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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Do We Need Recognition?

Today at graduation, one of my ethics students gave the student address. Stunningly, he chose to spend a good portion of his (excellent!) talk telling about his experience in my class, and about what I've taught him about finding his calling in life. It made me squirm a bit on the stand, but it also was a huge payday. Hearing someone share with others what I taught him... that's about as good as it gets in my line of work!

I'm really grateful to receive that kind of recognition, but I also thought, "would it make a difference if I never got public attention? Would I still do what I do?" I believe the answer is yes. My calling is not dependent on pats on the back, welcome as they may be.

In fact, it strikes me that the vast majority of people who share their unique gifts at work get precious little recognition. When was the last time I wrote a thank-you to the lady at the DMV who used her uncanny sense of humor to give me a big smile on my driver's license? When did I last pull aside and thank the fastidious custodian who makes my workplace immaculate? When did I last contact the manager of my favorite restaurant to tell him that my server made us feel like the most important people in the house that night?

If you look around, you will see nobility at work in the most surprising places. Try it! And then give that well-deserved pat on the back. You'll discover that identifying others' excellences make YOU better at what you do. It's pretty cool how that works.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What Makes Me Tick (getting down to my personal core)

I spend a lot of time talking intellectually about "work as a calling." But you can't really understand my enthusiasm for the topic until you understand the spiritual significance it holds for me. Of all the things I believe, there is one conviction that has been an unshakable constant in my life - palpable, bone-deep. And that is that there is a spark of divinity within me.

Not just in me, of course. I believe all humankind are literally spirit children of a loving, interested, involved Heavenly Father. That belief has been a constant attestation to me. In my darkest moments, my deepest frustrations, at the brink of despair, I look inward and feel a light of hope for which I can't take personal credit. When I have every reason to believe that I am nobody, something inside insistently reassures me that I haven't yet scratched the surface of my potential.

That assurance makes me enormously optimistic about the potential of others. I believe I am surrounded by people who have innate (often undiscovered) brilliance. Each person I meet is a God in embryo, divinely imprinted with a portfolio of gifts, talents, and predispositions as unique among humanity as are his or her fingerprints.

This fundamental belief is, of course, bound up with my faith in Jesus Christ and enlivened by the teachings of my Church (see However, I don't think people have to share my faith to embrace a vision of the vast array of potential excellences distributed throughout the human race. Eudaimonist philosophers in ancient days give us a similar account, and my agnostic friends can point to the infinite combinations of DNA as an explanation for unique human excellences.

However one arrives at the vision, I believe that everyone has a calling in life - a particular way they are suited to contribute to the world. Many of us will find expression of our gifts in the realm of work. Consequently, I have a feeling of reverence about the work people do. More than just a way to earn a buck, work can become an offering - a personal sacrifice for one's fellow man and woman. When I see people exercise their unique gifts at work, I am awestruck by the nobility of dedicated labor.

I look forward to using this blog to share insights, stories, and reflections about people who have a calling in life (and about people who are struggling to find theirs). Seeking your calling is a wonderful, trying, godly journey! Onward!