Monthly Archives: July 2015

Shovel Work is Good for the Soul

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” –MLK

Many years ago, I learned the irrigation system ropes (fancy underground, automatic, glorified lawn sprinklers) from a crusty old urban cowboy who was a regular at the honky tonk my band played at. One night I laughingly told him “Lee, you old fool-you party too much!” (truth) So he challenged me to keep up with him on the job, starting at the sunrise the next morning (it already WAS morning!) Of course I called his dare. Even though my “work” was music, I was young and in my physical prime. A whole lot younger than Lee, and I didn’t party like he did.

I had unknowingly signed on to dig by hand in the scorching mid-summer sun to install systems into the hard red Oklahoma clay…“trencher costs too damn much when you got a good back. Now we got two, right boy?” But digging was the wrong word. We’d soak where we needed the trench, let it sit a few minutes and attack the clay with a pick ax. Then we’d soak and pick again. And again. Hard chain gang labor. But it was just Lee. And now me. A chain gang of two, but now he was the guard.

After the first day my tongue was dragging a trench of its own. Lee encouraged me the best he could, and I let out a pained laugh when he said “you know son…shovel work’s good for the soul. You can dump the garbage out of your head, and at the same time you’re sweating the poison out of your body.”

We hit it off and I stuck with Lee, learning his trade the hard way. I also learned “never, ever wash your work coffee cup. Ruins the flavor”. His cup looked it, and pretty soon mine did too. Lee and I parted ways and over the years I came to appreciate the wisdom of shovel-with-soul and what it really meant. Thank you Lee—rest in peace. You were a worthy mentor.

Fast-forward, studying a 1990 Gallup survey that asked “How important to you is the belief that your life is meaningful or has a purpose?” 83% said “very important,” and 15% said “fairly important.” Plenty of research holds clues as to why. Why is it important? Because purpose is one of the primary drivers behind higher engagement and markedly improved bottom line performance. And purpose helps reduce stress, and helps people live longer, healthier, happier lives. Wildly important stuff to all concerned.

Whether or not we are aware of it, we all crave having meaning in our lives. It’s a part of the human psyche. Some of us actively search for meaning, some don’t know what we’re missing. If the latter, chances are we feel like something big is missing, but we don’t know why. We do know we don’t feel “right”.

Last summer I had several purpose-based conversations with a friend of mine who was CEO of our community’s hospital. Steve’s concern: how do you fully engage the night shift janitors, and the people who do graveyard in the basement of the hospital doing laundry? How can you help them understand their work has meaning? Steve’s questions prompted me to dig much deeper, and I’m still digging (Patience, Steve). Interestingly, research has shown that people in health care have a surprisingly low connection to a greater purpose.

Yale School of Management’s Amy Wrzesniewski researches how people make meaning of their work in difficult contexts. She professes the power of “…a belief that work contributes to the greater good and makes the world a better place”. She differentiates between job, career and calling:
Job: I get good enough pay and benefits to support my family, that’s why I’m here;
Career: I’m in the game to advance, and I’ll do what I need to if it helps get me there;
Calling: my work contributes to the greater good, and I love what I do.

From Gallup’s “12”: “If a job were just a job, it really wouldn’t matter where someone worked. A good paycheck, decent benefits, reasonable hours, and comfortable working conditions would be enough. The job would serve its function of putting food on the table and money in the kids’ college accounts. But a uniquely human twist occurs after the basic needs are fulfilled. The employee searches for meaning in her vocation. For reasons that transcend the physical needs fulfilled by earning a living, she looks for her contribution to a higher purpose. Something within her looks for something in which to believe.”

Mike Rowe’s original claim to blue-collar fame was Dirty Jobs followed by Somebody’s Gotta Do It.  Both enjoy a large following. Rowe takes on the nastiest jobs and makes them interesting, and he is an advocate of bringing a greater sense of pride into the world of blue collar, typically thankless work. He glorifies the grungy side of work.

The Kicker, From Humans of New York …
…which has got to be the most uplifting site around. HONY has over 13m “Likes” and 10m Followers…positivity does pay! The header photo featured the worker proclaiming “This is the cleanest bathroom in New York City!” The Comments thread, as always,  holds some priceless nuggets. One in particular grabbed me (thank you, Sandra Sasvári!):

“I’ve been a hotel maid for the past 10 years and you wouldn’t believe how starved we cleaners of all kinds are for appreciation. Tip us when you can, but if you can’t, PLEASE at least always let us know you appreciate our service. We work so hard but we usually only get feedback when it’s of the negative kind and everyone takes what we do for granted.
So please…be kind to us. Just to put things into perspective: reception and kitchen staff usually get a lot of praise, but the maids really don’t. You kind of get used to it, but it’s still not very nice. But then this one time, a guest brought me a plain dark chocolate bar to show his appreciation “because you guys work so hard”.
I cried. Over a chocolate bar. Okay? So please…don’t take us for granted. Say something. It means so much more than you could ever imagine.”

Kindness, simple acknowledgement of appreciation with a sincere “thank you” costs even less than a candy bar. But it’s absolutely priceless to the receiver. It gives their Calling a louder voice.


So we know something bigger drives people beyond a paycheck, whether or not they know it or will openly admit it. People want to take pride in their work, no matter how seemingly unimportant or menial the task. Leaders need to find, understand and leverage what it is that makes each person feel good about doing a good job, whatever kind of work their job involves.

What’s at stake when people hear—or don’t hear—their Calling is sustainable success for organizations and a healthier, happier life for the person.

The Ripple Effect-One Pond, One Pebble

Maybe it’s the Curse of the Aquarian generation: I’ve always been cause-driven, always trying to somehow make a huge difference in the world. A child of the universe, modern-day Don Quixote. A good deal of frustration at not making the impact I wanted and needed to.

I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.
So I’ll leave it up to you.
(Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, 1970)

Twenty years ago I was fortunate enough to take part in a personal vision and values identification workshop. A lot of soul-searching left me with this: “make an impact, leave a legacy”. But I needed an adjustment for this holdover-from-the-1970’s Vision to survive. I needed a shift in strategy.

I’m a firm believer in individuals’ ability to impact the greater good, even through small actions and by impacting seemingly insignificant numbers. It’s similar to the Butterfly Effect and “pay it forward”. And it holds true for not just social media (certainly greater reach) but for daily actions and person-to-person interactions.

No one can pick up boulders and heave them into the ocean, but I can drop one little pebble into the small pond in front of me. The ripples travel outward, and I may not even be aware of those who feel the ripple. Some of those others may be influenced to drop their own little pebbles, creating ripples in their own little ponds. And on it goes.

Brings to mind an old parable, many versions of this have been around.

An old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir.”

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “It made a difference to that one!”

The privilege of influencing others is not bestowed like a position or title; it must be earned. It’s starts with me, and it requires the highest level of integrity.