Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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The TV shows I watched as a boy frequently offered up scenes of a father, dressed in suit and tie, coming home from work, carrying an expensive briefcase, and whistling a happy tune. But that would be the end of any work references. Once the briefcase was stowed, no sitcom writer dared bring down the mood with sordid details about the nature of work itself. Consequently, the message of the 50s was as vague as it was odd. Work was a place that required actions of mysterious origins—ones that left employees whistling tunes at the end of the day.
My own father painted a very different picture of the workplace. We watched our TV far from the white-picketed environs of the sitcom folk. The people in our neighborhood wore thick aprons and gloves at work in an effort to keep the gunk, slime, and glue off their clothes. You didn’t see my dad or anyone else from 25th Street whistling as they came home from work. The woman next door who gutted fish at the local cannery most certainly didn’t skip her way into her doily-adorned living room each evening. After work she went straight to the kitchen where she tried her best to scrub the stench of fish from her hands.
Given the circumstances on our side of the tracks, adults complained endlessly about the backbreaking and mind-numbing nature of their jobs along with the stupidity and pettiness of their bosses. They hated their jobs. It’s what they talked about. It’s what they told jokes about. It’s what they wrote songs about.
With this in mind, imagine my surprise some twenty years later when one day I found myself whistling as I walked out the door—on the way to work, no less. I loved what I did. I wore neither suit nor tie, but somehow I had found a way to extract pleasure from my job. What a shock. I had never dreamed that one day I would like work.
At first, I thought my satisfaction stemmed from the fact that I had a career (i.e., it required neither protective clothing nor a lunch pail) as opposed to a job. I was wrong. I could easily find ways to be unhappy within my white-collar environment just as individuals in the blue-collar world find ways to love what they do. I discovered that it wasn’t the nature of the work itself that determined job satisfaction. It was something else—something far more elusive.
Two decades passed before I met Rich Sheridan, a renowned entrepreneur and organizational philosopher. A few years earlier, Rich started his own software development company with the strong belief that creating software (some of which involved actual cartoon figures and cool sound effects) would be a genuine hoot.
But then Rich learned that customers (no matter how cool the product) often changed their minds in the middle of the development cycle, leading to ugly meetings with lots of finger pointing and much gnashing of teeth. Plus, the code writers who worked with Rich soon became specialists, making it impossible for any of them to leave work early or, heaven forbid, take a vacation. If they did, they’d leave an intolerable vacuum. Employees were now chained to their desks.
For Rich and his team, what had started as a gentle romp down candy cane lane was now a tortuous grind through the valley of unfulfilled expectations. Where had he gone wrong? More specifically, how could he turn his company into a place that left him with a tune on his lips at the end of each day?
Rich discovered the answer. He made an extensive study of joy and then infused his company with it. Best of all, he’s soon to release a book titled Joy Inc. that teaches how to create an intentionally joyful culture. Now, I’m not about to scoop Rich’s book, but I will suggest the following. As I met with Rich and his team in his joyful facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was immediately filled with his vision.
The sitcoms of the 50s had been right. You can love your work. You can whistle as you walk through the door each night. But you have to want it, believe it’s possible, and work for it.
I myself have experienced a bit of a work-related transformation as of late. For years I enjoyed a job that consisted of traveling the world, consulting, and designing training. It was exhausting, but I loved it. Then one day, I had my fill with travel. I was done. After more than twenty years of being a road warrior, I gave up my airline Gold Card to stay closer to home and devote my time to writing. Surely, this would bring me joy. After all, I love writing.
I was wrong. Writing can be lonely. Very lonely. You spend a lot of time staring at a screen that openly mocks you with its ghastly emptiness. Soon, I didn’t care all that much for my job. It involved far too much isolation, mumbling, pacing, and self-ridicule. Unlike my childhood neighbor, I wasn’t gutting fish all day long, but like her, I wasn’t happy at work. So I prepared myself for retirement. I was certainly old enough to retire.
Luckily, I recalled my visit with Mr. Sheridan and his compelling case for joy at work and felt inspired to find ways to infuse my own job with joy. In my case, it involved restructuring my daily tasks and bringing on another writer with whom I could collaborate while occasionally reenacting Three Stooges bits. I now look forward to work. Every single day.
How one goes about finding pleasure in his or her job varies and I don’t want to underestimate how much effort (and risk) it might take to negotiate with your boss for more interesting work, restructure your job, gain a new perspective, or possibly even switch companies altogether. Nor will I go into the various sources of work satisfaction ranging from the thrill of creation to beating a goal to satisfying a customer to enjoying supportive relationships and so forth.
Mr. Sheridan can teach you about creating an entire company filled with joy. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, can alert you to what it takes to be happy in general. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a job satisfaction guru, can teach you the elements required to enjoy any specific task at work. There’s plenty of help out there—once you decide to seek it. My point is far more modest. It’s this. We should expect to find joy at work and we should go out and seek it.
Years of hearing about lousy jobs and reading statistics that suggest over half of all employees don’t like their work can lead one to expect to be unhappy at work. For many of us, it’s our go-in position. We may not think about it much or even talk about it—ever—but the idea that work equals dissatisfaction can be so deeply embedded into our psyches that it keeps us from hoping and asking for more.
But we should hope and ask for more. We spend more time at work than just about anywhere else so it ought to be enjoyable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that in the ideal job employees routinely chase each other around with silly string, but a hoot once in a while or an excited sharing of a story should be common. Laughter should be common. Our default position should be that work—organized correctly—is pleasurable, and if it isn’t we need to make changes. Once this expectation is firmly set in our minds, we’ll start taking steps to find joy rather than develop methods for tolerating our existing miserable conditions.
