I love working in a students’ union. I love working in communications. Sometimes though, it isn’t very satisfying.

This struck me when I went to a TEDx event in Brighton a few years ago. The theme was linked to connectedness and community so I’d hoped it would be really relevant to my work in communications. I’d booked a ticket prior to the speaker list being released and much of the content was almost completely unconnected to my work.

Instead, lots of the speakers talked about their work and passions in handcrafted and specialist fields like building wooden bikes, truffle-hunting and whittling spoons.

As I watched I felt rather dejected as I don’t make anything at work. You can’t hold a well-crafted social media post in your hand. You can’t transform a plain piece of wood into a great newsletter format. You can’t whittle your communications strategy.

I briefly considered jacking into my job and moving to a cabin in the woods to make things (until I remembered I’m really not an outdoorsy person and have no discernible crafting skills). Instead I did what I am good at: dragging out a metaphor further than it should perhaps go…

One of the talks that stuck with me was by EJ Osborne who hand whittles wooden spoons. They talked about how they loved starting with a plain piece of wood and watching a spoon emerge as they worked on it. You can whittle a spoon in an afternoon and it is something that beginners can do.

I realised that I envied the sense of tangible achievement. Of getting from nothing to something in an afternoon. Of finishing something you could hold and point at as the fruit of your labour.

In students’ unions and communications we don’t often get to whittle (metaphorical) spoons. 

Sometimes we’ll work on something like freshers week for weeks or months and whilst we can point at our banners, emails and webpages as the output of our work we’re often already too stuck into the next thing to step back and admire our handiwork. 

It’s easy to see if your wooden spoon is any good. Is the handle long enough? Does the bowl scoop up the things you need it to? Does it give you any splinters? With the work we do it is often hard to immediately gauge its success. How much did that tweet contribute to the success of that event? Is the revised strapline for your bar the reason sales have gone up or is it the new paint job or something else entirely?

I’ve found two ways to counter this occasional sense of frustration:

I look for spoons. I imagine that when you finish whittling a spoon you run your hand over it one last time and turn it over to admire your handiwork before moving onto the next spoon. I try to do this more frequently in my work (metaphorically obviously, I don’t stroke my monitor after after social media post…)

Sometimes the spoons are big things; a rebrand, an increase in student satisfaction, a new email campaign. 

Sometimes the spoons are small things; some likes on a Facebook post, a compliment from a colleague, uploading a new profile header image.

The key is to realise that metaphorical spoons are harder to spot but that they are just as valid as measures of your progress and hard work.

I recognise that my job is not to whittle spoons. Communications stuff can be measured; Facebook reach, email open rates and website pageviews. To me though that’s not usually the actual point of communicating. If I wanted to get our Facebook reach up I could just post cat videos (which I would totally love to do) but that wouldn’t help increase participation, enjoyment, empowerment or any of the other relatively intangible things we’re actually here to contribute to.

What about you? I’d be curious to know if anyone feels the same occasional disconnect between ‘doing’ and ‘making’ or how ‘knowledge workers’ can find the same sense of satisfaction when their work is largely invisible.