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Are you doing Great Work? Or merely Good Work?
by Michael Bungay Stanier
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:
Work that goes beyond its
functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call
Work that is conceived and
executed with elegance and rigour we call good work.
Work that meets its intended need
honestly and without pretence we call simply work.
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 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.
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
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
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
What would you have to say “yes” to, to halve the amount of Bad Work in your
Resources for Great Work
Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes
Michael Bungay Stanier,
Get Unstuck & Get
Going… on the stuff that matters
Richard Carson, Taming your Gremlin
Copyright 2004 Michael Bungay Stanier, Box of Crayons
Michael Bungay Stanier is author of the best selling coaching tool,
Get Unstuck & Get Going …on the stuff that matters available at
www.getunstuckandgetgoing.com. 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. Sign up
for Michael’s free Outside the Lines ezine at
Michele Caron, 2002-2005