Over the last five months, you may have wondered how “essential” your work is to the world at this tough time. While I went back and forth questioning my own value to others, I thought back on a another job I once held that challenged whether what I did really mattered.
In the summer after my junior year of high school, I got a job through a friend’s dad at the Revlon factory as a “picker.”
My job was to grab an order sheet and a box and then search throughout the warehouse to “pick” each item from the shelves until the box was filled with the complete order.
A little less glamorous than my dreams of someday traveling the world, filling boxes inside that dimly lit warehouse of lipstick and mascara was the first time I was introduced to the tedium (and sore feet!) that came with repetitive work. It was also the first time I ever had to actually “punch a clock” (I actually had a card with my name on it and punched when I entered and left the warehouse at the end of my shift.)
During those two and a half months, I met some interesting characters. Since I was so young compared to all the other workers, many of them felt compelled to share lot of lessons of the world. You might think I learned about leadership from the manager who was always walking the floor making sure we were doing our jobs. Maybe you thought I was inspired for my future career as a physical therapist by the person who taught us how to ergonomically lift and carry heavy boxes. You could even think I was inspired by the Revlon family to see from the bottom up how to build a global empire. But I actually learned the biggest lesson from a guy on the lowest rung of the company.
And strangely enough, this lesson was not about the exchange of money for time or how to build and brand an iconic company. The lesson taught me about myself.
At lunch one day, this charismatic guy commented on how he admired how hard I was working and said he would “show me the ropes” how to do the job “right.” After our daily lunch together talking either sports or life, we grabbed our order sheets and trekked into the middle of the labyrinthian warehouse. As we stood in front of multileveled rows filled with endless products, he stopped and delivered the lesson.
To my surprise, instead of talking, this guy climbed up onto the second level of palettes, moved some boxes out of the way, got behind them and went to sleep! He proudly demonstrated how well he could hide behind the boxes and informed me how he would only come out for lunch and then “hide and sleep” again until he punched out at the end of the day (always a few minutes over too!) Then he told me if I was “smart,” I would go find a good spot and do the same.
Since he became aware that no one ever monitored how many orders anyone was filling, this guy figured out as long as they didn’t see you not working, you could get paid to do nothing. He actually purposefully expended effort to figure out how not to expend effort.
He used creative thinking to shut off his brain instead of use it! What a waste, right?
But looking back, his lesson wasn’t a waste for me. That was the day I realized I never worked hard because someone was watching: I always worked hard because something deep inside of me always drove me to do my best.
I didn’t get good grades because my parents told me to. I got them because I demanded them of myself.
I didn’t work out hard because a coach made me do it. I trained because I wanted to see what I was capable of.
I didn’t read books because my teachers made me. I read because I was curious about what I didn’t yet know.
I didn’t need a motivating boss to make me do it right. I did things right because I couldn’t stand to do them wrong.
Rooney Rule: Don’t go “halfway” in anything you do. Your “whole heart” always beats your “half ass.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying coaches, parents, teachers, and bosses aren’t important. They are essential and necessary to help you discover who you are and help you create some external goals. I am just trying to remind you that none of those goals will get accomplished until you add your own internal drive.
So maybe that’s the biggest question I can ask you: What drives you?
That day I learned I am a “worker” not a “shirker.” And after almost a half century on this rock, hard work hasn’t let me down yet. I may not be the smartest or the fastest, but my consistent hard work over time has always led to accomplishment.
Each day you have a choice: You Can Work or You Can Shirk.
During the quarantine months, have you had your foot on the gas or have you pushed the emergency brake?
Instead of finding a hiding spot that day in the factory, I decided to see how many orders I could fill each day if I really did my best. Not only did it keep me focused, but when I did collect my paycheck I was proud I had earned it.
Being essential is not about the job you have. It is about the lessons you learn, knowledge that you gave your best and doing your best to use your effort to serve others.
It is not if you have the “best” job. If you approach and carry out each job and each task like it is the best one in the world, someday it will be. You can’t climb a ladder if you are unwilling to take any steps. And the goal of climbing is to see the view of what’s next, not to go to sleep.
Before quarantine, so many people would fantasize and tell me they wished they could sit at home while other people did the work. This experience has hopefully taught them and you that a life without work was the wrong dream come true.
Work delivers value.
Work challenges you to be a better version of yourself.
Work can serve others.
Work gives you direction.
Work offers a sense of pride.
The next big question I have for you? How does your work do the 5 things above for you?
I have said this quarantine experience has been a great revealer. It has revealed your fears and doubts, but it has also revealed your character and work ethic. And most of all it has revealed the fact that all of those come from within.
Like me, it may be easy to discount your value or feel less “essential.” If you have had any of those feelings, here is a classic poem used by Benjamin Franklin in his famous Poor Richard’s Almanac:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all from the want of a horseshoe nail.
Just a reminder, no matter what it is you are doing now. It is essential. You just have to understand your reason why. At Revlon, I found the purpose in my work: I made people feel better about themselves. Some person somewhere would receive the package I would pick and pack. Those products could help their esteem and confidence. How could I not rush to get the order and the job done right?
So, now the final big question: What is the purpose of your work?
Now with us in our homes, there are less people watching over you than ever. I know it can seem more difficult than ever to be productive, but once you know what drives you and the purpose behind your effort, I promise it will be easier. And once you have the answers, the only decision is to either do the work or shirk.
I hope these questions inspired you to shift your focus from what’s going on outside to what is happening within.
Yours in Strength,
P.S. Here is a final tip from Ben Franklin, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” If you want to do your job better as a coach, teacher, boss, or parent to others, I think I wrote something worth reading so you can do a job worth writing about!
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