Finding Joy at Work

imagesI joined a meditation group in my neighborhood recently, and the other night the teacher’s talk was about Joy.

Joy. It’s not something many of us tend to think about much. We focus on getting work done, on what’s annoying us, on the onslaught of problems we need to solve or that we’re hearing about in the world, but joy is something that many of us – maybe especially New Yorkers – tend to overlook.

When do you experience joy?

Of course, there’s joy to be experienced in everyday life: in the enthusiastic face-lickings I get from my dog when I arrive home, in the savoring of a good meal or a good conversation or the company of good friends. But one thing I realized listening to this talk, which came after a particularly intense day at the office, was that I rarely experience joy at work.

As I reflected on my work (I’m talking about my office job, not my coaching work), I realized that so much of it is spent focusing on awful things going on in the world that it’s hard to even think of joy in that context. I imagine that’s true for lots of people working as advocates, whose job it is to focus on some problem in the world and try to fix it. But that itself creates a problem.

Joy is essential. It’s what motivates us, and allows us to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Without joy, can we really bring our full selves to anything we do, and can we really do a good job? I don’t think so. But most importantly, without joy, work will leave us feeling pretty miserable.

How do you cultivate joy at work when your job involves things that are inherently a bummer? That may be some big social justice issue or a problem in your neighborhood or your company or with a product. Whatever it is, the potential for joy may not be apparent.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When I work with coaching clients, there may be parts that are difficult, but I find joy in the interaction itself, and in the feeling that I’m helping somebody, even if just by listening and helping them reflect on what’s on their mind and what might be getting in their way. When I work as a legal advocate, though, there isn’t that immediate connection with another person, or that satisfaction at the end of a session. Instead, it’s a long, endless slog toward improving a long-term situation that really sucks. You may never see the outcome, and anyway, the outcome probably won’t be what you’re hoping for. Where’s the joy in that?

Still, I see a lot of value in people advocating collectively for justice or other kinds of social and political change. It’s important work that in the long run, can make a difference. But can it be joyful?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your work meaningful, setting your own goals and acknowledging your successes. But I’m talking here about the daily experience of a job, which is a little different. As an advocate, you may know you’re part of an important effort to, say, stop global warming, but that may not make lobbying a Republican Congress led by climate change-deniers to pass laws reducing carbon emissions any more joyful.

So I’ve decided to embark on an experiment. I’m going to dedicate myself to bringing joy into my work every day. It may be in making a point to have one really good conversation with a colleague in the office, or in writing an advocacy piece that I really put my heart into. It could just involve going out of my way to acknowledge the great work done by one of my colleagues – a kind of “sympathetic joy” as Buddhists would call it . (“Sympathetic joy” is taking pleasure in other people’s happiness or success.) If none of those are possibilities, maybe it’s just taking time out of the day to quietly savor a good lunch or cup of coffee or listen to some really good music. Whatever it is, it has to be something that I actually stop and notice as joyful in some way, whether the process itself or the outcome.

Consider trying this with me. Because no matter what our work may be, if we can’t find one thing a day in it to truly enjoy in it, then in the long run, we’re not going to be doing anyone very much good.

What if Competence is Just a Mindset?

mindset-for-achieving-goalThere are a lot of reasons I love this recent story by Bruce Grierson — What if Age is Nothing But a Mindset? — that ran in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.  If you missed it, it’s worth a read, if only for how it reinforces the power of our minds over our bodies and our perspectives on our lives and possibilities.

But there’s also this mention in there of a previous study by the psychologist Ellen Langer, the subject of the piece, that really struck me. Here’s Grierson’s description:

Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

I find this fascinating, not just for what it says about how we treat the elderly, but also for the implications in the workplace.  I hear repeatedly from clients — and have seen firsthand — how employers undervalue their employees, fail to recognize their talents and skills, and therefore fail to give them adequate responsibilities and work that challenges them.  The result is not only employers who waste time and money hiring outsiders to do the job their own employees can already do, but the rapid demoralization and incapacitation of the employees themselves.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze talk about this in their book, Walk Out, Walk On.  I’ve quoted parts of this before, but I think it’s worth revisiting in light of the Langer study.  Wheatley and Frieze write that rigid hierarchies and “command-and-control” leadership — “the most common form of leadership worldwide” — actually “smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming…. When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.”

“This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth,” they write. And it’s why people stuck in rigid hierarchies “can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.”

“Power of this kind,” they continue, “has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness.  People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice.  They must take control if anything is going to get done.”

I’ve seen this happen repeatedly in organizations. Leaders get so caught up in their top-down command models that they end up creating zombie employees who will do just enough to get by but not more, because they’re “not authorized” or that’s “above their pay grade.” And they come to believe that they’re not capable of more, either.

Being treated as incompetent can also leave employees seething. But if you find yourself in this situation, the key is to channel that energy into something productive rather than letting it eat you up inside and fuel that destructive cycle.  Even if for now you have to follow the rules at the organization you work for, keep reminding yourself what you know you’re capable of, because that will eventually help you leave the organization, act outside of it or change it.  To remember your own talents and abilities, try reflecting on a time when you were in a position to act on them and what you were able to accomplish (recall a “peak experience” when you felt empowered, for example), and find supportive people around you (such as a friend, family member or coach) who can remind you of those times and of your strengths.

Ultimately, as Langer tells Grierson, it all comes down to being aware of what’s going on around you, and not giving in to the labels, judgments or expectations someone else may have slapped on you or on a situation that have little to do with reality.

“If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them,” Langer says, “they would fulfill their potential and improve their health.”

