26 May 2010

Why I love my job

I have been watching quite a few TED videos of late. I've been giving a lot of thought on my professional tasks...specifically, teaching, and how I might do that better. I also have been reading about the world and struggling to understand how to make it better, mostly through articles posted by J on venues too numerous to track down.

All of these things have coalesced to convince me of a single truth, and it is this:

Most unhappiness is derived from outside of ourselves. We are happy beings except when we succumb to the temptation to compare ourselves to others. When we are children and we are full of ourselves, we never give a thought to whether our talents and our interests are going to lead us to fame or fortune, or whether we have aspirations similar to those of our friends and colleagues. We don't care that Johnny or Jane are smarter, better looking, or can sing better than us. What we lack in talent, we make up for in enthusiasm. Think about it. When you are a kid, it isn't your ability to carry a tune. It's how loud you sing. It is a shame that at an increasingly early age, we are forcing children into adult notions of success and failure. We teach children to compete on looks, grades, leadership, athletics, and other weird notions we have about achievement. We teach children to be embarrassed about preferring NOVA over ESPN, any visible disabilities (no matter how slight), hair type, skin color, big feet, crooked teeth, and all sorts of ridiculous things. We don't look at children as 9 year olds. We look at them as half an adult. I cannot tell you how many ads picture toddlers as divas or sports stars. We have babies at computers acting as the spokesperson for Wall Street trading firms. We have kids competing to get into the "right" kindergarten. And the kids who go to their failing public school we assume will be failures at life. We, and by we I mean our society, pigeonhole kids based on their parents' income, where they grew up, and where they matriculated.

In a presumable meritocracy, we behave more like an aristocracy.

We no longer have individual achievement, but at every step we are judged against a standardized ideal. Our inability to meet certain standards labels us a geek, a freek, a stoner, or just some middle-of-the-road loser. In such an environment, envy is the overwhelming emotion of the masses. Followed closely by depression, anger, and aggression. Only a few can make it to the top. Are the rest of us failures?

I have been luckier than most. I convinced myself at a very early age that no one was better than me. Now some people have (incorrectly) labeled this narcissism. It is not. It is an inherent sense of equality. I have a well developed sense of social justice. Not as well developed as some lower on the social ladder than myself, but I think I did alright for figuring it out on my own. So if no one is better than me, I didn't have to be afraid of anyone. And I wasn't. I wasn't afraid of teacher, or my dad's executive friends, or someone who was interviewing me for a job. The part of this equation that was missing was this. I DID think I was better than some other people. And that misperception has taken me a long time to figure out, straighten out, and make a part of my world view.

I tell you this, to get at a simple point. When I looked seriously at what created a positive, happy working experience for me, it was this: I was happy in a position where I was treated with respect and I was unhappy where I was not. I was happy in a position (no matter what it was), where I felt I was good at what I did, where my contributions were meaningful, and I felt successful. I was happy when the days things went right outnumbered the days things went wrong. And the jobs that I didn't like...well, those were the kind where bosses tried to make me feel like I'd sinned when something didn't go well. We don't hit home runs everyday. But I don't believe that we deserve to be treated as though we are personally inadequate just because we didn't hit the ball out of the park every time up to the plate. I wanted a position where I felt competent, valued, and in control of how I felt on a daily basis. I was happiest in a job where a mistake was noted and we moved on. I was unhappiest in a job where a mistake was blown out of proportion and made me fear for my job. If a job made me feel like I was inadequate, it wouldn't be long before I was looking for another job. Notice, it didn't matter whether I really WAS inadequate, but simply that I FELT inadequate. I don't like feeling that way and I don't think anyone else does either.

I had a number of positive working experiences that, when a new supervisor came along, turned into a nightmare. And perhaps it is a bit silly on my part, but I believe that the things that make me happy are the things that make other people happy. I believe that it is very possible for a janitor, a cleaning lady, a dishwasher, a garbage man, and a cashier to love the work they do. I know a woman, a professional, who treats every single service employee she encounters with a presumed air of incompetence. She expects poor treatment and she usually finds it. She then makes a massive scene that embarrassed herself more than the person she was ripping a new one. If we treat the janitor, the cleaning lady, the dishwasher, the garbage man, and the cashier as equals and with respect, we contribute meaningfully to their happiness.

And this gets to the other great lesson in life I have learned, from my Grams no less:

It cost you nothing to make someone's day.

This is not just a call to be nicer to the people we encounter everyday. This is a call to invest in our social well being. If we can adjust our behavior even the slightest and improve our nation's citizens' satisfaction with their jobs, we improve our national lot. For that, I'm ready and willing. Life is too short to judge yourself by someone else's perverted standards. What's say we do our own thing and just be happy out there?

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