There were only two of us, both strangers, standing in the small courtyard of a very crowded restaurant. It seemed awkward not to speak. We were both waiting for a table. I simply asked, “Do you live in Lisle?” He said “yes” and added that Lisle has always been his home. I then asked, “Do you also work here?” You’re probably thinking I was overstepping boundaries by plummeting a stranger with questions. You’re probably right, but I didn’t ask the second question immediately. He was conversational as well. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing in town.
He answered my second question by saying he worked in downtown Chicago. I didn’t ask about the nature of his work, but I asked if he drove into the City or if he took the train? He said, “I have a car, but I don’t drive it in the City. The traffic is horrible”. He said he takes the train and leaves very early to miss the rush hour. He also heads back to Lilse by 3:30 in the afternoon to avoid the crowd.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I commute at least an hour one way to work everyday, but I’m not clustered in a metal canister packed full of people. Coming out of Chicago on Monday afternoon, one of the things I noticed about the train ride was what seemed to me as an awkward silence. No one was engaged in conversation. Almost everyone was texting or focused on some kind of electronic media, but I didn’t notice anyone talking. The silence seemed surreal.
Secondly, and it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not experienced it first hand, but the guy closest to me on the train sneezed several times. I noticed out of my peripheral vision that he was wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Gross! I know, we’ve probably all done that in desperation, but I’d never admit to it in writing. Thanks but no thanks, forget the fantasy of commuting to work on a train. It would be a health hazard! My driving may put me at risk daily, but at least I’m not in an environmental infestation of germs.
I asked one other question. Actually, that isn’t true. His answer to my next question was the catalyst for several more, but they were all related to his answer. Truthfully, I probably overstepped boundaries, but I asked, “What do you like best about your job?” He responded, “The paycheck. I get paid well for what I do.”
I thought that was a strange answer. I don’t know anyone who acknowledges that they get paid more than enough for what they do. Most of the people I work with have a sense they are underpaid for the professionalism and skill set they bring to the table. Perhaps that’s only true in the world of nonprofit organizations. I don’t know.
I couldn’t help myself, “So is there anything about your job that gives you a sense of satisfaction or that you enjoy?” He said, “No, there isn’t anything about the job I like. I dread going to work every morning. I just go for the paycheck”. He went on to say, “I previously had a job that I loved with Montgomery Wards. The job involved travel and I really liked what I did. It felt important and I was valued by the company.” He then shared with me more than I probably needed to know about his disdain for Wal-Mart. He credits that corporation with the toppling of Montgomery Wards and the core of many small town retail businesses in America.
I then asked his age? He said, “I’m forty-one.” I responded, “Forty-one. You’re just a kid. You’ve got your whole life in front of you. Help me understand why you’d sell out by settling for a job where you dread going to work everyday? Isn’t life way too short for that?” He identified two or three things he’d like to do, but said, “I’m too old to start over.”
I looked at him and said, “I’m almost twice your age and I’m not too old to start over. If I gained absolutely nothing from my work but a paycheck, I’d be very proactive in preparing myself to launch elsewhere”. I cautioned him, “Don’t change your job until you find something you really want to pursue. You may even need to take some classes or prepare yourself academically in some way, but you’ve got the time to do that. You’re only forty-one. You’ve got your whole life before you. Besides that, you’re probably more skilled now than you’ve ever been. Why not build on your strengths?
He seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying. I continued, “Think about what you liked about working for Montgomery Wards. You said it yourself. When you worked for Montgomery Wards you liked what you did, you thought your work was important and you felt valued by your company. Those three characteristic are crucial to job satisfaction anywhere. Don’t you owe it to yourself to figure out how you can capture those three things? Maybe your can figure out how to get them in your current place of employment, but don’t settle for twenty-five years of drudgery if you can’t.
As he was summoned to his table, he thanked me for the conversation. He actually said, “I wish you lived here. I could benefit from having a mentor like you. You’ve given me a lot to think about. You are really a positive person. I wish I was. I need to learn how. Thanks.”
It was a brief interaction with a total stranger, but is it ever too late to hit the reset button? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to do it differently if life has grown stale and our needs are not getting met? Yesterday, while waiting in an airport, I ran across an article about folks who hit the reset button late in life. Grandma Moses took up painting after her arthritis made it difficult to continue with her needle work. She started painting at the age of 76. Do you remember the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken? Colonel Sanders was in his 60s and drawing Social Security when he closed his service station and created a fried chicken empire. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes was appointed to the Court at the age of 60 and served until the age of 90. Harry Bernstein published his first book at the age of 96.
Life is way too short to settle for business as usual, if usual leads to a lack of satisfaction and fulfillment. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to use the gifts we have been given? Whether it’s in the workplace or another venue, if we’re still here, we’re not done.
All My Best!