The similarity between an oil trader and a toddler

Photograph: by Elizabeth Pfaff

Last week, I met a very successful oil trader who works in Canary Wharf, and asked him to talk to me about happiness at work.

It was a great way of exposing my preconceptions. I had imagined he’d tell me that he’s motivated my earning a big pay packet, so that he can have a nice lifestyle: fancy car, big house, kids at private school, champagne for when you’re thirsty, that kind of thing. How wrong I was.

He said that one of the best things about the job was having a really clear success metric: either he makes money or he loses money. How well he’s doing in any given moment is calculable in zeros and ones.

I could really relate to that. I’ve often got to the end of the day and wondered what I’ve really achieved. I think it’s a very a common to want to know if we’re doing well; if we’re making progress. In many jobs that’s hard to have a tangible sense of, on any given day.

But he doesn’t want to make money for the company in order to get a big fat bonus. He said if you were to get a £10 million bonus, you’d go home, pop open the champagne with the missus, buy a car you don’t need and the next week you’d have forgotten all about it. Then if you only earned £9 million the following year, you’d feel annoyed that it was less than last year, rather than delighted that it’s £9 million.

After the essentials are covered, more money doesn’t make you much happier, he said. I didn’t expect an oil trader to say that!

Another important thing was making it OK to fail. If one of his traders loses a lot of money, and has to explain himself to the board, he asks himself “Could I have made the same mistake?” Most of the time, he could have, so he defends his colleague. People remember that and it creates a climate of trust.

The number one thing for him that affects his happiness at work is feeling appreciated. That’s why he wants to be successful with this trades. And not with a formal appraisal at the end of the year. What makes him feel most valued is the water-cooler conversation in which he’s told that someone he respects has expressed a positive opinion of his performance.

It reminded me of a quote by William James: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

It also reminded me of a toddler saying “Mummy look! Mummy look!”, when they’ve done something they think deserves praise. We have the same desire from when we’re knee high to when we die, we just seek it with different means.

Unfortunately, most people are not very generous with their appreciation of others, whether at home or in the workplace. The most common type of feedback, in my experience, focuses on what needs to be corrected, added or improved, not what someone’s done well.

So I challenge you today to find an informal way of expressing some sincere appreciation of someone you work with. It might just make their day.

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My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

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