Feb 19, 2014

Restoring Wonder in the Workplace

by Matt Appling

Have the words “wonder” and “workplace” ever been used in the same sentence?

“Wonder” is that sense of awe that a particularly starry night induces. It’s the feeling of standing on holy ground. It’s the sense of discovery that a child feels as they learn something profound.

And “workplace,” well…

The workplace is the office, the cubicle, the gray space between eight o’clock and five o’clock. It’s purgatory. It’s the holding cell, shielding us from sunlight and happiness. It is meetings that squash creativity.

Studies show that the average tenure at any given job is just three to five years. Most people are not especially happy with their jobs. So it’s little wonder that the word “wonder” is usually used in the context of, “I wonder if anyone will notice if I sneak out early today.”

So, what is a person to do, someone for whom retirement is not on the horizon, but still has thirty or more years of punching the clock?

It’s time to take charge of our careers, to not just restore some order or organization, but wonder in the workplace.

The Dream Jobs Are Not Ready-Made

Just about anyone on the street has an idea of her dream job.

The problem is that “dream jobs” just aren’t being offered by most companies. They offer just plain old “jobs.”

But plain old jobs provide plenty of opportunities to be turned into dream jobs. Entrepreneurship is not just for the bold, the brave, the self-employed. Many people decide to quit their unsatisfactory jobs. What if those jobs were turned into dream jobs?

When I was hired, I found my job description rather unsatisfactory. What I mean is that my job, as written, was not the way I wanted to do the job. I wanted to do much more than what was being asked of me. So I did those things. I didn’t ask anyone. I just did them. And after some time, I rewrote my own job description, editing out the undesirable parts and replacing them with job duties I had made up myself. In doing so, I not only created my own dream job, but made myself much more indispensable to the company.

Managers and Leaders Are Not the Same

The alternative to creating your own dream job, of course, is to just do your assigned job…and complain about it.

If you stick around any workplace long enough, you’ll realize this is a pretty popular choice.

Working around people who complain or do not get along just is not pleasant. It is not productive. And it doesn’t produce wonder. Cynicism is the antithesis of wonder. Anyone who has been in a toxic work environment knows how it feels.

I am in charge of no one except myself. I cannot tell people to change. I cannot control attitudes. I cannot single-handedly increase morale.

But I can do something to change the culture of my workplace, bit by bit.

Just like entrepreneurship is not just for the self-employed, leadership is not just for those who are put in charge of others. Just because you are not the boss does not mean you cannot be a leader. Everyone, every moment of the workday has choices to make about what kind of workplace culture will be created and reinforced.

Will we engage in the water cooler gossip? Will we slander the boss and malign the company every chance we get? Or will we be the person who establishes a sense of wonder and purpose in work, the person our coworkers look to for inspiration and encouragement? Just simply choosing to not complain, to encourage coworkers will establish anyone as a leader with more influence than anyone with “Manager” on his nametag.

Making Work Holy Again

When we are frustrated or bored or disillusioned at work, we so easily forget that the work of our hands is holy. It is holy whether we are digging ditches, collecting trash, sitting at a cubicle, balancing the books, stitching wounds, or grading essays. That is, our work is holy if it is done with a holy attitude.

Noticing the people who do jobs I would never want has helped shape my work profoundly. I am always very nice to the person serving the food at my favorite Mexican restaurant (even if she is having a bad day and is not particularly nice), because I would never want to serve food. I try not to grumble at the guys blocking up the roads on the way to work because I would never want to stand in the hot sun pouring asphalt.

Every day, I go to work and am thankful that I get to do what I do, that there are people who can do all of the things I cannot.

Yes, some days I feel that the work is too difficult, and I am not particularly noticed for my efforts. And some days I wonder if I am making a difference at all. But then I see that my tiny little job is somehow connected to something bigger. My job is not just about me. I am not a tiny star floating by myself in the reaches of space. Instead, the little bit of energy and light I generate is part of a great galaxy.

And at that, I do feel a sense of wonder at it all.

Matt Appling is a teacher, pastor and author of Life After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room. Connect with Matt, read his book or his blog at MattAppling.com.

Image by Angus Kirk. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Creating Beauty at Work

This article is part of The High Calling series, Creating Beauty at Work. While brightly painted walls or sleek, modern furniture might lighten our mood and inspire creativity, investing in the people we work with, helping them to bring the best of who they are and caring about them even when they can’t, is at the heart of a beautiful workplace. Are you or someone you know feeling a little lackluster about your work environment? Before you buy a new framed print for the wall, try complimenting your cubicle mate or saying thank you to the janitor. Or start a conversation with a coworker by emailing or sharing one of the articles in our series.

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