Values Spotlight: A Labor of Enthusiasm

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” — Marcus Aurelius

“Every morning when I wake up, I experience an exquisite joy —the joy of being Salvador Dalí— and I ask myself in rapture: What wonderful things is this Salvador Dalí going to accomplish today?” — Salvador Dalí

I want to paint my best understanding of enthusiasm by example.

Imagine breaking rocks all day and then throwing them in a hole. This would be a drudging task, because it is not interesting, and it serves no purpose. Imagine instead breaking rocks to something beautiful or useful: a sculpture, a deep well, a home, a place of worship. It is mentally stimulating, it is rewarding, it is engaging, and it delights both because others enjoy it and because it is utilitarian or beautiful for its own sake. When you are done, you can look upon your work with great satisfaction: your work was interesting and engaging, and it served a purpose. Both tasks may use the same hammer and chisel, and both may leave you sweaty and covered in dust. One is done begrudgingly and the other can be done with enthusiasm. The difference is not the form of the labor, but the engagement of the mind and the heart.

When you are breaking rocks, time moves slowly. You are counting the minutes until it is over. When you are sculpting, you forget the world. You forget to eat. You look up to find that the sun is rising, you’ve worked through the night, and your heart breaks because you must move on and do something else. 

Enthusiasm happens at a very precise point in space and time: here and now. When you are doing work for its sake, when you are interested in the work and challenged by it, your mind focuses on where you are, what you are doing. Your purpose is to correctly land each strike of the chisel. When it is done, the next strike is your next purpose. Something beautiful awaits, but you do not pursue it with grim determination or anxiety. You enjoy the work. And from doing this work enthusiastically, you imbue the work and the result with a greater quality than if you did it begrudgingly. 

The greatest misperception, stated explicitly or believed implicity, about work which I have heard is that to bring quality into your work requires you to give up something to your task or to the organization. People believe it costs you something to do quality work that it does not cost you to do mediocre work. But the wonderful secret is that the opposite of this is true: when you find enthusiasm in your work, you produce greater quality in whatever time you put into the task, and also extract greater joy and satisfaction. There is no trade-off involved in doing your work with enthusiasm. Indeed, the privilege of having that enthusiasm is part of what can make life wonderful. 

Finding Enthusiasm Within

Many people believe that they are either lucky enough to have a job which gives them enthusiasm, or they aren’t. They believe that whether they are enthusiastic or miserable at work is outside of their control, and so often they feel resentment, and they come to work begrudgingly in order to pay rent. But as our rock-breaking example illustrates, enthusiasm comes from the mind. Specifically, it comes from being able to tie the work you do to something meaningful: that is, if you know why what you do matters, you are much more able to be enthusiastic and enjoy your work. And you do not need to be a doctor or CEO to make your work meaningful. 

I used to work in milk bottling factories. They were loud and a bit smelly, and almost always were pretty far out in the middle of nowhere. As you might imagine, many of the people who worked in these facilities had worked there for a very long time. What they did was very repetitive: every day, they needed to fill hundreds of thousands of bottles of milk by operating and maintaining filling machines, casers, stackers, palletizers, forklifts, trucks. I had imagined that they were very unlucky to be working there, and that I was very lucky to instead be a consultant jetting about to help them. 

On one project, I met the operator of the bottle-making machine, called a blow-molder. He had been the senior blow-molder operator for 18 years. This guy was a wizard with a machine that was otherwise very finicky and difficult: typically, any time precision heat is involved in a process, you need skill to make it work. But the blow-molder mostly tended to itself, taking in plastic and cranking out bottles. To me, it looked boring. But we were working together because the plant wanted to reduce some of the downtime on the line, and I had gotten to know him over a few weeks.

One day I saw him standing at the blow-molder, arms crossed, smiling. He had just brought it back online after some of the bottles had come out malformed. I said to him: “You look like you’re looking at a painting you just made.”

He put his arms down and looked me in the eye. I could tell his own eyes were getting a bit moist as he told me this story: “Ten years ago, when I was in the grocery store with my wife and my granddaughter, my wife pointed at all the milk on the shelves. And she said to our granddaughter: ‘Honey, did you know your grandpa makes all of this milk that thousands of people drink every day?’ And I’ll never forget the amazement in my granddaughter’s eyes when she said: ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ And hugged me. And ever since then, I’ve been very proud of what I do.”

