The nation’s health, environmental, and culinary interests suffered a major blow recently, when an outpost of the eco-friendly, vegetable-heavy salad-and-sandwich restaurant Mixt Greens located on K Street in Northwest Washington DC was forced to close. But fear not, foodies! Mixt Greens is being succeeded by an even more delectable establishment:
Mmmmm, donuts! My support for the proliferation of Dunkin’ Donuts and all the good work they do is already a matter of public record. But Mixt Greens is an honorable chain! Environmentally responsible, nutritious, locally sourced, and, most importantly, delicious. How could it have failed to turn a profit on K Street, in one of the most heavily-trafficked areas of the city, a place crawling with weight-conscious yuppies and image-conscious politicos?
We may never know. Perhaps it was the McDonald’s two blocks away. Whatever the reason, Mixt Greens was a victim of one of the hard, sad truths of capitalism. Your product may be stylish, creative, salubrious, and even morally upstanding, but no matter how much inherent value it possesses, what really matters is its apparent value to consumers. You have to give the people what they want. In California, Mixt Greens is a thriving business, with multiple restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the people want healthy “eco-gourmet” food. But Washington runs America, and evidently Dunkin’ Donuts runs Washington, so, by the transitive property of carbohydrates, America really does run on Dunkin’. Mixt Greens never had a chance.
You don’t have to be in the restaurant business for the same principle to apply to your job. It doesn’t matter how well you execute some task or create some product if it’s not the task or product that the decision makers actually care about. Whatever inherent value you might have created will simply be lost on them. Yet the satisfaction of doing something really well — even if it is not the thing you were supposed to be doing — is sometimes so viscerally appealing that it lures us off the path.
So we spend extra time adding creative clip art to our PowerPoint presentation — but overlook the addition of relevant content. Or we write memos that cover every possible scenario when the boss explicitly asked for a quick answer to one specific question. Or we take inordinate pride in our grandiloquent rhetoric, or our pristine desktop, or our popularity in the hallway, while overlooking the punctuality or conscientiousness or diligence that would really make a difference in our performance.
Don’t offer salad when your employer wants donuts — or donuts when your employer wants salad — and don’t confuse your own self-satisfaction with fulfillment of your employer’s expectations. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re pleasing your employer when you are really only pleasing yourself. And if the idea of abandoning that mode of pleasing yourself makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you need to consider working in an environment more aligned with your own interests. You can start selling donuts, or you can move to California — just don’t wait until you are forced out of business.