Read an Excerpt
You're Job Is Bigger
Than You Think
"There are no great acts, only small acts performed with great love."
It was my first week of my first year in graduate school. I had arrived in Chicago to study for the Presbyterian ministry and it was the middle of the year. Aware that I must work to fund my studies, I searched for a nice "save-the-world" part-time job, only to discover that all these had already been taken. No work in hospitals, social service agencies, anti-nuke organizations -- nothing.
My new neighbors were a nice young couple from Wisconsin. Joe Hughes was studying for the Lutheran ministry and working part-time as a postal clerk in a small substation within a drug store on the south side of Chicago. In the middle of one of the poorest neighborhoods in the richest country in the world, Joe peddled stamps for 20 hours each week. "It doesn't pay all that well," Joe admitted, "but it is steady work and I enjoy it. If you want, I could put in a good word for you."
So he did, and a week later I started my six-month tenure as a postal clerk. Within a week my enthusiasm for the new job was history. For 20 hours each week -- for the rest of the year, the young, would-be savior of the world licked stamps, printed money orders, and weighed packages. Yuck!
By the end of the first month I hated the job and didn't like the customers much, either. Peggy, who owned and ran the drug store, was a crabby old penny-pincher. Little things started to drive me bananas, like writing money orders. People came in and asked for ten money orders and I, from my middle-class background, wondered if poor people in Chicago had ever heard of checking accounts. I longed to do "important work" but, each week this was my fate: a young idealist, out to make a difference, working in a post office. As the weeks went by, I found myself becoming more and more grumpy -- and it showed. Who cares, I asked myself. When I get one of those save-the-world jobs they'll see what I'm made of.
Now Joe seemed to be having a different experience, but since we worked different shifts I had no clue what he saw in the work. As summer approached, I feared I would find myself working full-time in the postal substation. Just a few short weeks later, a letter arrived informing me of my acceptance as director of a boy's camp. I was thrilled beyond belief. Finally work worthy of a young future star. No more stamps, no more packages, no more money orders -- and no more Peggy.
Having informed her of my imminent departure, I was working the first of my last five shifts. It was a rainy Chicago day at the end of May and the fourth customer in line was an elderly black woman well into her eighties. She was short and wore a brimmed hat. The raindrops dripped onto her shoulders as she asked for a money order.
"How are you today?" I inquired distractedly.
She frowned. "Oh son, I am not well today. My daughter is in the hospital, she has cancer. The doctors told me yesterday that she is going to die, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, any time now. And I should be there, sitting by her side, but if I don't pay my rent by 5 P.M. today they'll evict me. And those lousy people who own the building won't let you pay in cash." She paused and then said, "But, for God's sake, I should be there, by her side. She's dying as we speak."
Some twenty-five years later, I cannot recall the specific words I said to her that day. I do know that for the first time in six months it occurred to me that I might actually have made a difference in the post office. After an exchange of kind and tender words she headed off, but at the door she stopped and turned around. Stepping back to my counter, putting her shaking, small, feeble hand on my young forearm, she looked deeply into my eyes: "Son, I just want to thank you. Thank you for being so kind. You do know, you made my day!"
That night sleep would not come. Her words kept ringing in my ears: "You made my day." For months I had seen my job at the post office as licking stamps and weighing things. Could it be that during that time there had been a deeper calling? What would have happened if I had thought about my job in that dingy, dark drugstore as "making people's days"?
The next morning at the post office I wrote these words down: "Make someone's day!" The first woman in line was another little old lady, wearing a bright orange dress. As she fumbled with her stamps I commented about how beautiful she looked in that fine dress.
After looking around and noticing there were only men nearby, she blushed. "Oh, go on," she said, but I knew I had made her day. No more parents with dying daughters were in my line that week, but in small and gentle ways my words and actions began to brighten the often-hard lives of my customers, even if it was for just a moment.
As fate had it, Joe Hughes and I finished our work at the post office the same week. My leaving was hardly noticed, but the customers threw a going-away party for Joe on his last shift. By then I knew why. For Joe, the post office was a part of his ministry. He knew that wherever people were gathered, whatever your job description said you were supposed to be doing, you were there to make lives better -- and it showed. The job was not too small for me; I was too small for the job.
Our Jobs Are Bigger Than We Are
I have never forgotten that job, though it has taken me years to truly embrace its lessons. Our jobs are almost always bigger than we are. And one of the keys to staying in love with our work is to continue to see the wonder available to us at work to always see the noble possibilities in our role. One manager sees his job as making the payroll; another sees herself as mentoring young people. A bellman at a hotel thinks of his job as moving bags; another sees himself as making people feel at home. A gardener sees her job as pulling weeds; another thinks about the smile people will have when they pass by and see only beautiful flowers. A receptionist sees her job as answering the phone; another believes she can brighten the lives of people with her voice. And so it goes.
It is worth reflecting on the way you see your work right now. Are you licking stamps or making people's days? Are you making payroll or mentoring people? Moving bags or making people feel at home? Selling cars or helping someone find a car they will love so much they'll give it a name?
Years later, I would discover that a large part of leadership is to help others see the deeper possibilities in their roles. For some time I had an assistant named Susan and one week I called from the road to check in at the office. She sounded grumpy and a bit down. When I asked how she was, she told me that this week she was stuffing 5,000 envelopes to promote my book Awakening Corporate Soul and that it was not a very soulful task. Listening to her, I could see myself standing there in the post office, about her age, moaning about licking stamps and mailng envelopes.
"Susan," I said with sincerity, "stuffing envelopes isn't a great deal of fun. But somewhere in those envelopes is the name of someone who will read this book and it will change her life. It will lead her to make a very important decision that will impact her fate and those around her. You are not stuffing envelopes -- you are changing lives." She grunted and handed me off to our marketing director.
When I returned on Friday, I noticed that on the wall she had changed a sign from "Books Sold" to "Lives Changed." And, she confessed to me, about halfway through the week she started believing it, that her job had become bigger, and the innocent belief in the power of a stuffed envelope had turned a mundane task into holy work.
How do we fall in love with our work? I think we must never forget that we are always on holy ground if our eyes are open. We must never stop looking with innocent wonder at what our jobs might produce if we bring more of ourselves to them.
When Lloyd Hill became the CEO of Applebee's Restaurants he had just finished a stint in health-care management. Although he enjoyed his new work at Applebee's, he missed the deep sense of purpose he had discovered in health care where they were "changing lives" every day. But as he spent time out in the restaurants he noticed that in some of the restaurants people left a little better than when they came in. This was usually the result of small acts performed by people with big hearts: the waitress who remembered your name or favorite food, the smile and friendly chatter of the person who seated you, or simply the positive energy that flowed from staff people. Lloyd then realized that the work they were doing was bigger than he had thought, that his restaurant chain existed not just to serve food but to make every customer's life just a little better for having spent time there. Over the years he has shared that perspective with many people and admits that a few people glaze over when he does so, but also that many people begin to have a different experience at work when their job gets bigger, when licking stamps becomes making someone's day.
My mother was a manager for many years at one of the world's largest accounting firms. When she retired (the first time), she took a job as a receptionist at a research institute for the mentally challenged and it felt like quite a demotion. Her first day on the job someone asked her a question and she responded "How would I know? I am only a receptionist." The person looked her square in the eyes: "Only a receptionist! You are the first person people see and talk to when they come in here. How you treat them will send them a message about the entire organization and what it stands for. If you do your job well, that first message will be that we care." My mother realized in that moment that she was not "a" receptionist, she was "the" receptionist, an ambassador for an entire institute.
In my first real shot at acting I had a very small part as a servant holding a torch in Romeo and Juliet at Hofstra University's Globe stage. Three hours every night, for four weeks, I sat through the entire play to hold my torch and say my one line: "Who goes there?" Mr. Van Werth, the director, told me that old cliche: "There are no small parts, only small actors." I did not believe him and told him so. After my year at the post office, I sent him a note to tell him he was right -- if not about acting, then about life. Is it possible that whatever you are doing, your true work is nobler than you think? When we see the possibilities in each moment, when we reflect on how we can save the world a little bit in every interaction we have and in every role we play, life changes in wonderful and mysterious ways.
Bake a Cake for the
Almost every office of any size has one -- an office trouble-maker. That person whom everyone agrees would not be missed if he or she found another place to work. It may be someone who is negative, a gossip, doesn't do a fair share, badmouths everyone, or is simply out of step.
Although there may be exceptions, most of these people did not start out as the "troublemaker." They were hired because somebody thought they would do a good job and there is a good chance they even did so for a while. But somehow, somewhere along the way, a shift occurred. We lost whatever innocent affection we felt toward this person and they lost whatever love they felt for their work.
