Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Opportunity

There are very few jobs in this world that are consistently exciting. Not only that, but there are very few jobs in this world that are consistently fulfilling, where the person doing the job maintains the sense that he is really making a difference in the world, or that she is using her talents and passions to the fullest. To the contrary, most jobs are mostly mundane most of the time, and few people do work that fully engages or fulfills them day after day and year after year. This is an unfortunate aspect of the futility of life in this world.

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But while work may not be exciting and may not be particularly fulfilling, I’ve been struck recently by how much our joy can be improved or eroded by people who work very ordinary jobs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ordinary people working ordinary jobs have an extraordinary number of opportunities to improve or erode our joy.

(At this exact point in writing my article a FedEx driver showed up at the door and, as if to help me make this point, was exceptionally cheery and friendly.)

A few days ago I was crossing from Canada into the US and had to speak with a US Customs and Border Protection officer. He was doing what is probably not a particularly exciting or fulfilling job—sitting in a kiosk and screening Canadians who want to be cleared to enter his country. It’s ordinary work, similar in that way to the work most of us do every day. He chose to do his job with rudeness—rudeness that was completely undeserved and unnecessary. Though he could have been friendly, as many of his colleagues are, or even neutral, he was distinctly unfriendly, unkind, and rude. And this brief interaction, which could have been positive, put me on my heels and made my day just a little worse.

It got me thinking about how so much of life is made up of these little interactions and how they have the power to make my days that much better or that much worse. It got me thinking about how often my day has degraded because a very normal person working a very normal job did it snarkily or angrily or brusquely or rudely. It got me thinking about how often my day has improved because a very normal person working a very normal job put in just a little bit of extra effort and did their job with just a little bit of extra enthusiasm or skill. It doesn’t take much, does it?

I thought of the flight attendant who did more than hurry down the aisle splashing half cans of Coke into little plastic cups, but who was thoughtful and kind, who made eye contact and smiled, who went out of her way to serve the passengers. I thought of “Pete the Whistling Bus Driver” who greeted each passenger with a friendly “Good morning” as we rode from the suburbs to downtown. I thought of the person behind the fast food counter who was probably not making a whole lot more than minimum wage and probably not doing work that uses his every talent or engages his every passion, but who did it with a friendly greeting and a big smile, who did more than tap the buttons, swipe the card, and ask me to wait over there. All of these people, and so many like them, spread joy through very ordinary jobs, simply by doing their job well. They give us little moments of joy. They make our days better.

We interact far more often with little people doing little jobs than with great people working great jobs. We spend far more of our lives with baristas, cashiers, and customer service agents than we do with athletes, surgeons, and presidents—people we fancy as having the truly fulfilling occupations. And these little interactions really do brighten or darken our days. What makes the difference? Usually it’s simply that the person chooses to do their job well, to bring just that little extra to their ordinary work. They are especially friendly, engaging, or helpful. And in these little ways, they bring joy to others. Their work may not change the world, but it can certainly change a day.