We had a blizzard last week – 20 inches of it. I still went into work. The train, despite running a touch slower, was no different than normal. What I found interesting though, was a conversation with some of the other people who came in.
We had been advised to take the day off, but were not given paid time. It was up to us to take a personal day. That wasn’t completely clear at the time though. A few coworkers of mine, who also took the ‘L’, were worried that they were wasting their time by coming in. They didn’t want to be there if they didn’t have to.
I understand that. It wouldn’t be the fairest thing if they came in, worked and got paid, but the people who didn’t come in also got paid. But behind the sentiment was something that made me think. The assumption was that the exchange has to be even. We expect an equal return for our work.
Again, I understand it. That’s part of why we work in the first place. But what if that’s the wrong reason? What if the reason we work is to make a difference in the world? What if the reason we work is to make people’s lives better? What if getting paid was simply a response to our own generosity?
I’m not advocating working for free and going bankrupt. The money is still important. I’m suggesting that if we were to place the energy we spend worrying about fairness into being generous, we would find that the fairness doesn’t really matter.
The idea of a job being a platform for making a difference is relatively new to me – at least in terms of working in an engineering firm – and I’ve got a lot to figure out still. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
It’s a choice. Like almost everything in life, how we approach our work is up to us. I have to decide everyday if I’m going to make a difference or if I’m just going to do what I’m supposed to do.
To be generous you can’t expect anything in return. You may get rewarded for it. But, just as likely, you may not – at least not immediately. That’s OK.
Generosity builds upon itself. One act will lead to another. Furthermore, your generosity inspires the generosity in others. Both Frances and Josephine remarked last week on how one act of delight created a ripple effect, which spread to more people than the original act did by itself.
Share what you have. It may have more impact than you think. On the last project I was working on, we had to do a lot of manual computer work. I despise such work nearly as much as I despise mosquitoes – OK, maybe not that much. Using my knowledge of scripts, I created a program that did much of that work automatically. It saved me a lot of time.
But then I shared it. A simple program that I spent 40 hours writing for myself ended up saving over 1000 man-hours for the group. The effect was far beyond anything I could have imagined. Moreover, others were appreciative for not having to do the manual work themselves.
Most of the time, it’s all about the little things. The humble smile can brighten someone’s day. Exceeding expectations, even in a small way, brings delight to supervisors and customers. Over time, such acts add up.
It helps to learn from other people. If you work in a big company, or a small organization for that matter, go check out a website made by a friend of mine, Rex Williams. His site, grootship, is full of all kinds of good ideas for how to use your work as a platform to make a difference.
Work is an opportunity to improve the lives of others. Even if you don’t work for a charity or as a social worker, your work helps people. For example, if you are a pillow maker, life is better because of what you do. Simple as they may be, pillows make a difference. Another example is my work. While my engineering doesn’t directly touch people’s lives, the power plants I design provide electricity so people can see each other after sunset, connect with people around the world, and read this website.
Work is a big part of our lives. Why should it be disconnected from our humanity?
What about you? How do you bring humanity into your work? What ways do you use it to make a difference in the lives of others?
We didn’t get that much snow. I made this photo in Chicago, Illinois – my current home.