The Joy of Working Well

By Matthew

· 10 min

How should we define our relationship with our work?

Is it a duty, to create prosperity for our families and for society?

Is it a thing we should keep in its proper place, to prevent it from defining us?

Is it a thing to commit to utterly, the hustle and side-hustle, to achieve fulfilment?

For the vast majority of the history of human society, this would have been an insane question. Work was what you did when you were awake, and not eating, praying, or unwell. Work was life.

For us, work is just a part of life. It functions as different forms of currency – as a source of subsistence, of wellbeing, of status.

But it can also be a source of joy.

The positive loop, and the winning trap

If you are lucky, your work and the instincts of your soul align neatly, and there’s quite a lot of joy – and you find yourself in a loop where the more joy you get, the better your work becomes.

Of course, this is not the norm for all, or even most of us.

One thing that’s obvious is that you’ll never get close to finding out unless you really get stuck in. For a while, like many, my post-student loop was mainly one of indolence and confusion. But fortunately beneath that I had a background ethos that work was inherently good. Once the need for security and my competitive edge began to kick in, I found myself on an axis between Martin Luther and Bruce Springsteen. And here’s a quote from Luther, that I think would work pretty well as the verse of a Springsteen ballad:

“Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.” Martin Luther

In my advertising career, I found a period of time where what I enjoyed and what made me successful coincided neatly. My joy came from a sense of camaraderie, competitiveness, and mastery. My team, and my agency, and my role in that WAS my goal. Every success, and every defeat, was personal.  

Fortunately, I cared more about the joy of the wins than the disappointment of the losses – and in any case the wins were by far the more frequent.

But if the fuel for your fire is simply ‘work hard, do well and have fun’ then it’s going to run out some time.

It’s about ‘the work’

I speak to a lot of people who decide to set up their own business or to work as a freelancer, and by far the most common phrase I hear, even more common than the desire to work to a flexible schedule, is the desire to ‘get closer to the work’.

If you take a step back, this is pretty insane. These are generally exemplary, often very experienced professionals, who are leaving outstanding jobs simply in order to do some work. What were they doing before?

Well, of course one of this statement means different things to different people. For some it is about their craft skills, for others it is about proximity to creative output. But for pretty much everyone it represents something fairly common. Reducing the sense of distance they feel from what they are doing to make a living.

That distance comes, inevitably, from politics, from admin, from meetings, from alignment, from pitching, from sheer overload. The solution is peeling back your layers of protection, getting your hands dirty, taking accountability in a much more direct way.

But as an adherent of the Luther-Springsteen axis, I fervently believe this isn’t just about a mode-switch, from one to another. Changing where and how you work just enables you to start a journey to build a good relationship with your work.

The Journey to Working Well

In the last three years, I have very gradually become better at closing the loop between what gives me joy, and what creates value.

And I’ve found that for me, it is all about ‘working well’ – a sense of benign improvement in my practice that gives me an intrinsic sense of joy. Thus far, the evidence is that this is good for my clients – and good for my life. Which hopefully makes a lot of sense when you look at the things that have given me most joy over the last three years.

The Joy of Progress

There’s nothing more frustrating than being stuck.

Being unable to progress as you’d like because life gets in the way…because you can’t quite your colleagues on board…because things are so complicated and they keep changing.

The flip side of that is that when the blockage is removed, it gives you a feeling of release that can be quite blissful – like the moment when the traffic jam mysteriously clears, and you can put your foot to the floor. 

By putting myself at the heart of removing these blockages, I get to see a spark of light in people’s eyes, and a change of energy in the room.

I love building processes that find these blockages, and creating something, whether it’s a positioning, an architecture, or a plan of action that enables people to push on, and much quicker than they thought they could. And it comes with the joy of all the unlocked potential from simply not having to keep thinking about the same thing.

The Joy of Integrity

Truth is the currency of strategy.

If you are responsible for strategy internally, you are responsible for the cold reality of the distance between where you are now and where you need to be, and the obstacles and efforts that stand in your way. If you are external, you are responsible for completing the internal picture, by increasing external awareness and shifting perspective.

