Second Innocence: Rediscovering Joy and Wonder
by John Izzo, Ph.D.
Published by Berrett-Koehler
March 2004; $14.95US; 1-57675-263-1
Copyright © 2004 John B. Izzo
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Your 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 mailing 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 cliché: "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.
Copyright © 2004 John B. Izzo
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