Thursday, August 3, 2017

The pleasures and the sorrows of work.

I’ve been thinking more than a little bit lately—maybe this is yet another example of my affinity for the morose—of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, “The Death of Salesman.”

It’s the story of a man who dies with nothing. After a lifetime of work he is left with a house he can’t afford to live in, a broken Frigidaire, two wayward sons, and a wife whose final words are, “I can’t cry.”

A friend of mine wrote me the other day. We worked together for years and he’s a smart guy and an excellent writer. Beyond that he’s a gentle-man—I mean that hyphen. Wise, smart and thoughtful.

We got to talking about the nature of happiness—and the Grand Illusion of finding happiness at work.

I didn’t say this to him, but I’ll say this to you.

I think the reason the world has gone awards crazy (it seems to me like about 29 different agencies were “the most awarded at Cannes,” and there were more than 1000 Lions handed out at the show) is we feel an emptiness at work.

We seem to have succumbed to the notion that work can’t be rewarding unless we get rewards. Like a meal can’t be satisfying if you don’t have dessert.

We seem to have bought into the idea that unless our work wins a trophy, it just isn’t worthy unless it receives external recognition.

To jump playwrights on you, I often think of Big Daddy’s lambasting of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ great play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

I hear this line as a paean to integrity. A tribute to those who, like Willy Loman, show up every day, who do their job as well as they can, who fight and push and fight and push. Who don’t do it for trophies, but for the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done right by the assignment, your team, your client, and most important, yourself.

Big Daddy said, “The truth is pain and sweat and payin’ bills and makin’ love to a woman that you don’t love anymore. Truth is dreams that don’t come true, and nobody prints your name in the paper ‘til you die.”

That’s pretty dark I know. This whole thing is downright lugubrious. But there’s a point.

We have abandoned our Search for Meaning and turned it into a Search for the Mammon of Awards—a search for the “high” of external recognition. I think one reason people feel so alienated in our industry is that they are looking always for the external, and seldom for the internal.

To my mind, we find our happiness, our joy, our reward through sweat and pain. As the Romans said so many millennia ago, “Laborare es Orare.” To work is to pray.

That is, like prayer, there’s a virtue in doing. In laboring. In making a perfect sentence. That’s where the victory of work lives.

I think it’s where satisfaction comes from.


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