Thursday, April 28, 2011

Everybody Wants Meaningful Work

If you are in Chicago in coming months, you absolutely MUST see a musical that is currently running there. It's a revitalized version of "Working," a formerly clunky (but now very sleek) depiction of real people talking and singing about the work they do. It might sound pedestrian, but trust me, it is moving, tragic, inspiring, heartwrenching. You'll never feel quite the same about people who do menial labor!

Anyway, the finale of the musical includes a line spoken by a steelworker: "Everyone needs something to point to." I thoroughly believe that. Dig down deep enough, and I think every human being has a desire to contribute, to leave a mark that lasts.

Here's when I first became convinced of this:

I had a wonderful boss when I worked at the headquarters of Payless ShoeSource. He was a consummate corporate climber, absolutely energized by the rough-and-tumble of office politics. I was pretty sure that he lived for the thrill of doing business (I, on the other hand, most certainly did not!). One day, out of the blue, he said to me pensively, "You know, Jeff, I've finally figured it out. We sell self-esteem." "Excuse me... how's that?," I responded. "We sell self-esteem!," he reiterated. "We put affordable shoes on the feet of kids who don't have many resources so that they can feel good about themselves at school. We sell self-esteem."

My first reaction (which I kept to myself) was "That's preposterous. Kids who wear our shoes get made fun of. They're not cool enough!" My second reaction was, "Wow, even my boss, who thrives on corporate adrenaline, is desperately in need of deeper significance in his work." He needed something to point to (even if the story he was telling himself wasn't all that credible).

Since then I've listened carefully to how people talk about their work. I hear it everywhere. I think it's a universal striving. We want to earn a living, but we want our work to matter. We want something to point to.


  1. This is wonderful! I'm so glad you are willing to share your thoughts. Your length is perfect for busy readers, your layout is simple, focusing attention on the words, and your content is relevant. I, too, find the universal search for meaning a thread through all of us, reminding us of our common cloth. It energizes my present work, providing opportunities to those less fortunate in an environment of dignity and contribution. I, too, sell self-esteem.

    And in an aside comment, your old boss actually did find a truth for a few people. Among the poor, knock-offs do allow participation in trends, and among their friends, they are not a laughing stock. I'm deeply critical of materialism and social ranking through fashion, but it's such a reality for kids. Payless really does do a service for a select group, which is all we can ask of any business.

    I look forward to your posts! Please let us know on facebook when you add.

  2. Great job so far! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts :)