I’m a worker.
After ending my contract in the coveted year-round summer camp field (think 500 acres and housing included), I moved to Nashville with my wife and was looking forward to living off savings and becoming a writer.
This plan lasted about two weeks. Looking back, two reasons jump out immediately.
One, I like to work. If I wasn’t married, I’d be a workaholic. I like enjoy being in action, creating, and being around people. Two weeks around the house with nothing to contribute to drove me nuts much quicker than I thought. Men need something to be a part of, a bigger picture for us to be a part of, and I was feeling it big time.
Two, I like being around people, and have always been in very people-centric roles in my previous work with camps, sports teams, and community centers. At Camp Rockmont, the experience of being around a daily buzz of 400 campers and 100 staff cultivates the necessity of creating order out of chaos, and I thrived in it.
Camp ruined me because it was so meaningful.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, whether at school, church, non-profits, community center, you name it. One of the great gifts the next generation of change-makers is going to be remembered for is the willingness and stubborness to have their work matter.
So, when a few weeks passed in Nashville and I had been dutifully typing away on the blog, the old itch to be around people doing meaningful work wanted to be scratched.
I applied to work at companies I felt were doing meaningful, fun work. Who were changing the way businesses communicated with people, were radically transparent, and empowered others. I signed up to be a substitute teacher, but the guy with zero teaching experience usually isn’t first on the call list.
Plus, I realized how much I despised seeing money leave my bank account without having any money coming in.
Lowering my full time expectations, I applied to jobs I thought would be interesting for a time, e.g. coffeeshops, breweries, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and REI.
What followed was a whole lotta thanks, but no thanks.
Granted, I hadn’t applied to jobs I didn’t find meaningful and interesting, but that was against what I felt was purpose, what made me special. I didn’t do just anything, I did work that mattered.
Then Rick called. He said he knew a guy that could get me a job. Soon after, I was talking to Carl, and he was offering me a job over the phone. Part-time, good pay, and flexible hours. In fact, the job was everything I was looking for at the time, except for one aspect.
The job was at a UPS store; you know the ones, with the pack-and-ship guarantee? No, I didn’t even get to wear the short brown shorts, ride in the truck, and feel the wind against my… well anyway, it was just a job at a retail store without much intrinsic meaning besides paying the bills.
I took the job.
Working was (and is) difficult at times, because meaning and purpose doesn’t jump out at you the same way you see a young man grapple with homesickness, or the light bulb go off for someone at an event, or the athlete you coach running their best time.
I had to go looking for it.
The bible says “seek and you will find” and I’ve found that to be true in my pursuit of meaningful work. When we are active participants in creating the environment and culture we want to see at a workplace, meaning presents itself. If you think about the meaning behind your work, you can find it.
The biggest purpose I found at UPS was staring me right in the face, and it was in the things people brought in to have me safely pack and ship them to the next destination. I’ve shipped birthday gifts, baby announcements, engagement rings, art from dying grandparents, first-edition books, pictures of presidents, and heirloom christmas decorations. The person hands them to me and entrusts that I will do my part to keep this little piece of their story alive and intact. This is the primary meaning I found behind the work, just waiting on me to realize it.
Past the primaries, I now believe we can find meaning and purpose in any role we play in life. My friend Eric works at a Wendy’s, and he says he finds purpose in the opportunity to feed people and put a smile on their face.
We create or ignore meaning every day.
Each of us has the opportunity to do this every day, to smile at the person across from us and ask how their day is going. Maybe you’re providing the food for a first date, or coffee for a big meeting, or sending rubber ducks to parents for a birth announcement. Trust me, it’s there.
The people you work with can provide incredible meaning and opportunity to encourage and support others. Listening to them, pitching in with cleaning, sharing your dessert, or helping with something with no expectation of return. When we can impact the lives of those around us, they in turn feel empowered to do the same for others.
The space you work in provides a tremendous opportunity for impact. I’m not the world’s cleanest person (ask my wife), but people feel more at ease in a clean environment, especially when working and shopping. Think about from a customer perspective; do you feel better or worse about the places you shop in that are drab and dirty?
Space that is clean and cared for reflects the mindset that if the employees care about the dust and trash, they care about you too. It may seem a little silly writing it out, but I think you’ll agree it’s true. Be the person who helps set that space for others. It gives them room to concentrate on what they care about, which shouldn’t be the cleanliness of the room.
Your community vs. the World
Too often I get caught up in wanting to change the world, and I don’t even try to change the place I’m in now, or the mindset I have. I realize the more I try to be a positive catalyst for change in my work, family, and community, more good seems to come from that. I think it’s because for all the ways we’ve become inter-connected around the world, we’re still meant to have meaningful work and relationships with people are around us.
I know I’m not going to be at the UPS store forever. But for the time I’m here, I want to make a difference. I want to get each box and envelope where it’s supposed to go, and stay intact. To make people smile, relax, and feel at ease. To set the space where they can do all of those things, even in just a few minutes.
That’s meaning enough for me.
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