Statistically, there is a 7-in-10 chance that you, dear reader, find your work to be lacking in some way. You may not be able to put your finger on it (or perhaps you can), but chances are there is room for improvement. Through the five Sum and Substance events that took place around the country in 2015, we had the opportunity to ask 28 storytellers — people who have defied the statistics and found deep fulfillment at work — what advice they would give the rest of us so we can follow their lead. As the tour progressed, each storyteller issued a challenge to the audience: find one action item that would lead to great fulfillment through work. No trend was immediately obvious, but reviewing the 28 challenges yielded an interesting insight — they all seemed to converge on three themes: 1) bliss, 2) service, and 3) action.
Greta de Parry finds that when she is creating furniture for Greta de Parry Design, she feels like a kid in a candy store. She truly loves it. She encouraged the audience in Chicago to gure out what their “candy store” is and get to work creating it.
Jennifer Alexander left a highly stressful position with a large corporate consulting rm to found Chapín Coffee, which is tackling malnutrition in rural Guatemala. She encourages us to pay attention to and follow the “little intuitive hints” that draw us toward certain things and away from others.
Alexander, de Parry, and many of their storyteller colleagues touched on a theme that seems obvious, but takes tremendous courage in practice. To put it simply: do what you like to do. Many narratives of business culture would label this notion naïve or childish. After all, there is real work to be done! Indeed. The storytellers who are hard at work in their candy store are just that: hard at work.
It is possible that bliss and hard work are not mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, for true bliss — the kind that is not consumerist and eeting — perhaps hard work is a requirement. Joseph Campbell, who coined the much-misunderstood phrase “follow your bliss,” is said to have remarked late in his life that perhaps he should have said “follow your blisters.”
While about one-quarter of the storytellers encouraged us to do what we love, more than half of them challenged us to serve others. In Seattle, Bryan Papé, CEO of MiiR, said, “Find out how you can fulfill other people’s lives.”
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, put it this way: “Leave places better than you found them. Lead from wherever you are. Live a life that matters. Love something greater than yourself.”
The call to serve others may not be revelatory, but based on the overwhelming frequency with which it is mentioned, it is our single clearest finding so far. Across ages, genders, ethnicities, job titles, industries, and cities, the storytellers said loud and clear that when you can see that your work is really helping other people, it fulfills you.
“Fine,” you might say. “I know that, and I know I don’t have it. What now?”
The storytellers have advice on that too. “Look around, find unfairness, step in, and make a change,” said Carol Peppe Hewitt, who has lived that message in her life and in her work as co-founder of Slow Money NC.
In a twist on Joseph Campbell’s phrase, Raj Sisodia, one of the founders of Conscious Capitalism, invited the audience in Boston to “keep hold of your idealism and follow your heartbreak.” In his story, Sisodia pointed out that for some people, heartbreak is much clearer than bliss, and in his view they are two sides of the same coin; both will point the way toward fulfillment.
A third, and related, theme can also be seen in the storyteller challenges: a call to action. In general, the people who have achieved a high level of personal ful llment challenged the rest of us to not just think about what bliss and service mean to us, but to do what it takes to make them real in our lives.
“Take a step. If you have an idea, try it and see where it leads you,” urges Kim Hunter, who followed her bliss for food all the way to the opening of her restaurant, Kimbap Café, in Raleigh.
Mats Lederhausen, former head of global strategy at McDonald’s and former chairman and lead director at Chipotle, told the Chicago crowd to seek and destroy obstacles that might block the path, asking: “What’s getting in your way of doing what you were sent here to do?”
Bliss, service, and action: three overlapping ideas with the power to change the very nature of work in the 21st century. Three possible pathways that the 7 out of every 10 Americans who are disengaged at work can take to make “better business as usual” a reality in their lifetimes.
At the end of the Sum and Substance event in Raleigh, Pierce Freelon and his band The Beast surprised the audience with a performance of their song “Doin’ What I Love,” which could serve as an anthem for making work ful lling. Just before rocking the house that night, Freelon issued his challenge: “What is the one thing in your life and your career you would change moving forward?”
Well, dear reader, what is it?