Vox Hunt: Help Me Out Here

3 04 2007

Work as a Spiritual Practice
Vox Hunt
: Share a self-help book that meant a lot to you.

I’m not a big believer in self-help books. Happily enough, I seem to have the survival skills necessary to get through most everyday tribulations. And, anyway, I guess I don’t have a lot of confidence in the types of people who write the self-help books I obviously need. Books like How to Move On When Your Soulmate Dumps You for His Mother or Coping When Your Man Decides He’s Straight or, even, Fundamentals of Dating: The Over-40 Edition. The “experts” in love seem—all too often, anyway—to be quacks.

But a few years ago, when I faced a difficult problem on my job, I did turn to a self-help book. The book, Lewis Richmond‘s Work as a Spiritual Practice, really impressed me.

At the time, I was living and working in New Orleans. I loved living in New Orleans—or, at least, I would’ve if my job hadn’t been consuming my life and making me generally unhappy. The expectations on the job were unrealistic, and I felt like I needed to spend 12 hours a day there just to cope. Others coped by doing shoddy work, but my perfectionist streak wouldn’t let me do that. Perhaps worse than that, my office space was a dungeon: I was assigned space in the basement, and it “featured” awful fluorescent lighting. I could never tell whether it was morning or afternoon or, sigh, evening…. Plus, the office’s air conditioning system was constantly on overdrive. Even in the middle of a typically hot, hot New Orleans summer, I needed a sweater to get through the work day. And every so often, I had to go outside and hang out with the smokers just to warm up my fingers.

If all that sounds bad, well, it was. But the real problem was boredom. The work was soul-stealingly boring. My employer, it seemed, had managed to drain any and all creativity out of writing—which, of course, ought to be inherently creative. If a creative decision was to be made, an office “style sheet” provided the answer. And if the answer wasn’t there, I was supposed to let my immediate manager make the decision. I felt like a glorified typewriter.

I was downright miserable.

I picked up Work as a Spiritual Practice, and it really forced me to approach my workplace from a different perspective. Richmond’s text asked me to consider what I could learn from the situation as well as what I could bring to the workplace in order, well, to be happier. The book is filled with Buddhist-inspired techniques, and it’s organized around four types of experiences posed by work—conflict, stagnation, inspiration, and accomplishment. I focused on stagnation, of course.

What I learned is that if I’m bored, it’s likely because I’m being boring. Boredom means that I’m not bringing enough enough passion or fire or spark or humor to the task at hand. Yes, my job was fundamentally flawed; yes, my job was fundamentally unstimulating. But I had given in to the boredom. I’d surrendered—just when I should’ve been investing more of my personality than ever.

I decided to memorize the damn style sheet, to really learn the nuts and bolts of it. In fact, I learned it well enough to subvert it from time to time. I played games with myself, challenging myself to work unusual words and phrases into my memos. I paid attention to my co-workers, listening to what they had to say and how they coped. I started to view my job as an elaborate system to be outsmarted. Some days, when I was most successful, I played with the stultifying atmosphere.

The job was still far from fulfilling, of course, and I ditched it at the earliest, best opportunity. But Work as a Spiritual Practice got me through the rough patch. In the process (it’s all process), I learned something about boredom, and about myself, that I’ve taken with me since.




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