Good Work

When Excellence and Ethics Meet


By Howard E. Gardner

By Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi

By William Damon

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What does it mean to carry out “good work”? What strategies allow people to maintain moral and ethical standards at a time when market forces have unprecedented power and work life is being radically altered by technological innovation? These questions lie at the heart of this eagerly awaited new book. Focusing on genetics and journalism-two fields that generate and manipulate information and thus affect our lives in myriad ways-the authors show how in their quest to build meaningful careers successful professionals exhibit “humane creativity,” high-level performance coupled with social responsibility. Over the last five years the authors have interviewed over 100 people in each field who are engaged in cutting-edge work, probing their goals and visions, their obstacles and fears, and how they pass on their most cherished practices and values. They found sharp contrasts between the two fields. Until now, geneticists’ values have not been seriously challenged by the demands of their work world, while journalists are deeply disillusioned by the conflict between commerce and ethics. The dilemmas these professionals face and the strategies they choose in their search for a moral compass offer valuable guidance on how all persons can transform their professions and their lives. Enlivened with stories of real people facing hard decisions, Good Work offers powerful insight into one of the most important issues of our time and, indeed, into the future course of science, technology, and communication.



Also by Howard Gardner
Intelligence Reframed
The Disciplined Mind
Extraordinary Minds
Leading Minds
Multiple Intelligences
Creating Minds
The Unschooled Mind
To Open Minds
The Mind’s New Science
Frames of Mind

Also by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Becoming Adult
Being Adolescent
The Evolving Self
Finding Flow

Also by William Damon
The Youth Charter
Greater Expectations
Some Do Care
The Moral Child
Self-Understanding in Childhood and Adolescence
Social and Personality Development
The Social World of the Child


When Excellence and Ethics Meet


Good Worker

How We Came to Write This Book

In 1994–1995, we three authors spent a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) in Palo Alto, California, each working on a separate book. Although we had known each other and admired each other’s work for many years, we had never collaborated on a project. Our fields of interest overlap but are different. Gardner, a cognitive psychologist, is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which led him to study creators and leaders in different realms. Csikszentmihalyi, a social psychologist who writes from an evolutionary and motivational perspective, is best known for discovering the psychological state called “flow,” in which an individual’s skills and challenges mesh in absorbing ways. His studies of flow have included groups ranging from surgeons to mountain climbers, and like Gardner, he has a special interest in creativity. Damon is a developmental psychologist who has long focused on social and moral issues. He has written definitive texts on moral development and, with Anne Colby, has carried out a pioneering study of individuals who have led exemplary moral lives. Despite our different foci in psychology, we had enough in common to enjoy exchanging ideas whenever we ran into each other on the cloistered CASBS grounds, overlooking nearby Stanford University.

One afternoon, our conversation turned to the question, If you had the choice, what sort of problem would you work on for the next ten years of your professional life? As we talked it became clear, first, that we did have the choice; and second, that our envisioned projects were in many respects very similar. Each of us had begun to struggle with the relationship between high-level performance and social responsibility, between excellence and ethics. We had been thinking about several key questions: Is it true that most creative scientists and artists are selfish and ambitious, unconcerned with the common good? Why is it that experts primarily teach techniques to young professionals, while ignoring the values that have sustained the quests of so many creative geniuses? Is the impact of science, technology, and communication predetermined—for good or ill—or do we have some control over it?

This set of questions revolving around excellence and ethics proved so seductive that we returned to it again and again, gradually refining how we could study what we first (somewhat clumsily) called “humane creativity.” We envisioned interviewing and observing professionals at the cutting edge of perhaps a dozen fields that are essential to individual and social well-being—fields ranging from journalism and genetics to law and theater. The idea was to take stock of the kind of people who entered such professions and succeeded in them. We wanted to learn about their backgrounds, values, and goals. We planned to look at the ways they approached their work, as well as the opposition they encountered and the strategies they used to overcome it. We envisioned asking them to describe their dreams and nightmares about the future course of their chosen pursuit. Given our collective backgrounds in the study of creativity, leadership, and moral excellence, we were particularly interested in learning more about those persons who succeeded in melding expertise with moral distinction.