Grierson, quoting Langer, sums it up:  “When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual’ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

Start Where You Are

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The view from my roof at sunset.

I’ve been trying to get outside more.  I love the outdoors, but the noise and congestion of New York City can make being out on the street pretty unpleasant, so lately I’ve been escaping to the roof.  I’m lucky to have access to a rooftop, and I’ve discovered that sunset yoga up there can be pretty amazing — and free.

The problem is that getting to the roof requires climbing up a ladder that’s in a really disgusting old utility closet.  The closet was disgusting when I moved into this place 17 years ago, filled with corroding old paint and stain cans, various kinds of cements and glues and solvents and other toxic substances that inevitably leak and spill and are really hard to safely (and legally) dispose of.  So somehow, I’ve never cleaned it out.  But now that I’m climbing that ladder to get to the roof more often, the nastiness of the space has really struck me.

I’ve also been reading Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s book, Walk Out, Walk On, which I’ve written about here.  One of the most striking stories in the book is of a group of people in Brazil who took an abandoned apple warehouse filled with sludge — “layers of dirt, asbestos, syringes and excrement” — and turned it into a thriving community center. Organized by a group of Brazilians who started the “School of Warriors without Weapons,” the community of Paqueta, realizing that no one else was going to come clean up that old warehouse for them, decided to take on the task themselves.  Working just 15 minutes a day each, volunteers who’d created a vision for what they wanted the place to be cleaned out the 11,195-square-foot warehouse and transformed it into something their community really needed:  a healthy public space.

It’s an amazing story that inspires me in all sorts of ways, especially as I think about how coaching skills could help advocacy and community organizations. But what it inspired me to do the other morning was to clean out my closet.

After descending the ladder, I was about to just close the door once again on the dirt and muck and leave that project for another day. Maybe I was influenced by that post-yoga feeling of well-being, but it suddenly struck me that no one else was going to come and clean that closet up for me.  And that actually, doing just a little at a time wouldn’t be all that difficult.  Sure it’s kind of gross, but I can wear rubber gloves.  It’s really not that big a deal.

So I pulled out the gloves and some sponges and paint scrapers and I cleaned the damn thing up.  And you know what?  It wasn’t that hard.  I haven’t gotten rid of all the old containers in there yet, but it only took me about an hour to clean up the layers of grime that had built up on the shelves and the molding, and the chunks of debris scattered on the closet floor.  And man, did I feel better afterwards.

We’ve all had that experience:  some task looms before you that you don’t want to tackle because it seems really impossible and unpleasant and like it will take forever.  But imagine how nice it will be when it’s done;  then just start where you are.  Eventually, you’ll get there.

“Start Where You Are” is also the name of a Pema Chodron book I like that makes a really helpful point.  You can’t get to the good stuff without going through some bad stuff too.  Pema puts it more eloquently:

Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.

I’m not equating cleaning out my closet with life’s most painful moments.  But the point applies even to the simply unpleasant and annoying tasks we try to avoid:  if everything were easy and good and clean and beautiful all the time, we wouldn’t really see and appreciate it. Nor would we appreciate how difficult life can be for others, whose lives may be dominated by many more annoying, difficult or even truly wretched circumstances. Even in taking on grubby little chores, we can find compassion for others, and greater possibilities for ourselves.

It’s Okay To Be Blue

screamblueNow that we’ve passed Labor Day, there’s all sorts of advice out there about how to beat the post-vacation blues. Tips range from immediately unpacking your suitcases to going for a run to taking stock of your life and your work.  All good ideas.

But in a culture obsessed with the quick fix — things you can do, buy, eat or drink to make you happy — there’s one bit of advice you rarely hear:  let yourself feel lousy.

You’ve left your idyllic vacation spot, returned to a noisy city, a boring or stressful job, and re-immersed yourself in all the day’s bad news. It’s not surprising you don’t feel great.

After a recent week of traveling and being completely checked out, I made a huge effort to appreciate my return to home and work, ease back into my life, etc..  And I still felt crappy for a while. That’s okay. In fact, it can be a good thing to let yourself actually experience your emotions rather than pushing them away.  One surprising thing I’ve learned through coaching is that really sitting with my emotions for a while allows them to slowly transform — and can lead to some pretty amazing insights.

Left alone, emotions themselves last only about 90 seconds to 2 minutes.   It’s the story we tell ourselves about them – that my life sucks, my job sucks, I’m stuck in this place I hate, etc. – that tends to drag out that emotion, and cause us to have it over and over again and feel stuck.  Pema Chodron talks about this beautifully in her books, and suggests people “lean in” to the emotion rather than run from it. (This is a very different concept of leaning in from Sheryl Sandberg‘s.)

When I was feeling particularly lousy one evening, I called up my copy of Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses. A professor of Medicine at University of Massachuseetts medical school and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Zinn talks about the healing power of just focusing on the present and experiencing your emotions, without the overlay of thoughts.

As Zinn explains:

Enthralled once again, even when in great pain, with the story of me that I am busy creating, unwittingly, merely out of habit, I have an opportunity, countless opportunities, to see its unfolding and to cease and desist from feeding it, to issue a restraining order if necessary, to turn the key which has been sitting in the lock all along, to step out of jail, and therefore meet the world in new and more expansive and appropriate ways by embracing it fully rather than contracting, recoiling, or turning away.

So when you’re hit with that defeated or sad feeling, try just letting it be. Notice it, check in with yourself, with your body, and really feel it. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Drop the story line that’s feeding it, and see what else comes up. Does it begin to shift? What I’ve found particularly amazing about doing this is that by sitting with it, the pain not only goes away, but turns into something else — something new — that moves me forward.