02/11/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

The Department of Quality

A few months ago I endured a prolonged orientation for a new job at a very large mental hospital. We newbies were introduced to the many moving parts of this byzantine institution, including the Department of Quality. This vaguely Orwellian name of the department stuck with me. I have no objection to things being done well; in fact I don't see any other way things should be done, but farming this responsibility out to a department separate from any other part of the operation seemed to me an unusual approach. The existence of the department brought out in me a contrary impulse; if quality was the job of that particular department and its staff, it must mean it is no longer my responsibility as an employee.

Leaving out the often-moot discussion on what quality is (read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for definite tiresomeness on the subject), ask why someone would want to do something well. The best answer I came come up with was "because they care." Why would they care? Because the Department of Quality is watching? Duty or obligation; because it's your job, and someone is going to check up? No one can make you really care any more than they can make you love them.

It certainly helps if your work is recognized, rewarded and valued. Better if your work is considered important; if it helps someone, or if you make something useful. Making art is often not seen as important, helpful, or useful work.

Can you keep working even if no one was watching and no one else cares? Can you continue to care, as if what you do simply matters?