For all of us some of the time and for some of us all of the time, work is an unhappy part of our lives. Maybe you’re feeling mild disappointment in your job, or worse, total disillusionment. Bad things happen to all of us at work, and when they do, they puncture our idealism, sap our energy, and can make just getting up to go to work on yet another Monday feel like the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And when we’re feeling like that, it’s just as hard to figure out what to do next—whether to quit or stick it out, whether to switch companies or careers, whether to hope for better or get used to the truth that, “If it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t call it work.”
Recognizing that not working isn’t an alternative, we do our best to cope. Some days, we retreat—we watch the clock, count the minutes and strike off the days….“TGIF—Thank God It’s Friday! ” And, “OHIM—Oh Hell, It’s Monday.”
Year after year we struggle to “get a life,” which we understand to mean not spending any more time at work than we have to so we can get to where the real living is—not working. After all, “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’”
At funerals the eulogists rarely mentions the decades of time the deceased spent working but talk instead about what a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend he was. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? Love is at the heart of a life well-lived and it’s people we love. “Work won’t love you back,” the saying goes.
Or will it?
Let’s consider the opposite idea—that work can love us back and maybe, just maybe, it will—if we dispose ourselves to it in a way that allows it to happen—by the grace of God.
Let’s begin with a true story about two young men—one who let his work love him back and another who made sure it would not.
Separated by nearly a century in time, two men take jobs at the Post Office. Neither one of them wants to be there. Instead, each dreams of becoming a great novelist. But dreams don’t put food on the table and so they trade their dreams, at least for a time, for an income. Their work is identical—menial, repetitive, boring, poorly paid and far beneath their great intellectual gifts. But they slog it out for the sake of a paycheck.
In the end, both of these men became what they dreamed of—famous and successful authors— one of them even winning a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Once they were famous, they looked back on their years of toil in the Postal Service. Let us look at what each of them said about exactly the same work and it will be crystal clear why one of them became happy and the other stayed absolutely miserable.
Anthony Trollope, one of the Victorian age’s most prolific novelists—the author of The Palliser novels, Barchester Towers, Phineas Finn, and The Way We Live Now, described his time in the Irish Post Office back in 1835 this way:
“When, at the age in which others go to the universities, I became a clerk in the Post Office…. I did not think it a high calling. But, I did not know then how very much good work may be done by a member of the Civil Service who will show himself capable of doing it. The Post Office at last grew upon me and forced itself into my affections. I became intensely anxious that people should have their letters delivered to them punctually.”
Almost 100 years later, from 1921 to 1924, William Faulkner, the man who would become the 1949 Nobel Prize winner for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sound and The Fury and As I Lay Dying—was the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. By his own admission, he was a bad one. He sat behind the counter playing bridge and mah-jongg with his friends, ignoring customers for hours. He spent time writing when he should have been working and he occasionally got so far behind in his postal work that he simply threw out the mail. Eventually, he was fired. When he left the postal service, Faulkner famously said,
“I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”
So there we have it. Two different men doing the same tasks, under the same conditions, making the same money. Somehow, one is miserable and the other is not.
Trollope let happiness, joy, and deep satisfaction find him in his work—in the only way it ever finds us anywhere—in the very much good we do for other people. Because he could see the people behind the letters and stamps, the sorting and delivery, the bad weather and biting dogs, the Post Office “forced itself into [his] affections,” as he so quaintly put it. He found joy in his “low calling”—something he never expected was possible—because he stayed focused on the “high calling,” in his case, making sure his community got its letters on time.
Obviously, Faulkner couldn’t have cared less about the happiness of anyone but himself. Totally self-absorbed, the customers he was meant to serve were nothing more than irritating SOBs who expected they could interrupt his life for the price of a stamp.
So, is it as simple as that? Can it be true that if we focus ourselves on our service to other people, and less on the bells and whistles of our jobs, joy will find us no matter what? Can it be that by failing to focus on our “neighbors at work” we are throwing away the possibility of enduring joy with both hands?
This post is an excerpt from a talk given by Lisa Fortini-Campbell author and adjunct Professor of Management at the Kellogg School of Management