How do we recapture that innocence?
A friend who is a nurse said there was a woman in her unit whom everyone disliked. She was negative, didn't pull her weight backstabbed and was, all in all, someone everyone agreed should leave. Some coworkers had tried to give this woman feedback, to no avail.
For months my friend thought about what she could do to get through to this person. Hard as she tried, she could come up with no cogent strategy. One Saturday morning, she woke up and had an inexplicable desire to bake a cake for the troublemaker. She had no idea why this notion had come to her or what balking a cake might accomplish, but the only thing she had ever heard this woman say she liked was chocolate. So that Saturday morning my friend started her day by baking a chocolate cake. After looking up the woman's address in the phone book she took the finished cake to her home.
You can imagine the troublemaker's shock when she opened the door.
"What are you doing here?" the woman asked incredulously.
"Well," my friend said, "it is kind of hard to explain. I know you like chocolate and I woke up this morning wanting to bake you a cake, so I did." She held the cake out like an offering to an angry god.
The woman smiled ever so slightly and said: "Well, would you like to come in?"
My friend met the woman's husband and began to get a sense of where some of the negativity came from. For the next hour they sat at the kitchen table, ate chocolate cake, and talked. They did not talk about the woman's attitude or her behavior toward colleagues; they simply enjoyed small talk and ate cake.
Monday morning the woman arrived at work the same grumpy person she had been the week before -- but with one notable exception: She was nice to my friend. The next day she even brought my friend a coffee to start the day. Over the next few weeks, they slowly became friendly to the point where they were able to have a heart-to-heart conversation about the workplace. Encouraged by the friendship she felt with my friend, the woman slowly started becoming more positive, began asking others for feedback on how she could be a better team member. Eventually she regained the innocent enthusiasm she had when she started her job. It took months, but it did happen.
How do we start again with someone who has wronged us at work? What do we do when everything else we have tried has failed to get through to someone? It seems to me that we must begin with kindness, with the courage to reach out with no expectations at all. It begins when we decide to be the one friend to the friendless, the one person reaching out when everyone else has shut down, the one who will care enough to be innocent again.
A friend who is a manager told me about one of his employees who was "hell on wheels." Tempted to read him the riot act one more time, my friend resisted and instead invited him out for coffee. At the table, he said: "You don't seem very happy to me and it's showing in how you act and feel at work. It must be hard to be so unhappy. What is happening for you? I'm wondering if there's anything I can do to help?" The manager spoke the words with such honest sincerity that the man let down the wall which he had so assiduously built and opened up. He began to speak about how he was feeling at this stage of his career: lost, a failure, disliked by others. For the first time they had an honest, frank open conversation. A miracle did not happen that day, but suddenly it felt as if they were on the same side.
When I was growing up in Staten Island, New York, we lived in a neighborhood filled with immigrants from the Old World: Germans, Italians, Irish, and Poles. Next door to us was a grumpy old Italian man, so mean that he used to threaten us kids with an enormous scythe if an errant baseball found its way into his yard. Nobody was friends with Mr. Morelli and no one got along with him -- with one exception.
Across the street from our house lived a kid we knew to be "mentally retarded." His name was Johnny Beatafeld and he was the butt of many jokes. Maybe because he wasn't very smart, or possibly because he was more innocent then the rest of us, he would go over and talk to Mr. Morelli. He didn't know that no one got along with Mr. Morelli. While the rest of us assumed the old man was unreachable, Johnny innocently walked over to the fence and struck up conversations. They became the best of pals. Even as a young person I wondered what might have happened if a few more of us had just as innocently gone to the fence and started talking.
Got a troublemaker in your office? Have a neighbor with whom no one gets along? Have an employee with whom you have tried everything, all to no avail? Well, how about this: bake a cake, walk over and start a chat, let them know that you care, and ask honestly what is happening for them. Let that innocent part of you -- the part that is not so jaded as to believe you already know the outcome -- go on over and give it a try. Sure, they may not eat the cake, they may not want to chat, but there is something about an innocent act of kindness that even the grumpiest of us can't resist.
And if you happen to be the office troublemaker or the neighborhood curmudgeon, remember it is never too late to change your stripes.
Copyright © 2004 John B. Izzo
Second Innocence: Rediscovering Joy and Wonder By John Izzo, Ph.D. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., Paperback, $14.95, March 2004