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.


  1. wonderful post professor. i am loving your blog. this one was a good reminder to me to remember to always take a few moments out of your day to compliment someone. you never know how much it means to them. :)

  2. I loved this post! I was especially interested that Mr. Manning said he has had a number of individuals question his decision to be a choir teacher. It prompted me to think about the things that could deter me from being fulfilled in my calling in life--things like seeking social approval and riches more than I seek to simply be my best self. I think Mr. Manning's strategy of compiling inspiring feedback is a good strategy to keep perspective and remember why he truly loves his profession.

  3. As I read your post I was nodding enthusiastically, because we have a band teacher who has similarly inspired a love of music for a generation of squirrelly kids. I have wondered why he focuses his talents on a chronically underfunded junior high band program when he could do "so much more." So I asked him once. In his quiet way he said that he had carefully weighed the sacrifices he would have to make if he took his energy elsewhere, and he would take teaching our kids over everything else. Not only was I put in my place for undervaluing the importance of focusing on a bunch of half-listening, dorky, horsing around post-adolescents, but I saw that it was precisely his ability to alter the way he thought about the hard times that made him most successful. Precisely BECAUSE of his gracious way of handling hard times (instead of IN SPITE of those hard times) he was reaching kids. In my own passionate work, I find more and more that my success lies IN those hard times and hard things, not IN SPITE OF them. If that were widely known, I think we would have less tendency to shy away from the parts of our work that are drudgery or defeating to our spirit. How wise to self-inspire by keeping a record of appreciative feedback! I think I'll encourage that in my own work.

  4. He is incredible!

    Jackson absolutely loves choir and Mr. Manning is, in his words, 'the coolest teacher ever!'