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To love where you work

Kris Larson shares his aspirations for continued urbanization and the health and enjoyment of downtown Grand Rapids.

/Eric Tank

Underwriting support from:


When: February 12 at noon 

Where: In front of the GRAM

What: Ice sculpture unveiling


/Eric Tank

/Eric Tank

Written by Kristopher Larson, AICP

We’ve all heard it before: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The aphorism suitably applies to the time we dedicate to advancing the causes that bring meaning to our individual lives, whether it be educating our community’s children, protecting public safety, or designing residential landscapes. Merely discovering a profession that engages our passions and permits us to experience a sense of purpose and contribution is an ideal achievement for most. Developing the skills and earning an opportunity to earn a living connecting our souls with our work is a rare privilege, and one that is unfortunately experienced by too few.

When I was young and seeking to identify the correct path for my career, I fell into many of the traps that consume any adolescent seeking to make decisions that few adults have figured out. Who wouldn’t want to experience the lifestyle of a being a professional baseball player, or the status associated with being a doctor? After all, hadn’t the Game of Life clearly illustrated the difference between revered professions and those that would slow our colored station wagon gamepieces to a halt? At 23, I had a college degree in my metaphorical pocket, and no clue what I wanted out of life.

Truthfully, I did know. I was simply too afraid to admit to myself and my family the real aspirations I carried for changing the world. I had carried on down the path toward a career in medicine (the door to a career in baseball was firmly locked by that point) with very little desire to matriculate further into the rigors of medical, nursing, pharmacology or even podiatry school.

A few more years passed, filled with a seemingly insatiable need to change my surroundings, until I began to recognize the opportunity to connect the pyre of passion that burned deep within me with the decades of suburban angst that I experienced growing up. I spent years figuring out that my desire to see and experience the world was simply a way to overcome my frustration with Generica while learning through osmosis practices and principles that might empower me to help shape the world that was my hometown.

Years later, I can now admit that I am one of a lucky contingent that has found a career doing something that I love. This connection between my passions and my profession provides me with many of the qualities of meaningfulness that define an optimal work environment, such as opportunities for achievement, responsibility and simply enjoying the nature of my work.

In 1964, famed management psychologist Frederick Hertzberg identified traits such as these as the motivating factors that enrich one’s work experience and improve performance. On a separate plane of his two-factor theory, he proved that motivating factors differ greatly from the items that we commonly associate with job prestige, like salary, benefits, company policies and the working conditions. Called "hygiene factors" by Hertzberg, he showed time after time that these factors contribute very little to job satisfaction. People, it seemed, were actually more motivated by connecting with intrinsic motivating factors, rather than a simple economic exchange.

A great deal of my personal satisfaction with my career is simply the ability to work in and affect continual improvements to downtowns. As a child of the 'burbs, my frustration was a reflection of the gross dependency I felt to my parents for transportation, as there was literally nothing worth walking to. Isolation became a motivating factor to explore, and to imagine living the places known by few Americans at the time. Across the country, cities had abandoned their downtowns, and were seeking solely to continue a strategy of continual expansion at the expense of our forests, watersheds, resources, ecology, environment and civic connectedness.

It turns out that many of my generation, Gen X, felt a similar angst. Our younger comrades in Generation Y experience it even stronger: 77% of Americans age 18-32 say that they would prefer to live in an urban environment.

Obviously, the opportunity to work in an urban environment comes with lifestyle advantages that the suburbs have difficulty countering. Socially, working downtown presents countless cafes and public houses that make great places to convene with friends and coworkers. The options for food are seemingly endless, access to mobility options, and the ability to enjoy amenities such as a stroll along the river walk, a hockey game at the arena or ice skating on your lunch hour create option after option for connecting to place and people.

At a more macro level, emerging research from Harvard economist Ed Glaeser highlights the importance of physical proximity and spontaneous interactions as one of the most important catalysts to innovation and economic growth. Cities with greater population density, human scale and vibrancy are emerging as the winners in innovative industries, and are having little problem attracting the same young talent that suburban cities are struggling to retain.

These types of urban amenities are parallel to Hertzberg’s motivating factors. These are the types of workplace experiences that inspire social proliferation, enable the expansion of our palettes and compel our civic involvement. These are the types of experiences that create a meaningful work environment.

Conversely, the factors that we’ve allowed to shape our preferences for work environment, such as the relative pain of the commute, or the promise of free parking, are simply hygiene factors that do little to actually inspire workplace happiness – unless, of course, you happen to be intrinsically motivated by not having to walk.

At Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., we are unabashedly pursuing a goal to make downtown the most desirable place to live, work, visit, invest and play in our fair city. There is no simple way or path to realizing this ambition, but creating opportunities for every stakeholder to participate in something great and memorable is a method of ensuring that others can share in the joy that accompanies working downtown.

To discover that joy, however, one must escape the confines of their place of business and soak in the energy of our revitalized city center. While ArtPrize seems to serve as that occasion for many, I can attest that downtown’s awesomeness exists year round. And to show it off, we’re introducing more events and opportunities for the downtown workforce to explore what makes downtown a great place to work. So on February 12, be sure to join us for the inaugural ValentICE event, and we’ll show you why working downtown is such an easy thing to love.

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