A Taxing Proposition

This mid-April weekend is a gentle reminder of the one thing many modern Americans agree on: our hatred of tax season. According to a 2015 Pew Research survey only 1/3 of Americans like doing their taxes, if only for the potential refund. Almost two-thirds feel that corporations and the wealthy do not pay their fair share, and 40% believe they pay more into the system than they receive back. The theme of unfairness permeates these findings, a sense that although taxes are needed to make the government run, the system is fundamentally out of balance.

There’s another area where many share a similar belief concerning the imbalance between inputs and outcomes, the area of work and reward. I cannot underestimate the number of professionals – friends, peers, team members – who have expressed frustration at some point in their career about how their work is recognized and rewarded. And no, it’s not just about money. It’s the belief that they are delivering great work but somehow that work is not receiving its just rewards. The frustration over this situation can hit at any point, often times after a period of real growth and accomplishment. It’s as if what you were doing so well suddenly stopped working and your efforts lost their impact.

Experiencing this unwanted imbalance runs counter to professionals’ deeply held conviction about the virtues of hard work. In late 2014, The American Interest published another Pew Research Study that touched on America’s long-standing love affair with the gospel of hard work. Not only do Americans agree with many of their global counterparts that hard work and a good education are key ingredients to future success, they take it one step further. We Americans believe that success is driven more by what lies within us than external factors, more than 20% higher than the global median. Which makes feeling an imbalance between effort and reward even harder for Americans to swallow. One might ask, “I’m working hard – really hard – and delivering results…so why are the rewards so lackluster?”

I suggest another way of viewing this imbalance. Call it a new proposition on unfairness. Viewing a direct causal relationship between hard work and reward is a kind of imbalance itself. Yes, if your work does not bring expected rewards, you’re logically frustrated and sometimes angry. The imbalance, though, is more than the lack of reward, the imbalance lies in how you are measuring your rewards and progress. In the scenarios I mentioned earlier about friends and colleagues, the measurement was typically external. Did someone get the promotion they wanted? Did they get the bonus and/or raise that had been promised? Were they given external recognition for their accomplishments? While external rewards and recognition are important, even fair for a job well done, they should not substitute for the deeper reward hard work always provides. And that is the reward of increased skill, wisdom and readiness for a higher level of work. The toughest professional situations I’ve lived through, the ones where I worked the hardest and sacrificed high levels of time and effort, are the ones that over time rewarded me the most in terms of earning potential, ability and professional maturity. In every case, the real rewards did not come in the place where the work occurred, but they came without fail.

To use the analogy of paying taxes, what felt like an unfair burden paid a rich, future refund. I just had to wait more than one tax cycle to collect. I learned there is a freedom in viewing the relationship between hard work and reward in this fashion. A freedom in de-coupling effort from the expectation of immediate reward, even if that appears counter intuitive.

I learned to trust that if my work reflected real effort, diligence and concern over impact vs my own recognition, I would find rewards. I work harder and freer than the past, and I have learned to ascribe an economic and organizational value to my hard work that aligns what I provide with what I receive in kind. The external recognition and compensation is great, of course, yet they are not the full measure of success, not to me. Knowing that my efforts will yield benefits in the manner and timing most suited to my professional growth is unshakeable. And it reframes the equation of work and reward away from causality and expectation to satisfaction and enjoyment of a job well done. Unlike 40% of American taxpayers, the balance between what I put in and what I get out feels right.

So as we close out another tax season, ask yourself this question: Would you begrudge paying a bit more into your professional “system” if you knew you’d reap tenfold benefit in time? No? Now you’re talking.

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