Categorized | Career

Great Work, Greatful Workers

Posted on 20 January 2009

Let’s talk a little bit about attitudes toward work.

It’s an interesting thing. Although most of us spend more time working than in any other activity except sleep, we have few rules with which to approach work. We get up, take the subway or the Bentley to work, sit at our desks and file or read or write or respond to complaints, and then our day is half done. We go to lunch and come back and feel incredibly tired, and slog on until it’s quitting time. But of all the principles that might guide us through the day, we rely on just one: Get through it and go home.

Allow me to offer a few humble and simple thoughts to order your day and improve your attitude. In the coming months, I expect to offer a few more.

Unless you are very young and very new to the labor force, you have probably had a really horrible, clearly sick boss.

Working With Gratitude
When my sainted father was an undergraduate at Williams College, a super liberal arts school in the magnificent Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, he largely supported himself. His main job was as a dishwasher in the Sigma Chi fraternity. That fraternity, like all of the other fraternities at Williams in those days, did not take Jewish boys like my Dad. I asked him toward the end of his days if he felt angry with Sigma Chi for that exclusion. “No,” he said. “I felt grateful that, in the depths of the Great Depression, I had a job and a place where I could earn my way through a great college.”

There is a lot to be said for that approach. Most of us have pretty good jobs. We are not working 20 hours a day in a hot, humid field, getting cut and scratched by thorns and bitten by horrible insects. We are not digging coal in dusty, dangerous mines. We are not clearing a minefield. By and large, our work today is extremely easy by historical standards.

Even if our jobs are tedious and repetitive, as jobs tend to be, we are far, far better off than generations past. We work in air-conditioned buildings, with bathrooms nearby, and our hours are short. We work longer days only to satisfy our ambition.

Americans should be grateful to have work today, when our labors have become uniquely un-burdensome. Most people in the world still do painful, backbreaking work for very little pay. Such gratitude should not make us blind to social and economic inequities, but inform our attitude and get us through our days with a bit more ease.

The Immutable Nature of Human Craziness
Unless you are very young and very new to the labor force, you have probably had a really horrible, clearly sick boss. You’ve probably had more than one bad boss, in fact–and more than your share of unpleasant colleagues. You may hang around and stick with the job, hoping those people will change.

They won’t.

You should obviously start each day with gratitude that you are not at work draining a swamp. But your boss will not wake up one morning and decide to be nice. The homeless panhandlers that talk loudly to themselves on the street are in the same shape decade after decade. They usually do not snap out of it–even with treatment and medicine–and become board members of GM.

Hard-hearted people may change a bit at the margins, but they rarely turn into nice, kind people. We have sympathy for them; they are our fellow humans and we care about them. But we do not want to spend a lot of time with them unless we are mental health professionals.

If that sort of person is torturing you day by day, go elsewhere. Nutty bosses and mean co-workers can stay there; you should leave for a place where sweet-natured people roam the halls.

You Need Your Rest
If you get to work at nine and stay until six, that is a darned long time to focus and concentrate. You need to rest during the day. When I worked at the White House for Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford, I was expected to work until midnight every day. I immediately asked for a couch; that way, I could take a break from Watergate defense speeches and stretch out for an hour after lunch and another hour around 7 p.m.

I slept soundly. My productivity astounded even my boss, Dave Gergen. The key was rest. If you can possibly get a couch in your office, get one and sleep part of the day. If not, maybe a futon will do. But find a place where you can lie down horizontally and rest. Who cares if your co-workers laugh? If you get unconscious for even ten minutes, you will wake up like a new person. (Note: Be sure to gargle afterwards and keep your breath minty fresh.)

I once spent a day working on The Mask with Jim Carrey. While the rest of us ate lunch, he had a light snack and then slept on the floor. He awakened to turn in a fabulous performance. There is a lesson here: Rest, even at work, is vital. Work a longer day if you must to make up for your nap, but do nap.

Do Not Create Negative Utility
You and the other 150 million people in the workforce are supposed to add more value to your employer than you cost. You were hired to make money for your employer, or if you are in the non-profit sector, to do work that is worth what you are paid.

But too many workers create what I call negative utility. Not only do they not add value commensurate with their pay, they actually subtract utility from their employers. They disturb their fellow employees. They complain and lower morale. They screw up the records and make the supervisor reorganize them. They tie up the phones talking to their pals. They waste their boss’s highly paid time with silly whining. The office or shop or foundation would run so much better without them.

These people think of the office as their personal therapy group. It’s not. Creators of negative utility will not be on the job for long. If you are one of these people, and if you want to keep a steady paycheck coming in, shut up and get to work.

Ben Stein is a lawyer and economist by training. He is also the host and writer of Win Ben Stein’s Money and Turn Ben Stein On, both on the Comedy Central network.

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