If you can’t tell the truth, you can’t build proper strategy.

However, the truth is that for the vast majority of strategic consultants and creatives, the truth you can tell is only partial. This isn’t to cast aspersions on the motivations of account planners and communications strategists and strategic consultants everywhere – I’ve found that almost all of them are happy to challenge internal agendas in search of the truth. But there are limits, because so often there is something else at stake – a budget, a creative product, a political relationship.

The joy of having this constraint removed is palpable. The joy of standing behind what you believe, and sleeping well on the back of it.

And the joy for the client at hearing the unvarnished truth is (usually) reciprocal. Hearing advice you can trust, from an expert with a genuinely independent point of view can be a huge help. Generally, the truth is a relief.

The Joy of Improvement

I’ve always deeply respected creatives. But making creative work more central to my practice has been a revelation.

The things that I’ve been creating are of course generally strategic objects, not culture or entertainment – these are positionings, unifying ideas, brand identities – but nonetheless they are tangible outputs, designed to unify and engender emotion.

And the revelation has been not the lightning-blast of creative breakthrough, but the discovery of the slow, meditative, often painful process of improvement. Of iteration. Of experimentation. Of painstaking removal of the unnecessary.

For me, this has always been something that I only experienced far from work, in personal creative projects. Bringing it closer to the heart of my work has given me a deep joy of continuous improvement.

And whilst it’s a difficult thing to make space for, those many hours can of course have a deep effect on the output. And well-crafted output has impact and resonance.

The Joy of Sacrifice

The primary role of strategy is to define what you don’t do.

This is a line so popular that it’s almost glib, but it’s absolutely and empirically true – I can say with total confidence that when I return to my clients to see how they are doing, it’s those who have sacrificed a significant portion of their previous backlog in favour of a new path that make the most progress.

This in itself is a joy – I’ve spent so much of my career as a strategist adding new ideas and new priorities that the process of removal is now a very pure pleasure.

It’s also true that the process of getting there can benefit from a sacrifice mindset too. Any strategic decision can be incredibly complex, and indeed there is an entire industry of consultants and researchers ready to make it so. But you can be rigorous without taking months, or going through a 20-stage framework. Any process should be as simple as it can be (though, of course, no simpler.)

The process of sacrifice also yields another pure joy – freeing people from unnecessary complexity, and unnecessary labour. My perspective is very much that work is great, it can and should be deeply enjoyable – but it is emphatically only enjoyable when it has a visible effect. And whilst it is important, it is very much less important than health, or family care, or sleep, or passion projects. It should take up as little time as possible.

And in a time of constrained resource and ever-extending priorities – if you want your workplace to have a sense of joy, you’ll need to sacrifice as much as possible.

The Joy of Partnership

It’s ultimately not work that brings us joy – but our relationships with each other.

If I think back to my earlier forms of no-holds-barred, competitive working, the thread of joy that wove through them was fundamentally about the team. About ‘us against the world’. About the total emotional commitment, to the task and to each other, that led to the ultimate result.

My tastes in working joy may have softened and matured, but it’s still that thread of togetherness that binds all these other elements together. The joy of progressing together, with integrity, of improving, of sacrifice – these are all ultimately features of respect, and of exchange.

The result is the formation genuine partnerships – a word often used far too lightly – where everyone gains, and everyone’s endeavours are furthered.

It entails brilliant working collaborations with expert practitioners where the bar is always high, the effort is always mutual, and the end goal is always the priority.

It entails client relationships that extend over multiple projects and multiple years, meaning I get to enjoy the rare destiny of the strategist: seeing your work bear fruit in the real world.

The Joy of Working Well

So, this is my learning, from three years of incredibly varied independent working.

Not that all my work has to have a world-shifting purpose.

Not that every piece of output needs to confound expectation.

But that it’s the how…the doing things well…that builds success, and can, on a good day, create joy.

Progress, integrity, improvement, sacrifice…and partnership.

This is the third in a series of reflections of three years of Hook Strategy.

To hear about the end of the previous era, read here:

And for my thoughts on starting over, read here:

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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