Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Fiddling and Keeping it Fresh

I hosted a conference at the Sundance ski resort last week for 30 of my academic colleagues who also study meaningful work (people as wonderful as they are smart!). At dinner Friday night, a few of us were talking about hobbies. Brodie, a tall, sunny, and thoroughly charming PhD student from Case Western University listened quietly until I said to him, "well, as a doctoral student, I'll bet you don't have time for anything other than reading and writing."

"Actually," he said, "I started fiddling this year."

My jaw dropped. How could someone begin a new hobby - not to mention a new musical instrument - during an all-consuming PhD program?

Brodie explained that when he gets tired of his scholarly work, there is a temptation to turn on the TV. But watching TV drains his energy and intellect. So instead, he takes 15 minutes to play some bluegrass. It calms him, engages his creativity, and sends him back to work feeling rested and sharp.

I've mentioned in previous posts that even your calling in life can bring occasional drudgery and frustration. But it took a bright, balanced 20-something to teach me that passion builds on passion, and that we can gain energy and creative boosts by blending our avocations with our vocation.

What hobbies or interests energize you? Are you making time for them in your life?

Maybe I'll talk in a later post about a new pursuit that has thoroughly energized me. But for now, I'll close with the Brodie principle: Fiddle to keep work fresh!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thank you!

A big thanks to all those who have shared with me their comments about the blog. They mean a lot to me. More blog entries to come soon!

Just a couple of nuggets I wanted to share. First, from my podiatrist friend: 

"Thinking of my own "calling", I think I'm lucky enough to have found it. But even so, it's not like I wake up everyday excited to go to work. Looking at feet, after all, is not a very glorious job. But what makes my job great is helping so many people to feel better. It's the sevice aspect, that you spoke of, that really makes my job great. While I'm working to help the patients that come to see me, I never think of myself or my own problems or worry about how much money I'm making."

And a former student informed me today that Oprah appears to be reading my blog (as if). Here's what she, I'm assuming when she signed off from her show: 

"Everyone has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it," she said. "You have to know what sparks the light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world. ... Wherever you are, that’s your stage, your circle of influence. That’s your talk show, that’s where your power lies. … You have the power to change somebody’s life."

Nice, Oprah!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Can I Find My Calling When I'm Stuck in this Lousy Job?

Like I said earlier, the question that students most often ask me is "how do I figure out what my calling in life is?" But I hear a different question from people on the other side of the diploma. Whenever I talk about my research to a group of employees, it's a guarantee that at least one will come up to me afterwards and say, "Yeah, but how can I ever find my calling when I'm stuck in a job I can't stand?" Behind the question is a thinly veiled skepticism about the things I teach: "Sure, it's very romantic to talk about being passionate about your work. But you're a professor. You live in la-la land. You don't know how hard it is in the 'real world.'"

Actually, I sort of think I do know. I was there for awhile. I was completely miserable in a corporate job that left me feeling numb, alienated, fractured.

And, probably like most people, I handled my alienation very badly. I turned inward, I watched the clock, I did enough good work to get by. And I waited every day, hoping for the "right job" to come along and save me.

Here's where my thinking was flawed: I thought that finding my calling in life meant finding a particular job. It's the classic fairy tale -- the slipper fits and we ride off into the sunset, happily ever after, my dream job and I.

The harsh reality is that most people never find a "dream" job. Most of us struggle away in imperfect organizations, wrestling with unsavory or impossible tasks, frequently underused or under-appreciated, and sometimes baffled about the point of it all. And that's just the pretty decent jobs!

But a job is not a calling. Going back to the very roots of the idea (all the way back to Martin Luther), a calling is a particular type of work that one feels destined to do because of one's personal gifts and unique opportunities. And the point of a calling is to bless other people. Very few job descriptions are perfectly aligned with the occupant's gifts and talents. But most people can find some way to put their own unique stamp on their work by discovering and employing their particular gifts, their particular way of doing the job.

So what should I have done instead of biding my time in my crummy corporate job, waiting for happiness to come to me? I wish that I had said, "Fine. I don't really like this place. It doesn't naturally bring out the best in me. But I wonder how I can make it a better place? Is there something creative I can contribute? Can I make things easier, better, more interesting, more fulfilling for my coworkers? Can I surprise and delight my clients?" I'm ashamed to admit that such thoughts never really crossed my mind.

In short, I wish that I had stopped thinking so much about myself and instead thought, "how can I serve?"

One of the greatest lessons I have learned about life callings is that, almost invariably, people discover what their callings are while in service to others, rather than in service to self. It's the classic paradoxical principle that Jesus taught: when we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. And here's the payoff to people who are in lousy jobs: the likeliest way you can get beyond your lousy job is by throwing your heart into helping other people in, and around, your organization. Doing so will help illuminate what your unique gifts are, and it will make you an extraordinary employee. (You also will probably start to hate your job a little less.)

And -- here's the clincher -- when you become extraordinary in the unique professional service you render, the "right job" is much more likely to find you.

