“There are only two or three human stories …” said Willa Cather. Fed up with hearing the same frustrating stories going nowhere, I left my early counselling career in the social services. Three hour meetings, fundraising my own job, bureaucracy, politics. Helping is not a profession, I concluded. I stumbled my way into information technology. 15 minute meetings. Good pay. Working for a multinational IT company, I never stayed long enough with a client to get mired in politics. Programming has about five years of juice in it. At first it seemed that a technical job escaped people problems, but all problems are people problems. I noticed how I only speed-listened; people rightly regarded me a prick. The juice tapped out. If not social services, and not IT, then what? I saw librarianship as a blend of the two trades. Five years later, part-time library degree completed, I have yet to find the right library job. What now?
I picked up The Art of Happiness at Work by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, a psychiatrist. The Dalai Lama honestly admitted that his work as a spiritual and political leader differs from the average job. The book is deliberately light on Buddhism, and his advice sometimes just seemed common sense, e.g., we should be grateful for the opportunity to work. My recurring finding with Buddhism, however, is that its seeming simplicity can yield unexpected depths. The Dalai Lama suggested that one who unceasingly changes jobs is failing in normal human adaptation. It is unexpected advice coming from a Buddhist; their primary philosophy is that everything changes. It stung because it hit home. I change jobs often, only staying with my IT firm for ten years because I can change clients often.
Cutler and the Dalai Lama discuss the vital role of self-understanding in happiness at work. Employees need to realistically appraise their skills. Personally, I cast a pretty good spell at interviews, only to panic later about my claims. It is ego talking, of course, the usual cause of suffering. Honestly, I am slow to process new ideas. This slowness is a function of my introverted brain. Like all introverts, I engage long-term memory when processing new information. Slowness can be a strength. It is also true that I sometimes miss the central point of a discussion. On the other hand, I have a radar for the offbeat, for inventing unusual solutions when none seem available, for anticipating long-term consequences others miss, for appreciating underdogs whose talent often goes unnoticed. This kind of self-assessment helps employees find their sweet spot at work.
Right livelihood is part of the eight-fold noble path of Buddhism. I had this idea that librarianship would be right livelihood for me, using my information management talents to serve people. Maybe, but the more I learn about working in a library, the more I see it may just be another job after all. The Dalai Lama surprised me by his lack of insistence on finding a so-called ‘higher’ job. His modest advice, “If you can, serve others. If not, at least refrain from harming them” (173). Evolution may have us wired to need work for happiness, but it is important to see the limits on finding meaning at work. Do the job, okay, but complete your meaning elsewhere. We can serve people, not because we are in a helping profession, but simply by being more mindful of those at hand. I remember the other half of Cather’s quote, “… and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before”. Human stories may vary little on the surface, but most meaning comes from the small details of our lives. I find myself listening more to co-workers and clients, as people. It helps.