My mind must have been on something else as I began to edge out a bit from a side street to make a left-hand turn onto a main thoroughfare. At the same time, another driver was turning left onto the street I was on. I slammed on my brakes in time. Admittedly, the near miss was my fault and the driver I almost pulled in front of had every right to be upset. What surprised me, however, was the intensity of his reaction. He came unglued, turned blood red, repeatedly flipped me off and began spewing expletives and spittle. The rage on his face is burned in my memory. I kept an eye on him in my rear view mirror to make sure he wasn’t turning around to come after me. Fortunately he didn’t.
As you might guess, I have a theory about this. Many people have been chasing the proverbial golden ring for much of their adult lives and it’s not worked out as well as they had hoped. With the economy continuing to struggle, a lot of people are frustrated. The people I know who are struggling the most are those who are working to feed their desire for more money and/or greater status. The purpose of their work is to serve themselves.
On Wall Street where I spent most of my career, most people are there for the money and status. (I was attracted for those reasons too.) They want to make enough money – frequently referred to as their “number” – so they can eventually quit their jobs and say “adios” to their employers. In recent years, they feel like they’ve been moving further away from their number and this has left them frustrated and exhausted. Today, more people on Wall Street are giving up on the Street altogether. Of those who remain, many of them carry around just beneath the surface what Christian minister and author Rob Bell describes as a “low grade boiling rage.” Although Wall Street is probably the most extreme, this phenomenon extends to other sectors of the American economy.
In contrast to those who work to serve themselves are the people I know who exhibit joy and contentment in their work in part because they serve a cause greater than themselves. Their work brings meaning to their lives. My friend Paul Spiegelman is flourishing as the CEO of Beryl Companies, a private company founded by Paul and his two brothers. Beryl brings goodness into the world by helping hospitals with call center support for doctor referrals and follow-up calls to check on patients who recently underwent treatment. At Beryl they know they’re doing important work. They describe their work as “connecting people to healthcare.” They also derive meaning from a corporate culture that treats employees like family.
My friend Rob Mathes is flourishing in part because he brings truth, beauty and goodness into the world through his music. Over the last year, Rob composed an amazing orchestral work entitled “At Night a Song Is With Me,” co-produced “Symphonicities” with Sting and produced Matthew Morrison’s new CD (and much, much more).
Another friend named Ann is flourishing as she helps bring truth and goodness into to the world through her work as the Chancellor’s Associate for External Relations at a major university. Ann’s energy is boundless. In addition to her job responsibilities, she takes an active interest in students and their families. Ann is also a force to be reckoned with when it comes to raising funds to support breast cancer research. Sometimes I’ve wondered if there are two Anns (identical twins perhaps?).
It’s somewhat ironic that another friend of mine named Traci Fenton is flourishing because she channeled her anger in a constructive way. When Traci was an collegiate exchange student in Indonesia during the end of President Suharto’s dictatorship, government spies overheard her conversation with an Indonesian friend in which views were expressed that were at odds with the Suharto government’s oppressive values. As a result, an Indonesian government thug threatened Traci’s friend and warned him to stay away from her “or else.” When her friend called to say he could no longer see her, Traci was outraged and extremely upset. She knew this was wrong. Unfortunately, at the time she could do nothing about it.
Years later Traci went to work for a large company only to learn that it had arrogant, authoritarian leaders who viewed employees-at-large as inferiors. Being treated that way made Traci feel the same sort of anger she felt in Indonesia. This time she decided she could do something about it. She quit her job at the company and founded an organization to bring democratic values to the workplace. She named it WorldBlu (blue is the color of freedom).
Today, Traci is the CEO of WorldBlu. She serves a cause greater than self and she’s thriving, experiencing joy and contentment in her work despite the difficult economy, unlike many of my friends who toil away to make their number on Wall Street.
Here’s the point: we are human beings, not machines. Sure, we need money for the necessities of life and it’s nice to enjoy some experiences beyond the necessities but we also need work that is meaningful if we are to flourish over the course of our lives.
So how is your internal temperature? Are you near a boiling point on a regular basis?
Are you flourishing? Are you spending all of your days serving yourself or are you investing your life in a cause greater than self? Is your work bringing truth, beauty and/or goodness into the world? If not, can you identify ways to bring truth, beauty and/or goodness to your workplace? If you conclude it isn’t possible, consider finding volunteer work that does or seek another job where you can do work that brings meaning to your life. If you’re fortunate, you will find work that is so meaningful and brings such a sense of joy and contentment to your life that you never want to retire. Imagine that!