Transformational vs. transactional work

Will you look back at this time & be happy how you spent it?

Many of us in design and technology (and other fields) are very lucky to have options when it comes to employment. Work is a massive part of our lives; it’s how we spend most of our time. Even with options and when we feel like we are making the right decisions, it’s easy to get stuck at a job and, ultimately, in life. Like with personal relationships, it’s ideal if a job can be a balanced mix of giving and receiving. Giving in the sense that you can do what you’re good at to help your company move forward, you can be a beneficial and productive member of your team. You can have a sense of purpose and belonging. We can’t control what we receive in return (besides a paycheck), nor should we seek it. If the environment is right for you, you will naturally receive in return; receiving is a natural outcome of giving. It’s a cause and effect relationship, a continuous cycle.

However, it’s not always that simple. It mostly depends on the environment. It’s possible to be a giver at a job and not receive. It’s even possible for a position to be so dysfunctional or such a bad fit that you don’t even get a chance to give! Maybe this means that your skills are not being used for whatever reason- you’re losing your skills — “deskilling.” Or perhaps you’re using your skills, but it feels like a thankless relationship…a transactional one instead of a transformational one.

I think ideas are powerful, but the execution is a crucial driver for success and the team behind the work.

Transactional vs. transformational

A transactional relationship to a job can be when you trade time for money without any or many other benefits. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if combined with the feeling that a job isn’t serving your higher purpose, using your innate talents or allowing you to evolve as a person, it can feel empty and like a waste of time.

On the other hand, transformational job experiences will enable us to do what we’re good at consistently in an environment that benefits from it and so this loop is created. An experience can even be so transformational that you not only use your strengths but get better at your weaknesses, or perhaps can grow through the people you meet or new skills you learn on the job.

A transactional relationship can be a dangerous situation. It’s easy to let this become the norm, and more or less accept it. Time goes by, and you get used to punching the clock, and the idea of changing your situation becomes a distant, un-relatable thought.

Is it the wrong fit or can you change it?

If a job is not working for you, it’s worth taking a step back and evaluating it. Is it something you can (or want) to change, or is it just a bad fit? What can you do to improve it, and how long do you try? If it’s a bad fit, and it’s not fixable — what are your options? Time is too precious to spend in detrimental situations.

Is this time well spent?

Are you living up to your standards? Can you be your personal best? Do you feel like you’re positively contributing to your environment? Are you growing? Are you spending time with people that lift you up? Will you look back at this time and not regret how you spent it?


Motivation is good to think about in context. When things are in alignment, and there are balance and harmony, motivation is not something you have to try that hard to get; it’s just part of your routine and process. Desiring a pleasant work environment where you can perform and feel valued is not asking a lot; it’s not selfish. It can even take some bad experiences to make you understand and realize a good work environment’s traits, one that works for you.

Transformational Work is Possible

Finding transformational work is possible. It can take time, tinkering, networking and a lot of interviewing! You may have to go outside your comfort zone and take some risks. It’s essential to have self-awareness around what matters to you and seek out ways to find work that aligns with those pillars. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice substantially. At a high-level, for me personally — I want to do good work with great people. What does that mean in practice though?

→ Good Work

Good work is the ability to use my skills to design and help build and ship a great digital product in an environment that needs it — where I can add value. I’ve learned that to do great product design, there must be competent design or product leadership within a company that has a real and easy-to-understand vision. If a company lacks design or product leadership, it’s easy for a digital product to get mangled from too many inputs and opinions. If a company lacks vision, the work loses meaning, teams become demotivated, and it’s difficult to make short-term decisions and long-term progress.

→ Great People

To me, great people means people that are kind and smart that will respectfully challenge me. Thoughtful disagreement can be a beautiful thing if done right. I don’t want to go to work every day and not have to justify and have a friendly, respectful debate about my design decisions and product suggestions. I want to become better through my peers — and also be someone that can help others learn. I do want to go to work every day and feel a sense of psychological safety. I want to work in an environment where myself and others can share new ideas.