I know for a fact that he is happier at work than many people making ten times as much, with much easier and more conventionally “successful” careers. He goes to work every day with enthusiasm for bringing milk to the kitchens of Indiana. 

In these same travels I also got to know some of the people who performed housekeeping at the hotels I would stay at. She was always so chipper and we would chat briefly when we would see each other. She had a similar story: whenever she cleaned a bathroom or made a bed, she knew that every day, dozens of people like me would drag themselves into the hotel after a long flight and a long day at work, exhausted. It was in her hotel rooms that they could let their shoulders relax, and they could leave the day behind them, comfortable and without worry in a soft bed and a warm shower. She knew she was bringing comfort and joy to weary travelers, and that she got a lot more exercise than most desk-jockeys. She loved her job. 

For my part, I loved working in milk plants, too, even though the hours and the travel were pretty exhausting. I was keeping factories afloat, I was fixing problems that got in peoples’ way. I found enthusiasm in being a teenage line cook because I was learning a lifelong skill to make delicious food. I found enthusiasm as a landscaper because I could listen to audiobooks all day and get exercise. When I worked in customer service, I found enthusiasm in brightening people’s days: and I was subsequently far better at accomplishing just that brightening than colleagues who focused on feeling put-upon by customers who complained at them. 

In this way, enthusiasm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you can articulate why what you are doing is meaningful–for you, for others, for the world–the increased quality you bring to the work improves the result, and yields the meaning you have tied to the work.

So when you show up to work, there’s no reason to not show up. If you’re going to be there, it costs you nothing additional to really be there, and you get so much more out of it.

Enthusiastically Learning and Growing

Enthusiasm, in combination with humility (which we discuss elsewhere), is a key to unlocking learning and growth. Let us consider again a few of the examples above. If you are a line cook, cooking with enthusiasm will provoke you to ask questions of more senior cooks about how to perfect a sandwich. If you are operating a blow-molder, enthusiasm will make you curious about how you can better understand the machine’s current state, and better control it. In an office (as in school), enthusiasm leads to curiosity and hunger to know more about what you are doing. Your mind will be more active and engaged, and you will be more open to seeing lessons that you would otherwise miss if you were shuffling your way through the day. If you work out enthusiastically, that last five minutes of trying to beat your personal record is exciting rather than miserable and tedious, so you will run all the harder with a smile on your face.

The logic of this is straightforward: enthusiasm comes when you see meaning in what you do. If you care about that meaning, whether it is a personal accomplishment, the realization of some external good, or the acquisition of a skill for later use, your mental engagement and thus rate of learning will be much higher. 

Enthusiasm’s Price

At ProdPerfect, enthusiasm is one of our core values, so we ask everyone to find it in themselves and bring it forth into their work and their teams. This request can feel at times a bit trite: who would not want to be enthusiastic about their work? 

While I believe the choice to be enthusiastic is a clear one, it does not mean that enthusiasm does not require giving up something. To be enthusiastic, one needs to give up emotional distance. There are people who are quite happy who see work as a means to an end: their enthusiasm is poured primarily into their families, volunteer work, and/or hobbies. These people have some emotional distance at work: because they are less attached to the meaning which we discussed above, they can more easily muster equanimity when things are not going well. 

If one is very enthusiastic about the outcome of one’s work, it can be devastating when one encounters a major setback. If you are enthusiastically training for a marathon and then shatter your foot, or if you enthusiastically build a tech company and then see a multibillion-dollar juggernaut release a new product line that matches your own, it can feel like your world is falling apart. Imagine the feeling of the sculptor who tips over a statue just a few buffs away from being completed. 

Even in less dramatic circumstances, is it hard to be enthusiastic without becoming attached to the subject of your enthusiasm, and thus to be emotionally ruffled when your work is not going well. Buddhist monks train for years to strike just this balance: if you are familiar with some monks’ intricate sand art, you see this in action. They spend days carefully creating something beautiful–practicing enthusiasm–and then upon completion immediately shake the table of sand, returning the art to the state of chaos from which it came–practicing acceptance and equanimity. For us laypeople, simultaneous enthusiasm and equanimity is difficult to reach. 

We each of us have only so much energy. While enthusiasm in work does not require extra time, and it likely gives us more total mental and emotional energy than we would have if we were simply dragging ourselves through the day, it also costs energy, and some days can cost quite a bit. 

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