Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Finding Joy at Work

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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The TV shows I watched as a boy frequently offered up scenes of a father, dressed in suit and tie, coming home from work, carrying an expensive briefcase, and whistling a happy tune. But that would be the end of any work references. Once the briefcase was stowed, no sitcom writer dared bring down the mood with sordid details about the nature of work itself. Consequently, the message of the 50s was as vague as it was odd. Work was a place that required actions of mysterious origins—ones that left employees whistling tunes at the end of the day.

My own father painted a very different picture of the workplace. We watched our TV far from the white-picketed environs of the sitcom folk. The people in our neighborhood wore thick aprons and gloves at work in an effort to keep the gunk, slime, and glue off their clothes. You didn’t see my dad or anyone else from 25th Street whistling as they came home from work. The woman next door who gutted fish at the local cannery most certainly didn’t skip her way into her doily-adorned living room each evening. After work she went straight to the kitchen where she tried her best to scrub the stench of fish from her hands.

Given the circumstances on our side of the tracks, adults complained endlessly about the backbreaking and mind-numbing nature of their jobs along with the stupidity and pettiness of their bosses. They hated their jobs. It’s what they talked about. It’s what they told jokes about. It’s what they wrote songs about.

With this in mind, imagine my surprise some twenty years later when one day I found myself whistling as I walked out the door—on the way to work, no less. I loved what I did. I wore neither suit nor tie, but somehow I had found a way to extract pleasure from my job. What a shock. I had never dreamed that one day I would like work.

At first, I thought my satisfaction stemmed from the fact that I had a career (i.e., it required neither protective clothing nor a lunch pail) as opposed to a job. I was wrong. I could easily find ways to be unhappy within my white-collar environment just as individuals in the blue-collar world find ways to love what they do. I discovered that it wasn’t the nature of the work itself that determined job satisfaction. It was something else—something far more elusive.

Two decades passed before I met Rich Sheridan, a renowned entrepreneur and organizational philosopher. A few years earlier, Rich started his own software development company with the strong belief that creating software (some of which involved actual cartoon figures and cool sound effects) would be a genuine hoot.

But then Rich learned that customers (no matter how cool the product) often changed their minds in the middle of the development cycle, leading to ugly meetings with lots of finger pointing and much gnashing of teeth. Plus, the code writers who worked with Rich soon became specialists, making it impossible for any of them to leave work early or, heaven forbid, take a vacation. If they did, they’d leave an intolerable vacuum. Employees were now chained to their desks.

For Rich and his team, what had started as a gentle romp down candy cane lane was now a tortuous grind through the valley of unfulfilled expectations. Where had he gone wrong? More specifically, how could he turn his company into a place that left him with a tune on his lips at the end of each day?

Rich discovered the answer. He made an extensive study of joy and then infused his company with it. Best of all, he’s soon to release a book titled Joy Inc. that teaches how to create an intentionally joyful culture. Now, I’m not about to scoop Rich’s book, but I will suggest the following. As I met with Rich and his team in his joyful facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was immediately filled with his vision.

The sitcoms of the 50s had been right. You can love your work. You can whistle as you walk through the door each night. But you have to want it, believe it’s possible, and work for it.

I myself have experienced a bit of a work-related transformation as of late. For years I enjoyed a job that consisted of traveling the world, consulting, and designing training. It was exhausting, but I loved it. Then one day, I had my fill with travel. I was done. After more than twenty years of being a road warrior, I gave up my airline Gold Card to stay closer to home and devote my time to writing. Surely, this would bring me joy. After all, I love writing.

I was wrong. Writing can be lonely. Very lonely. You spend a lot of time staring at a screen that openly mocks you with its ghastly emptiness. Soon, I didn’t care all that much for my job. It involved far too much isolation, mumbling, pacing, and self-ridicule. Unlike my childhood neighbor, I wasn’t gutting fish all day long, but like her, I wasn’t happy at work. So I prepared myself for retirement. I was certainly old enough to retire.

Luckily, I recalled my visit with Mr. Sheridan and his compelling case for joy at work and felt inspired to find ways to infuse my own job with joy. In my case, it involved restructuring my daily tasks and bringing on another writer with whom I could collaborate while occasionally reenacting Three Stooges bits. I now look forward to work. Every single day.

How one goes about finding pleasure in his or her job varies and I don’t want to underestimate how much effort (and risk) it might take to negotiate with your boss for more interesting work, restructure your job, gain a new perspective, or possibly even switch companies altogether. Nor will I go into the various sources of work satisfaction ranging from the thrill of creation to beating a goal to satisfying a customer to enjoying supportive relationships and so forth.

Mr. Sheridan can teach you about creating an entire company filled with joy. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, can alert you to what it takes to be happy in general. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a job satisfaction guru, can teach you the elements required to enjoy any specific task at work. There’s plenty of help out there—once you decide to seek it. My point is far more modest. It’s this. We should expect to find joy at work and we should go out and seek it.

Years of hearing about lousy jobs and reading statistics that suggest over half of all employees don’t like their work can lead one to expect to be unhappy at work. For many of us, it’s our go-in position. We may not think about it much or even talk about it—ever—but the idea that work equals dissatisfaction can be so deeply embedded into our psyches that it keeps us from hoping and asking for more.

But we should hope and ask for more. We spend more time at work than just about anywhere else so it ought to be enjoyable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that in the ideal job employees routinely chase each other around with silly string, but a hoot once in a while or an excited sharing of a story should be common. Laughter should be common. Our default position should be that work—organized correctly—is pleasurable, and if it isn’t we need to make changes. Once this expectation is firmly set in our minds, we’ll start taking steps to find joy rather than develop methods for tolerating our existing miserable conditions.

And from what I’ve personally experienced, joy is worth the search.