Oxymoron: Work and Joy? Thoughts for Graduates Entering the Work Force.

In the 1970s a reporter/historian named Studs Terkel did interviews with dozens of people from every walk of life from executives to steel workers, social workers, a hooker, and artists. He wanted to know how they felt about their work. He captured these stories in a book called Working. It is powerful and has even been turned into a play. As I read it, as I have several times, I found that where many think of work as a four letter work and with unpleasant associations, many described their work as bringing joy and satisfaction. Those, however, I found clustered among the workers engaged in service to others of some kind. These days we speak of a service economy that includes consulting and legal services as well as food service workers and teachers. There is in Terkel's book a truly joyful car parker... the hooker not so much and what may be surprising--not a lot of joy in the executive ranks. But those who were nurses, teachers, and social workers may not have loved their paychecks but they loved their work.

The difference seemed to be that they could see the value of what they did in the eyes of those they served and they often had a sense of being able to make a difference. As I listen to students today talk about potential careers, money is often a major factor but many speak to wanting work that is gratifying. Yet we struggle to find teachers, social workers, or nurses especially among young men.

We also do things that some might call work but others call joy. It can be volunteer service, baking a birthday cake, engaging in a 500 mile hike. We sometimes dismiss the potential for joy in our "day" jobs in deference to postponing any delight to the hours away from the workplace. Work is about the paycheck and time spent not working is for pleasure. There is a reason many newer firms--especially the tech firms or ad agencies--have play space, nap rooms, flexible hours. They want to have that energy and delight brought to work.

In my own experience, I began my career in the corporate world at a time when firms were creating programs around diversity and corporate social responsibility. Both my late husband and I were engaged in furthering this work in different firms. But we both found it to be deeply gratifying because it was about service and change. I was moved ultimately into a marketing role where I led a team of about 25 creative staff. What was gratifying in this work was that the team needed morale building and so my work allowed me to help others feel better about themselves and their work.

Following two waves of layoffs I could no longer feel that was my mission and that I could honor my commitment to my team. So I left. Through a consulting project I found myself in the academic world and given a long family lineage in that universe I immediately felt at home. Again there was the chance to engage in making change and serving others. The, now, hundreds of students I have come to know have deeply enriched my life. The work I do does not feel like the four letter word we call work. It feels like joy.

The trick for those seeking to enter the job market and have dread of the dreary drudgery the word work implies, is part mindset and part strategy. The mindset is found in one of the stories (or actually several) in Stud's Terkel's Working. The one I have in mind is the story of a guy who parked cars. But he was the best damn car jockey around. He loved being the best and totally reveled in his work. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to it jumps off the page. There is also a book called: The Real Heroes of Business(and Not a CEO Among Them) which is filled with stories about people from a Marriott doorman to the guys who put food on airplanes and many others who bring joy, pride and energy to their work. They find ways to do their jobs better. They think about the end user who will benefit from the quality of the service they provide. In these stories, however, a key factor is the employer who allows--even encourages such dedication and creativity.

The lesson here is to figure out how your job may bring joy to someone else. Focus on others has a long history whether as a touchstone of religious practice or 12 Step Programs as a way of healing ourselves and bringing joy into our own lives. There is science here. Endorphins are released even in the act of hugging another person. Bringing joy or comfort to someone else--even someone you don't know-- will make you feel better. We tend to bifurcate these things though. We think of work as work and service as something you do in your non-working hours.

There is a reason for this. Unlike the firms celebrated in the "Heroes of Business" book, many workplaces or bosses do not recognize the value and hence reward the benefits of unleashing the power of loving service in the workplace. The other lesson, therefore, is to find a career that is inherently service oriented like teaching or nursing and/or to find a workplace that recognizes the value of employees who want to do work that brings joy to others. It may be a culture like those long touted at Zappos or Southwest Air where employee latitude and happy customers are deeply rooted values. So it is important to do some homework and look for healthy workplace cultures with those values. ( Hint: Fortune Magazine, Working Women and Black Enterprise magazines all have issues focused on this theme.)

We also need to think about the push for money as perhaps undermining the potential for joy in work. Environments that are deeply competitive may be fun for some but not for all, yet they may also be lucrative and therefore appealing. Economists who have begun to study happiness have found that there is a point where more money does not make for more happiness. There is no question that enough to pay for housing, food, clothing, education and health care are key basics and without those happiness is hard to come by. The question for each of us is how much do we need. Stacy Tisdale in her book, The True Cost of Happiness helps us explore this wonderfully. In Tom Wolfe's book Bonfire of the Vanities there was a distinct feeling that the climbing of the social and economic ladder was making people very deeply unhappy. I remember talking to a therapist whose practice was on Wall St. and who saw very wealthy and deeply unhappy people all the time. However, my experience with TIAA and the ads (and studies) for First Republic Bank suggest that even they have folks who seem to like delivering good service. Finding a field that aligns with your strengths and interests is key. Finding a workplace which values employee's contributions and quality service is also key. And finally bringing your own joy to work with you can make all the difference.

All the time we contribute in our own ways to what the work experience may be. Taking care of the space or role that we have some control over can bring gratification or even joy to the work. Think of Terkel's car parker. If you have the privilege of leading others then a maxim for leadership is to define it as "Letting Others Value Emerge" (LOVE). When you encourage others to be their best selves and enhance the piece of the experience where you have latitude then you also can bring joy to yourself and others. At the time I was having to lay off staff from my marketing role I encouraged my team of creative folks to help me build a huge gingerbread house which we would donate to a local children's hospital for the holidays. It was a healing experience for our broken group. We were able to smile in the face of loss.

Gratitude can be a lever for bringing an attitude of joy to work. Whatever you can find in each day that is worthy and good and useful can be joyful.

Visit www.icanfinishcollege.com to learn more about Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD and her book "I Can Finish College."