One of the best stories of the women's gold medal victory last week was Meaghan Mikkelson, who despite playing with a broken hand, played almost 22 minutes of the final, spent two minutes in the box for roughing, and registered an assist on the goal that started the golden comeback.
Why are we so fascinated by these stories? Why would someone take a picture of their broken hand and display it with as much pride as a gold medal? Why so much pride about pain?
While it's still not a fully developed thought, my hunch is that the motivation behind such acts—and especially the need to display and talk about them afterward—says something about the relationship between work, sacrifice, and love that we don't consider often enough.
Mikkelson's decision to play, and the obvious pride she takes in showing off her wound and the medal she gained from the pain struck me as not at all unlike the tendency of workers to gather around the water cooler—or more likely over a beer, or in the smoking circle—and share "war stories" about their job.
Everyone who works does it. Mothers share stories about epic battles with crying, sick, two-year-olds; doctors share stories about long shifts in the ER when it's a full moon; garbage truck drivers talk about that time when they were doing leaf and yard pickup in the rain after a long weekend; office jockeys talk about burning the midnight oil on this or that project. Even think-tankers do it from time to time.
There's a sense in which the act of sacrifice—done in the moment with pain, fatigue, frustration, and less a sense of love than of pride or stoic duty—takes on a different guise when you reflect back on it afterwards. We love to tell war stories. We love to know that we sacrificed. We love our sacrifices. Does that love of sacrifice hint at something deeper about the relationship between what we love, and what we do?
In a free and democratic marketplace, my hypothesis is that there is a strong relationship between how much you love your work and how much you're willing to sacrifice for it? It might be a complicated relationship—you might, for instance, hate your job, but love your colleagues and the workplace community; or the job itself might be a sacrifice in the service of something bigger like your family—but it strikes me as something worth measuring. It might even be the case that the willingness to sacrifice is a better measure of job satisfaction—and all the related HR implications of retention, promotion etc.—than the measurements we currently use.
In any case, I do think our understanding of work and life would be improved if we heard more about the relationship between pain, work, and sacrifice from vocational gurus. We've had books (good books!) about "joy at work" but I've yet to see a book that tries to tease out the philosophical and economic implications of "limited misery at work."
My hunch is that, as with Mikkelson's Olympic performance, there's gold to be found among the bruises and breaks.