Project Practitioners > It Is Not About Happiness

It Is Not About Happiness

By Chris Cook, PMP

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” – Sigmund Freud

When I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old graduating from high school, I started to work for my stepfather’s road construction business. This opportunity was not preferential treatment for being family. Quite the opposite.

I started as a laborer mixing mortar for a chamber being designed to hold storm water. It was a rude awakening to the real world. This work was difficult. Even with a mechanical mortar mixer, carrying the buckets of mortar to the masons in the hot sun became my hell on Earth.

I could not wait for the foreman to start cleaning up because the day would soon be over. I would have sweat through all layers of clothing driving home in a car with the air conditioning blasting and the windows open while going 55 miles per hour.

There were times I wanted to quit. My friends were working at the local golf course washing golf carts and picking up sticks. My internal dialogue kept chiming in with, “Quit and work with your friends. This job is not for you. Go have fun.”

Instead, I ended up working five summers and two full seasons as a laborer for my stepfather. Looking back, Freud is correct. I look fondly upon those times of struggle and wanting to quit yet never following through on my internal threats.

That boots-on-the-ground experience makes me a better project manager because I understand what it takes to get things done in the field. I know what is important and what can wait. Everyone wants their tasks done yesterday.

The fondness and happiness of those moments come from the struggles. The struggles must be worth it. The juice must be worth the squeeze. If not, you will never be happy in your situation.


Backwards Law

“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.” – Alan Watts

Alan Watts was a writer and philosopher bringing Eastern philosophy to Western society. His backwards law explains why putting in more work does not necessarily translate to success. An example is muddy water. The more you stir, the muddier it gets. To clarify the water, one must do nothing and let the particles settle.

The backwards law also applies to happiness. Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***, makes the point that the struggles you are willing to endure determine your happiness. If the job or project you are involved with is not worth the struggles, it is not the job or project for you.

Manson tells his audience to reframe the questions. Instead of asking, “How do I stop suffering?” start to ask, “Why am I suffering and for what purpose?” Suffering does not end. Late projects, budget overruns, team conflicts, and so on. The list never ends.

The project manager must be willing to accept this suffering to be happy. Suffering may be a strong word, but you can label it frustration, punishment, grief, or whatever you choose to better fit your situation. This backwards approach will lead to better outcomes.

Losing weight is a great example of suffering versus the payoff. Is the pain of running on a treadmill for 20 minutes worth the potential of losing weight? If not, you stay your size, and life moves on. Accepting the pain and challenge of pushing yourself results in weight loss.

Health is always a popular topic around the new year with everyone making resolutions that this is the year. Then one month in, they realize the pain is not worth the gain, and they quit. The cycle will repeat itself until the suffering is worthwhile.


Team Building Through Suffering

Think of the last time you had an uncomfortable talk with somebody. It can be a personal relationship or someone you work with. After the awkwardness settled and the talk adjourned, what happened? I bet the parties involved became closer than before. A trust level was created.

If you can open up to your team or have the difficult conversations many avoid, the team will become stronger. Again, the backwards law rears its head. You go through some suffering during the discussion, but the outcome remains positive.

On paper, the math does not work out. Why would someone create adversity to advance? Solving problems turns us into independent thinkers. Independent thinkers become great team members. The satisfaction level of being handed the answers does not approach the satisfaction level of solving the riddle on your own.

Setting up winnable challenges for your team empowers them individually but also collectively. In construction, calling the boss every time something goes wrong is a nuisance and generally frowned upon. You must be able to solve the problem in the field. Giving your crew that autonomy leads to greater performances and a chemistry unmatched by other crews.



Reframe the questions to get better outcomes. The struggles are real and never go away. That presence is a good thing. Happiness comes from struggle and suffering.

Do not try to eliminate the struggles from yourself or your team. Finding a way to solve these issues together brings the team together. Use the struggles as a team building tool rather than avoiding them.

Remember the backwards law. Sometimes less is more or doing nothing provides the best results. This new mindset may seem counterintuitive on its surface. Once you start implementing this mindset, you will see the impact it has on you and your team.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

"Humanity does not ask us to be happy.
It merely asks us to be brilliant on its behalf.
Survival first, then happiness as we can manage it…
Take what pleasure you can in the interstices of your work,
but your work is first, learning is first, winning is everything
because without it there is nothing."

-- Mazer Rackham to Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

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