The Joy oF Work - lessons from a sidewalk vendor

2016-03-05-1457197436-5557246-pillowman.png (Photo: Nile Saulter)

For years I drove by this gentleman, who stood all day in the hot Jamaican sun on the corner of Barbican Road in Kingston, gently offering his pillows for sale. His ever-present smile sparked smiles from my children and me - that and the colourful designs of his pillows always brightened our day. I never bought a pillow from him. But somehow, viewing "Pillowman" a documentary by Nile Saulter has me determined to buy one the next time I am in Jamaica. I want to experience the joy that his lovingly made pillows bring. Here is someone who is experiencing and expressing the joy of work, despite his place of work being, to put it mildly, not very pleasant. His name is Leonard Smith and pillows are his passion, his small yet not insignificant contribution to making the world a better place.

There's a buzz on about joy at work - great places to work (check out the Top 100 list), "everyone" wanting to work at Google, how to get it, make it, etc. I consult, coach, write and speak a lot about Joy at Work, but when I saw The Pillowman, I wondered: what about the joy OF work? What is it about this 4-letter word (the coincidence is not lost on me) that elicits groans, moans, stress and worry in many, but for others causes them to awaken, as Leonard Smith says with "One ting pon mi mind - fi go mek mi pillow dem" (Translation: "One thing on my mind - to make my pillows")? There is much more to work and what it means to human beings, and has meant for eons. I believe there are 3 obvious reasons and one very lofty one to explain why work is important to the human experience:

The obvious:
  1. 1. Time - work fills our time; just count the hours in your life that you spend - thinking about it, preparing to go to it, actually doing it, leaving it. So it makes sense that there would be heightened emotions and attachments to it. It is a huge part of our lives in terms of hours in the day.
  2. 2. Livelihood - work provides us with a livelihood, no matter how small. Even at less than minimum wage, it makes a contribution and helps to pay the bills. It is the way to fulfill our dreams of ownership, the good life, a secure future. Work is about money, which is fundamental to our modern way of life.
  3. 3. Identity - our work defines our identity and our worth, at least in the eyes of society. When we meet someone it is likely that the first two questions they ask us are "What is your name" and "What do you do?" And in response to the latter, we inevitably declare our work.
The lofty:
  1. 4. Purpose - work is a way to add value to people and to make a difference in their lives. It can be a way to make others' lives better, even if we feel we ourselves are in miserable circumstances. Artists experience the joy of work because they are expressing from a deep place of purpose - a powerful message, a thing of beauty - that stirs their emotions. The Pillowman knows that he is making a difference in how people sleep, how they relate to each other and the general quality of their lives. This is no small matter in a world where many of us are sleep-deprived and operating at less than optimum. This is why Mr. Smith experiences the joy of work - it has a purpose much larger than his own personal needs for livelihood, identity and worth.

The crux of the joy of work is purpose. If you meet the first 3 - time occupied, livelihood taken care of and a societal identity, but no lofty purpose, then your work is likely to be devoid of joy.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Well firstly, are YOU experiencing the joy of work? Do you have a sense of purpose and is your work something that you believe helps you to make a difference? And secondly, do the people you lead have a sense of purpose with their work? Do they see the big picture of what your company is about, and the role they play?

There are many businesses that are redefining what they do in terms of higher purpose. Bruce PoonTip of G-Adventures immediately comes to mind, as well as companies like Disney, Starbucks and Zappos that are legendary for how they have elevated their businesses to higher purpose and enrolled their team members and customers. I recall when my daughter Victoria was a Starbucks barista a few years ago. Some mornings she wasn't that motivated to get up and out to serve coffee. Then she would remember how important that first cup of coffee is to many people (like her mother). Her job was not just about serving coffee - it was about starting off someone's day on a good note!

Before joy at work comes the joy of work. The leader must lead in finding the joy of his/her work, and then help others to feel the joy of work - it's one of the most exciting and empowering things one can do.