on the page magazine

issue no. 11, summer 2004


Labors of Love
a look at six people who enjoy their work

Follow your bliss.
                                           ~ Joseph Campbell

One study of German workers conducted at the end of the 20th century reported that "German workers disliked work and those that disliked work the most were happiest overall." According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best-selling author of Flow and other studies on work, creativity, and happiness, while some people may enjoy their work, when people are surveyed at the workplace their job ends up most frequently as a time in which they would "rather be doing something else."

When OtP decided to interview people who love their work, we were told, "That sounds really interesting, but where are you going to find your subjects?" Professional athletes and chefs, a friend said, are the only ones who love their jobs. After some digging, we found six people who have a positive relationship to their work, and if this relationship is not always marked by love, these people have a good deal of affection and passion for what they do. And while it might have been interesting to interview Barry Bonds or Wolfgang Puck, we opted instead to focus on work performed by mortals in the fields of research, publicity, engineering, teaching, animals, and politics.

In the responses to our questions—including how they spend their days, what they'd describe their work, and how they foresee the future—we found four common denominators among our job lovers: competence, variety, independence, and challenge. Each person has achieved mastery within his or her given field, from arranging publicity to developing microscopic tools, from political fundraising to managing a herd of horses, from assessing structural damage to teaching business people comedic improv. Most reported doing things that they enjoyed a majority of the time (although the ratios varied from 60 to 97 percent). Only a couple of our subjects described their work as lucrative, and none identified money as the prime motivation. Most foresaw a turning point in which the skills and knowledge acquired in their current position would be valuable for future work.

Melissa Menta, executive director of public relations for a global licensing and syndication firm

I have had my position for just over three years. A friend from an old job who now works at my company called me after the dot-com I worked for went out of business. I feel like I've been in the right place at the right time. I've never had to find a job, they've always kind of found me. And I've always known I wanted to do publicity, since college, when a professor said I'd be really good at it, and I started doing publicity for all the theater shows there.

My job requires a good multi-tasker. A client call, an e-mail, a press release—I have to meet quick priorities and do a lot of things at once. My office is filthy and disgusting and my mailbox is overflowing, which is the opposite of my apartment, which is totally neat. I have no filing system, and a lot of stuff is all in my head. I am an audio person. If I write something down, I stop listening. I don't write notes, I listen.

About 80 percent of what I do is stuff that I enjoy. There isn't any day when I sit and think, "Oh my God, I can't stand doing this." I don't do the same thing every day. Some days I sit and write and I think strategy and corporate, other days it's celebrity stuff. It doesn't ever get boring. I don't like trade shows and those appear a couple of times a year, and there are a few people I don't like working with all that much. But I guess the bad things get forgotten because the good things are really good.

I do tend to talk about work much of the time, mostly because people are interested in it; lots of people have heard of my company and they know our clients. I also have a lot of friends from work—colleagues, clients, the whole gamut. I love to hear about other people's work, but people don't like to do that too much. Mostly I feel like when people talk about work, it's because they like to commiserate. People seem to bond when you bitch about how much you hate your work.

And at my work, I don't mean that people don't commiserate sometimes, but I would say that the people in my company like their jobs a lot. There are people who have been here for 20 years. It's a good company. Whenever I've had serious issues, I've addressed them to people more senior than me. And somehow I've always been satisfied with how they've helped solve the issue. While there may not be an immediate solution, I feel I've been heard.

I guess what makes my work meaningful is the relationships. If I weren't doing this job, I'd probably do something similar. If dollars weren't an issue, I'd work in a nonprofit, and eventually that's what I want to do. I feel really lucky that I have my job, something I don't mind doing every day.

Erik Soderberg, structural engineer

I have been in my current position for almost ten years. When I was a kid I always built things. My father built little clubhouses in the backyard. At first I would just put nails in the table, and then I started nailing pieces of wood together. I was four or five when I actually nailed something together that resembled something in real life.

