where there is a realistic span of attention, which would allow a team leader to see the choices, the uniqueness, the loves, the stresses, and the passions of the people on their team.

If you can’t do this—whether it’s a call center, a warehouse, or a hospital—then we should expect to see all these negative outcomes, which we do. We then pretend we’re surprised by the outcomes, but no, no, no, you designed that into your organization design. Maybe it worked on a balance sheet, but it doesn’t work for humans.

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Marcus Buckingham on how successful people find love in what they do

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