After leaving CASBS, we started assembling research teams at our respective universities and began applying for financial support to carry out our plans. At first, fundraising met with little success, perhaps because of our own inarticulateness in laying out the project, perhaps because the issues that engaged us were not yet seen as important by outsiders. Within a few years, however, our ideas seemed to gain momentum and garner gratifying interest among funders, whose support is gratefully noted in the Acknowledgments. The increasing interest in our work reflected a growing realization within our society: leading professionals currently face a particular challenge as they attempt to carry out their central missions, since conditions are changing rapidly, market forces are extremely powerful, and our sense of time and space is being radically altered by technological innovations like the Internet.

As our ideas coalesced and our planning proceeded, we moved away from the notion and terminology of “humane creativity” and toward that of good work—work of expert quality that benefits the broader society. What, we asked, promotes or impedes good work today? The first two fields we decided to investigate in depth were genetics and the media. At first we thought of these as two important but distinct fields—two professions in which the practitioners are grappling with how to do top-quality, socially responsible work at a time of extremely rapid change. But as our work progressed, we began to see instructive analogies and discrepancies between them. We came to conceive of the present book as a “parallel study” of two professions, one poised to control the composition of our bodies, the other with the potential to control the content of our minds. And we decided to focus on what it means to carry out “good work”—work that is both excellent in quality and socially responsible— at a time of constant change. Thus was born what we now call the Project on Good Work.

From the beginning of the project, our concerns have spanned diverse professional realms—law, medicine, theater, higher education, philanthropy, and more. In all of these we have recognized the same set of forces operating: the emergence of powerful and still dimly understood technologies; the overwhelming power of market forces and the concurrent decline of various competing ideologies and “isms”; the waning of an agreed-upon set of principles and of an ethical framework that has been designed to govern the decisions and behaviors of all members of a profession; the loss of powerful “heroic” role models that inspire the younger members of a profession and a concomitant foreboding sense that the future course of the domain is wrapped in uncertainty. Accordingly, throughout this book, we draw in examples from a variety of professional realms, because we are convinced that the challenge of “good work” confronts every professional today.

We knew, however, that an in-depth analysis of selected professional realms was necessary to tease out answers to our central questions and to gain a nuanced view of the challenges professionals are facing—hence our decision to focus on genetics and journalism. From the time of our initial interviews, we viewed what was happening in these two realms as being of signal importance for the future.

Our basic approach can be quickly sketched. We conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with leading practitioners in several areas of specialization within journalism and genetics. Our initial sample consisted of 56 geneticists and 60 journalists, but we have now spoken to well over 100 individuals from each professional realm, including 40 mature professionals and a score of young practitioners. Most of the subjects in each group were well-known figures who had been nominated by experts in the domain; but in each realm we also spoke to a handful of “midlevel practitioners”—long-term professionals who would not be widely known. Interviews lasted about two hours; they covered a wide range of themes, from the backgrounds of the practitioners to their current aspirations and concerns, to their predictions about the field. The interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed verbatim, reviewed by the interviewees who then stipulated the use that could be made of their words. In what follows, we identify all speakers by name unless they indicated that they did not want to be so identified. Further details on the procedures are found in the opening chapters of Parts Two and Three and a detailed discussion of our methods and data-analytic procedures can be found in Appendix B.

When we began the interviews in the mid-1990s, we could not foresee the unfolding of these two professions nor the new issues confronting their practitioners. Since that time, genetics has emerged as a profession in which the scientists, the general public, and the shareholders of corporations agree substantially about their goals. In sharp contrast, journalism has emerged as a profession in which the reporters, the general public, and the shareholders of corporations differ sharply in their aspirations. And since the mid-1990s, these two realms have come increasingly to dominate public discourse. We could not then anticipate that the human genome would be mapped by the turn of the millennium; that experiments in genetic therapy would lead to an unanticipated death; that genetically modified foods would become suspect. Nor could we foresee that the Internet would become a principal source of the news; that a major newspaper like the Los Angeles Times would secretly split the profit of its magazine with an advertiser; that Time-Warner and AOL would lead a set of mega–media mergers; that the lines between news and entertainment, between faithful and contrived photography, would become even more blurred. We became aware that what had begun as a series of casual conversations on an academic campus had thrust us into central issues of our time.