I would have made a much bigger difference in my corporate job if I'd realized that.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Meaningfulness Doesn't Come Cheap

A few nights ago, I went to my daughter's junior high school choir concert. I must confess I went with maybe a smidgen of dread. Much as I support my daughter, I had very low expectations about the quality of music that a couple hundred squirrelly 'tweens would produce.

An hour later (here's another confession), I was trying hard not to look choked up. It was a beautiful, moving evening. And for that, I have Mr. Manning to thank.

Mr. Manning has been directing the choir for seven years. He looks hardly older than some of the kids he conducts. And while he led them in a few obligatory pop songs like "Hey There, Delilah" to keep things fresh for the kids, the repertoire leaned more heavily to offerings like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and other challenging and transcendently beautiful pieces. The musicality may not have been quite ready for Carnegie Hall (though it was far better than I expected). But the kids sang with as much heart and conviction as any performers I have seen.

The reason became obvious near the end of the concert. Mr. Manning spoke about his love for the kids, and his passion for helping them use music to express their emotions. Then a flood of alumni came to the stage to join the combined choirs for a final, moving number, followed by a massive group hug with Mr. Manning as nucleus.

I mentioned in an earlier post that seeing people excel at their calling in life enriches all of us. Here is a case in point. I left the concert more determined than ever to give my heart to what I do, and to infuse my work with dedication, love, and service.

But to end my post here would be a disservice to Mr. Manning. It's very romantic to applaud the maestro at the end of a great performance and think, "Wow, he made that look so easy! He is so gifted!" We don't often pause amid our applause to weigh the sacrifice, strain, setbacks, frustrations and yes, even moments of despair that usually precede an artistic achievement.

The most resonant result of my research on work as a calling is that finding meaning in your work comes at a steep price. The popular press would have you believe that fulfillment is all fun, that you know you have landed in your calling when work feels like play. There is an element of truth to that, but in our research on zookeepers, we heard a different, compelling, refrain. Callings require great sacrifice. And work is truly meaningful only when you are willing to pay the price of suffering its rigors and reverses. Meaningful work, like nobility, doesn't come cheap.

I emailed Mr. Manning to thank him for the wonderful gift he is giving my daughter. With his permission, I'd like to share a little of his response to me:

"It's been my practice to keep a copy of inspiring feedback such as yours as a supportive reminder in times of trial or difficulty... I have had a number of individuals, some very close to me, who have continually questioned my decision to be a choir teacher. After 7 years of doing it, I have a hard time believing I could be happier elsewhere. Regardless of the great challenges." 

Bravo, Mr. Manning! Not just for your wonderful concert, but even more for the long hours of toil in the face of challenges -- both personal and political -- to the value of your chosen profession. Hundreds of your students will never doubt, though, that your work matters a great deal -- precisely because of what you choose to put into it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stop #1 on the Journey to Your Calling

If I had a nickel for every time a student came to my office to ask advice on how to find his or her calling in life... well, I'd have a lot of nickels. Talking about calling in class seems to get students very uptight! That's because they are asking the same questions I did at their stage in life: "What am I supposed to be?" "What if I don't figure it out in time?" "What if I don't have a calling, and end up hating my job forever?" Of course, it's not just students that struggle with those questions!

I don't claim to have all the answers to how one should pursue the quest for calling. But I do have one answer (actually, a question) that I always start with: What does your inner child tell you?

In my research with Stuart on zookeepers, we were struck by a common (almost universal) theme. Zookeepers knew from childhood what they were going to do when they grew up. They were the kids that brought home stray animals, that couldn't get enough of lizards and bugs and other creepy-crawlies. Their gift had manifested itself almost from birth!

"But wait," you might be thinking, "I didn't have any unique obsession when I was a kid. I was just a normal kid with ordinary interests." It's true that zookeepers appear to be pretty unique at an early age, but the point is not that you have to know at age 5 what your professional destiny is. The point is that our natural gifts and loves tend to make themselves apparent very early on.

When I was a kid, I had no idea that I would be an Organizational Behavior professor. But let me tell you a little about what I liked to do as a kid:
- I was a precocious reader
- I wrote a lot, just for the fun of it
- I loved getting up in front of people to speak or perform
- I played "school" with my brothers (I was always the teacher)
- I played "corporation" with my brothers (I was always the executive on the top floor)
- I was highly attuned to relationships and thought a lot about people's feelings and perceptions

So, yeah, I guess management professor fits pretty well! The funny thing is that I resisted being a professor for a long time. I never really connected the dots between my childhood and my professional goals. Today, it's blatantly obvious to me that I was born to do what I do. But I fought it for years.

Are you fighting your childhood too? Chances are that what is most unique about you -- your talents, your gifts, your special interests -- were clearer to you at age 5 than they are today. What did you love to do? How did you spend your time when you were completely free? What did you create? How did you interact with people? If you ask yourself a lot of questions like that, I think you'll discover that your repertoire of gifts turns out to be very unique. Taking inventory of what you loved from the get-go almost invariably provides clues about what type of work would represent a calling in life!