And from what I’ve personally experienced, joy is worth the search.
17 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Finding Joy at Work”
I love everything you write!
What a nice reminder today. I must seek JOY
I feel strongly about this topic…the quickest route to finding joy at work, is to generate joy at work. If joy is missing, we must do our part and bring it to the party. This is not simply up to one person, it is everyone’s responsibility. Stay committed to generating joy, and soon, someone else will see the example being set and join in, generating their own brand of joy; adding it to the mix, and soon joy will be the norm – soemthing we ALL deserve.
Dear Mr. Patterson
First, I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoy reading your articles and look forward to each and every story of insight and knowledge within your writings. I agree that you can find joy in any work you do and searching for it may only take a kind word to someone who may be having a bad day that ends in a friendship. Laughter is important and brings teams together, boosts morale, which in turn can make coming to work something to look forward to! Thank you for your time – take care. Sincerely, Suzanne Palmer
I disagree with this article in that sometimes circumstances negate a good attitude. When you are an artist trapped as an account, and cannot follow your heart’s desire, no amount of ‘good attitude’ is going to fix the problem. You can be happy and upbeat but it’s not going to fix the problem at hand. Changing jobs and positions is going to do nothing but feel like a waste of time and effort, as it does not lead to your ultimate goal. I try to head to work with a good attitude everyday… but it’s not going to help how I really feel at the end of the day. No job is perfect, even your dream job, but when you have the option to follow your heart it makes all the difference.
I really like your writing style and your stories are always touching and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing.
Bringing joy to others brings yourself joy. Thanks, Kerry, for your always uplifting, often joyful, stories.
Congratulations on getting enough frequent flyer miles to stay home! I just read an interesting book, “Get a Grip” by Gino Whitman and Mike Patton on a new/modified/creative/simplified way to run a business and get joy back because you are back in control of your company and life. It was even fun to read!
I think that having control over what you are doing is one key to finding joy in your work. I also agree that giving joy is an equally important part.
Great story, as usual!
Hook up Rich Sheridan with a new “movement” Conscious Capitalism. The concept has been around for 4 years,but the fifth annual Conscious Capitalism conference in San Francisco on April 5 & 6, celebrates the new book Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia which came out this January. Check out the website – http://www.consciouscapitalism.org.
You have a gift for writing from the heart. Thanks for this piece on intentional living. As Lincoln said “Most folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
I have been receiving ‘Vital Smarts’ for a couple years now, and it is the only mass mailing that I receive that puts a smily on my face when I see it. I felt motivated to write a comment on this one, because it is so near and dear to my heart. My college education resulted in a degree in philosophy. I am a published philosopher, as a matter of fact; however, my current position has very little to do with defending a position on our metaphysical state as a collective, or any of the other ‘fun’ philosophical arguments. I am a maintenance manager. My days are mostly spent justifying my employment, which can be a very stressful situation and frought with political maneuvering, moral subterfuge, and painstaking data collection for the purpose of covering my posterior in the unpredictable future. All that being said, I arrive and depart from work with joy in my heart every day. I must say that I take an opposing position to ‘Paris Weiss’ above in that it is my strongest belief that attitude and happiness are always a choice. Circumstances are what they are, but their effect on our spirits is whatever we allow it to be. I love the Lincoln quote that ‘DaveM’ used above. I have not read “Joy, Inc.”, but I will make it a point to do so. In my opinion, every facet of one’s life is only as enjoyable as one chooses it to be. I have seen families at Disney Land in turmoil and conflict, walking through the park, and I have seen mechanics and pipefitters walking through sewage in a 40′ deep lift station laughing and joking with each other. Happiness is always a choice. The one thing in this world that we have 100% control over, is our decision to be happy or not. I greatly enjoy your articles. Keep them coming!
I truly struggle with being so busy at work that there is little time to have fun. I work as a Nurse and spend my days primarily taking calls from parents about how the prescribed treatments are NOT working. I gather the information and send on to the physician who advises, and then I return the call and facilitate whatever is indicated in the advice. Their concerns are serious and can be heart wrenching for families, so little room for humor/fun. I spend most of my waking hours here. By the end of the day all I want to do is relax (eat and TV usually). I get up early enough to get in 45 minutes of excercise at the health center, and then to work to start all over. I am 57, not quite old enough to retire but hate the direction my life is taking right now. I do not want to become a “She really should retire” sort of person because I can’t and I don’t want to waste my “best/current” years being so frustrated. Can you help me find happiness in my work/life?? I am married and my husband works in a similar situation. We have two grown daughters that we are emotionally close with but only see on occasional weekends. And, we have our grandchildren who are wonderful to be with but live 5 1/2 hours away. I am hanging on as tight as I can..
Working in healthcare can be draining on the emotions. However, what you do is so important, perhaps reading Rich Bluni’s book Inspired Nurse, will renew your passion. By-the-way, thank you for doing such worthwhile work.
Where can I get/preorder the book “Joy Inc.”?
Thanks for your interest in Joy, Inc. It is being published by Portfolio at Penguin, and the current plan is that it will be on the shelves in December of this year. As soon as I have pre-order information I will put another post on this site.
In the meantime, feel free to send an email indicating your interest to my email address at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FYI, there’s a problem with the link in the “It is Rocket Science” article – it brought me here. I was going to say it was wonderful but while I’m here I’ll say I loved this one (Finding Joy at Work) too! In fact there have been very few Kerrying On articles that I have not loved or at least liked very much!
thanks for the post, Kerry. here’s another take on Joy at work, drawing on a perspective from my own father’s life. http://www.gamechangers.com/?p=3911