Support for the work reported in this book was generously provided by initial grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ross Family Charitable Foundation, supplemented by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation. We owe special debts of thanks to Ray Bacchetti, David Gardner, and Courtney S. Ross-Holst, who were the first to see promise in still incipient ideas. Support for the additional phases of this project, some of which is reported in this book, has been provided by the following:

The Bauman Foundation

Berger-Mittlemann Family Trust

Carnegie Corporation of New York

Nathan Cummings Foundation

J. Epstein Foundation

Fetzer Institute

Ford Foundation

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation

Thomas H. Lee

Pew Charitable Trusts

Jesse Phillips Foundation Fund

Louise and Claude Rosenberg Jr. Family Foundation

Ross Family Charitable Foundation

Spencer Foundation

Thrive Foundation

John Templeton Foundation

For useful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this book, we thank Sissela Bok, Jay Gardner, George Klein, Bill Kovach, Jonathan Levy, Tom Rosenstiel, and Ellen Winner.

We wish to thank our literary agent, John Williams, for his help in conceptualizing this project and for his support throughout the writing process. At Basic Books, we thank Jo Ann Miller, our energetic editor, her able assistant Jessica Callaway, our thoughtful copyeditor Sharon Sharp, our responsive production manager Lori Hobkirk, and our capable production copy editor John Taylor Howard. Lisa Bromer and Alex Chisholm provided exemplary support for Howard Gardner, as did Kathy Davis for William Damon.

We have been blessed with an extraordinary set of researchers who have carried out the brunt of work on this complex project. Our outstanding managers have been Lynn Barendsen, Anne Gregory, Jeremy Hunter, Paula Marshall, Mimi Michaelson, Jeanne Nakamura, Heather Ross, Becca Solomon, Jeff Solomon, David Shernoff, and Susan Verducci. Assisting them over the years have been several excellent researchers: Kim Barberich, Veronica Boix-Mansilla, Jennifer DiBara, Dan Dillon, Greg Feldman, Molly Galloway, Francie Green, Yael Harlap, Jonathan Heller, Mara Krechevsky, Grace Lam, Marcy LeLacheur, Kaley Middlebrooks, Laurinda Morway, Jenna Moskowitz, Liza Percer, Kimberly Powell, Sara Simeone, David Stevens, Bernadette Sibuma, Barbara Tollentino, Evan Zullow, Nicole Brodsky, Lynn Chan, Christopher Csikszentimihalyi, David Gortner, Shelli Greenslade, Charles Hooker, Jeremy Hunter, Eleni Makris, Purvi Patel, Barbara Simeon, Leanne Stahnke and Shonali Tejwani.

Finally, a word about the dedication of our book to John W. Gardner (no relation to Howard). John Gardner has been one of the great leaders of America during the twentieth century. The nation is in his debt for his outstanding service in the 1940s and 1950s at the Carnegie Corporation and in the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare during the Johnson Administration; we are all beneficiaries of his founding role in such organizations as the Urban Coalition, Common Cause, Independent Sector, and the White House Fellows. Millions have been inspired by his wisdom as expressed in Excellence, On Leadership, Self-Renewal, and other writings. The authors had the privilege of getting to know John Gardner personally during the year that we spent at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He counseled us about the issues that we wanted to study; he helped us to secure funding; and in our view he continues to exemplify Good Work. It is our honor to be able to dedicate this book to our friend John W. Gardner.