I thought I was going to be a carpenter; then I actually worked in construction, and I noticed that the young guys were having a good time but the old guys were looking haggard and worn out. It seemed like it would be more fun to dream [things] up.

When I was first learning math the teacher was always presenting the problem as "This is how you solve for X or Y"—they never explained what use that would be. It was actually when I started learning engineering and physics that I became less ignorant and realized math could be used to solve real problems. I like that you can model something physically and understand how big you need to make a column or beam just using numbers. It's pretty amazing when you think about it—you can sit down with a piece of paper and design everything before you even build it.

My work is always varied and generally challenging, especially now that I can give tedious work to the people below me. Usually someone will have a problem—they will run a ship into a crane, for example—then the first half of the day, I look at the damage and figure out what needs to be done to define the problem. I wouldn't say my work is fascinating, because the types of problems I deal with aren't spectacular. I think it's meaningful because I facilitate a solution.

I am paid appropriately. I could be making more money in other professions that I wouldn't like as much, so money is not the top priority. I don't think that there should be a huge disparity in what people are being paid. This company culture is pretty unique. If I knew that my boss didn't look out for everyone, then I might have a different attitude. Basically it's a mutual relationship and not me working hard for my boss to buy his fourth house.

I liked every job I ever had. I worked some jobs that I know other people didn't like. If I were 35 and still the hot tub guy, I might not have had a good attitude. Some of the work that we do, there's a risk that people will die if we don't get it right; that's probably 10 percent of the time. If I write a report, my name is on it as the author; for that reason, there's incentive to do a really good job. But I invest enthusiasm, joy, effort into what I do anyway. I have a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for how the work turns out.

Andrea Dew Steele, political advisor and executive director of a foundation

I have been in my position for over four years. I was miserable in my past position. I took three months off and had to get over the fact that leaving my job would not mean failure. When I was soul searching, I bought a little book called How to Find the Work You Love. It had all kinds of exercises, like "What do you want people to say at your funeral?" I did all the exercises. It really helped me. I identified my dream job and flew out here and asked my future boss if I could work for her.

I feel like I am making a difference when I elect someone great or give money to worthy nonprofits. My job is about meeting people, networking out in the community, and going to events. Most of the day I spend responding to phone calls and e-mails, contacting people, directing people, going to lunch or dinner, and attending events. It's not the same every day. I always feel like I'm doing something meaningful. I don't have any problem asking people who have money to help them to figure out politically and charitably what's the best option for them. The only thing I really don't like is saying no to people—turning down worthy projects.

I have an incredibly supportive boss. I have a great deal of independence. My boss is not a micro-manager. While I don't really socialize with work colleagues in my direct office, I have met a whole network of people from political events and nonprofits. And I do end up talking to people about my work, because a lot of people want to ask me about it. I get to meet every interesting person in the political world, from John Kerry to Bill and Hillary Clinton. It's also quite challenging because I have fundraising and election goals each year.

I guess my attitude is different from most people. I don't think as many people really love what they do. I believe that each person is responsible for their own happiness, and unless you have restrictions placed on you by lack of education or opportunity or financial constraints, it's important to find your bliss.

Kate Farley, director of school horse operations

I am an independent contractor for a medium-sized riding stable. I graduated from college with a B.S. in architectural engineering and was working for a large construction firm near the stables where I now work. I knew soon after graduation that my career was absolutely not right for me and was looking for a place to ride to help me connect with something I had always loved to do. After much soul-searching, I decided to apply for the job at Fremont Hills and leave my career behind. I never thought it would last more than a year or two, but through this job, I have really been able to gain confidence in my ability to guide my own fate in a direction that feels right. I have been in this position for just over five years.

I direct the lesson program. My job entails designing and implementing all lesson programs, recruiting clients, teaching lessons, hiring instructors, running two summer camp programs, managing a herd of 12 to 20 school horses (which are owned by the stable manager), scheduling all clients, and bookkeeping. I also run other programs, including trail rides, a class through a local community college, local horse show, clinics, and barn events.