IN EVERY HISTORICAL ERA, many people have sought to carry out good work. It has always been true that some people do their work expertly but not very responsibly. People who do good work, in our sense of the term, are clearly skilled in one or more professional realms. At the same time, rather than merely following money or fame alone, or choosing the path of least resistance when in conflict, they are thoughtful about their responsibilities and the implications of their work. At best, they are concerned to act in a responsible fashion with respect toward their personal goals; their family, friends, peers and colleagues; their mission or sense of calling; the institutions with which they are affiliated; and, lastly, the wider world—people they do not know, those who will come afterwards, and, in the grandest sense, to the planet or to God.

To be sure, no one can continually monitor each of these responsibilities. Like the proverbial centipede asked to explain how it walks, a worker would find this impractical and probably counterproductive. Still, a good professional maintains these concerns implicitly and returns to them explicitly from time to time.

Good Work in Uncertain Times

To do good work is a laudable goal, one difficult to achieve even under favorable circumstances. In the modern world scarcely anyone is sealed off from rampant and rapid innovations or from intrusive market forces. Indeed, even in professions that might seem immune, these forces are dramatically evident. In education, charter schools and voucher programs are sprouting up in different corners of the globe. For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix are roiling traditional liberal arts colleges and universities. In the museum world, where competition rages for bigger-than-ever blockbuster shows, exhibitions are sponsored by corporations that demand an increasing say over what is displayed and how. Churches are competing for larger congregations, more lavish buildings, and more charismatic religious leaders. And even traditionally secretive philanthropic foundations are hiring publicists to make sure that their “good works” are well known: they are contemplating “strategic alliances” with neighboring institutions and fretting about the challenges posed by new-style venture philanthropy or charitable accounts offered by investment houses. Similarly, there are physicians who cannot prescribe a course of treatment because it will not be underwritten by the HMO, corporate lawyers whose employers engage in shady practices, teachers who believe they should hug unhappy children but are forbidden even to touch them on the shoulder, and museum curators who need money to mount shows but like neither the artists, the policies, nor the restrictions imposed by the most generous arts funders.

Of course, ethical and professional dilemmas are not new. And many would argue, with some justification, that the ways to deal with them have long been known. They would say that the solutions can be found in the great religions, in the Bible and other sacred texts, in long-standing models of behavior contained in the very traditions of the professions, and in the behaviors of well-known exemplars—for instance, physicians such as Albert Schweitzer and Jonas Salk, and journalists such as Edward R. Murrow and I. F. Stone. But religious and professional traditions are not always available to young people, and they are not always credible. Much evil has been carried out in the name of religion, and many once-idolized figures (ranging from politicians such as John F. Kennedy to business titans such as Henry Ford or Walt Disney to athletes such as Ty Cobb) turn out to have had notable character flaws. And even when the idols remain relatively untarnished and the relevant texts have been studied, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know just how to draw inspiration from models in vastly changing circumstances. Murrow did not have to compete with the Internet; Salk did not face an environment in which virtually every medical discovery was immediately patented; Abraham Lincoln did not have every element of his private life scrutinized by the media or made into a lurid TV movie while he was attempting to command the Union forces. This is why we speak not just of “good work” but of “good work in difficult times.” Not difficult, necessarily, in terms of daily creature comforts, but difficult in terms of people’s ability to know the right thing to do and remain in their professions.

Still, there is an important clue as to whether one is carrying out good work. Doing good work feels good. Few things in life are as enjoyable as when we concentrate on a difficult task, using all our skills, knowing what has to be done. And, contrary to popular opinion, these highly enjoyable moments—the ones Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow experiences”—occur more often on the job than in leisure time.1* In flow we feel totally involved, lost in a seemingly effortless performance. Paradoxically, we feel 100 percent alive when we are so committed to the task at hand that we lose track of time, of our interests—even of our own existence. Intense flow can happen anywhere: in making love, in listening to music, in playing a good game of squash or chess. But it also happens surprisingly often at work—as long as the job provides clear goals, immediate feedback, and a level of challenges matching our skills. When these conditions are present, we have a chance to experience work as “good”— that is, as something that allows the full expression of what is best in us, something we experience as rewarding and enjoyable. To be sure, feelings of flow do not always signal that one is performing “good work” in our sense; the robber who is fully engaged in cracking a safe may well undergo comparable engagement. Nor do we want to imply that “good work” is always accompanied by flow; it can be frustrating and discouraging at times. Yet, time and again, we have observed the rewards of flow bestowed on individuals who have become wholly engaged in activities that exhibit the highest sense of responsibility.

Journalism and Genetics: An Instructive Contrast

Journalism and genetics are textbook examples of professions that must continually face new challenges. As we began to probe how journalists and geneticists carry out their work, we discovered that professionals in these fields differ in a way that we had not anticipated. Geneticists are working at a time in which the profession is tremendously exciting; all of the relevant forces in their universe are well aligned. The general public, the shareholders of genetech corporations, and the scientists themselves are working toward a common goal: ensuring healthier and longer lives for people. In sharp contrast, journalists tell us they are working at a time when their profession is wracked by confusion and doubt—that is, a time when the relevant forces are massively misaligned. Journalists may feel the need to take time to investigate a complex story, but the public is calling instead for gossip and scandal while management is seeking greater profits in the next quarter. At a time of alignment, good work seems relatively unproblematic. During a phase of misalignment, however, it becomes a challenge. (We discuss alignment and misalignment much more in Chapter 2.)

And so, to an extent that we could not have anticipated, genetics and journalism represent sharply contrasting—virtually polar opposite—cases in a study of professional realms. In well-aligned genetics, the pursuit of good work may appear to be relatively unproblematic; in misaligned journalism, the threat to carrying out good work is ubiquitous. Yet, the emerging story is not quite so simple. Apparent alignment may blind workers to troublesome forces, even as significant threats to good work bubble beneath the untroubled surface. There are in genetics today many reasons for concern, ranging from the blurring of the line between disinterested scholarly research and research carried out to ensure profits, to the tendency to deny the risks entailed in genetic therapy or the cloning of organisms. Conversely, blatant misalignment may actually have a beneficent dimension; such disequilibrium clearly exposes the threats to good work and may mobilize people to struggle productively, to confirm the essence of their calling, embrace high standards, and reaffirm their personal identities. Journalism may well become stronger—and better aligned—just because the fault lines in the profession have become obvious.

A Crisis in the Journalism Profession

Time for an example. In 1993 broadcast journalist Ray Suarez found himself in a quandary—the biggest conflict of his professional life. His heart told him to get out of this line of work, while his bank balance told him to swallow his pride and do his assigned job. His head, where he had to sort out the alternatives and make a decision, was swirling.

Suarez, now senior correspondent for the Public Broadcasting Service’s News Hour, has since 1993 been associated with public broadcasting. Best known for his six-year stint as the host of the two-hour afternoon show Talk of the Nation, on National Public Radio (NPR), Suarez has been an innovator, much honored within the profession and widely respected among the listening public. He was one of the first journalists to whom we spoke as part of our study of good work.

Before joining NPR, Suarez had a richly varied but not always palatable life in journalism. Having discovered a love of writing during high school, he had worked as a radio and television reporter both in the United States and abroad. Beginning in the mid-1980s Suarez had a seven-year stint in commercial news with Channel 5, an NBC affiliate in Chicago. While there, he encountered the dilemma that made him consider quitting the profession entirely:

When video games first started to become hot, a family sued the major makers of video games in the United States for some unbelievable amount of money . . . because their kids would get seizures. And about half-way into the reporting of the story, I realized that we were talking about one-tenth of one one-hundredth of one one-thousandth of the kids who play video games. But TV has a tendency to play everything like, “Here’s a possible danger of video games.”


On Sale
Aug 22, 2002
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Howard E. Gardner

About the Author

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero. The author of more than twenty books and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and twenty-one honorary degrees, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalhi

About the Author

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934-2021) was Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University and the founder and codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center. He was the author of a number of books, including the bestselling Flow, The Evolving Self, Creativity, and Being Adolescent.

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