I love working with all of the amazing variety of people that I meet. I teach people aged 7 to 70. I love teaching and the process of exposing someone to horses who has never been around them before; watching students fall in love with it and improve in their riding is very rewarding. I like making my own schedule and the responsibility of running my own business; my income directly correlates to the effort that I put out.

Probably 75 percent of my time is spent on tasks that I enjoy. Sometimes actually teaching the lessons can become tedious. I teach 75 to 100 people per week, and I hear myself teaching the same things over and over, which can become dull. I work hard to keep it interesting and new for my students and myself. I also wish I could eliminate the physical risk of working with horses. I am bound to get hurt and beat up sometimes. I often have stepped-on toes, bruises, pulled muscles, and cuts and scrapes, all from daily barn life.

This job is fascinating, meaningful to me (horses have always been a big part of my life), lucrative, provides me with strong relationships, and gives me a feeling of independence and control. I often feel that it lacks a level of intellectual challenge that I crave. I also feel that it lacks an element of growth potential; my role will not change much, no matter how long I stay in the business. I see myself involved in this job in the foreseeable future. I will seek new adventures and challenges in my life, but would love to keep this position on a long-term basis. I usually feel lucky. I am able to make a good living doing something I really enjoy on a flexible schedule.

Todd Sulchek, bioresearcher

I am a postdoctoral researcher and I build an instrument that consists of tiny molecular "hands" we use to pull apart individual molecules and measure how strongly they interact. Currently, I am looking at a cancer drug that binds to breast cancer cells and I am measuring how strongly the drug binds to the cancer cell. I've been doing this for about a year.

My work uses a microscope platform that I developed for my Ph.D. work. I'm constantly learning new things in cell biology and chemistry and merging new stuff with what I learned in school like instrumentation and nanotechnology. Pretty much my whole day is spent doing things I enjoy. I have a lot of responsibilities that constantly keep me doing new things. In the morning I might be writing a grant proposal or catching up on what other researchers are up to. In the afternoon, I might be in the lab working on measurements.

The primary dislike of my job is that I don't have many interactions with people. I have collaborators whom I talk to every day, but my work is primarily solitary. Also, I very rarely get to meet outside people (non-science people) in my work, so I can be isolated.

I do end up talking about my work at social occasions, though perhaps because most of my friends are scientists. The nonscientist people rarely seem very interested in my work, apart from a one-sentence description. My work is fascinating, meaningful, innovative, challenging, but not lucrative. I get paid fine, but if I compare myself to what friends in the corporate world are making.... This job is really just a stepping-stone to being a professor. And being a professor is just like this job (except there would be more work and pressure), so I don't expect too many changes in my situation.

Rebecca Stockley, improvisational acting coach

Teaching is my calling. My earliest memories involve teaching. I remember eating sunflower seeds in the shell for the first time—and then teaching the neighbor girl my newfound skill. I recall creating games to teach parts of speech to my younger cousins.

About 97 percent of my time is spent doing things I enjoy. The position of dean of BATS Improv School that I held for twelve years, was fascinating, meaningful, innovative, challenging. I had innumerable strong relationships, a feeling of never-ending independence, and more than enough control, but it wasn't high-paying. I gave notice to BATS Board about nine months before I left the job. I both needed a more lucrative position and was ready to turn my dream job over to someone who could bring new perspective, experience, and insight to the job.

I now work freelance, teaching improv in the business world. Aside from a different wardrobe, I find the work is very similar. People are people. Inspiration is inspiration. Teaching is teaching. While the ultimate purpose may be different, the theories, concepts, and ideas are the same.

Some people just don't like anything... but realistically, a large percentage of adults spend their work life doing things they don't want to do. I know that I am a very rare person indeed to have a job doing work I deeply love.

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