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Giving and getting

Consider two sentences: You give yourself to your work. You give ofm yourself to your work. Finish the first sentence with "ideal," "fellow man," or some other high purpose and it sounds okay. But just workm is too mundance for that kind of commitment. I submit that the work/worker relationship cannot stand the strain.

So it seems much wiser to give of yourself to the work and take of the work to yourself, rather than turning yourself over bodily to some job description.

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One of my first jobs had much to recommend it in this regard. It gave me useful activity, contact with other people, a chance to travel, and the money I needed to do what I wanted to do (within sensible limits).

In turn, I gave it physical effort and good will -- period. I seldom thought of it when I wasn't doing it. I did not do it to advance my career prospects or because of its prestige. I was not tempted to think I was the job instead of just doing the job.

So stamping prices on soup cans, laying out produce and driving the delivery van for the Valley Market was a quite satisfying job. Perhaps its chief pleasure was the delivering. My boss, Mr. Robbins, placed at my disposal a new 1958 Ford station wagon, metallic green with heavy-duty springs. It was exhilarating to drive, with a three- speed shift and a big V-8. I was not excessively tender with it on lightly traveled roads.

At the market, I took orders over the phone, gathered the goods into boxes and bags, packed them into the wagon and figured out the most efficient delivery route. Then I roared off to bring the Spangenbergs (the only name I can now remember) and other regular customers their groceries, or headed out with the fresh navigational challenge of finding a new customer.

Mr. Robbins was a fine, gentle person. I am still amazed at how patient he was when I first started work, in the full bloom of adolescent absentmindedness, which usually resulted in part of an order, or a whole order, not getting where it belonged.

Stocking shelves also had its satisfactions. I liked lugging the heavy cartons of cans, the more per trip the better, from the back room or the basement. Then it was a challenge to see how fast you could change the price stamper's setting, thumbing the rubber number tapes until you got the right combination and then stamping purple 29 centses or whatever on the shiny can tops.

Kneeling beside the open cartons, you could watch shoes and ankles go by, listen to conversations going on above you, and maybe join in if the voices sounded familiar.

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The company was good. Al the butcher was always quick with a comment. A retired railroad worker with gold teeth told long stories in the back room sometimes. Friends stopped in for a quick hello.

There was a dual pleasure in all this -- learning to do essentially simple tasks better and faster, plus sensing the changing texture of the place -- the movement of the customers in the two aisles, the aromas of the sawdust on the floor and the produce in the bins, the rhythm of the work.

There were subtle things to learn, too, like how to judge the quality and freshness of the produce. It is, sadly, an art I have largely forgotten, although some things come back, like the fresh earthy smell of a good bag of potatoes or the heft of a nice juicy melon.

As I say, the job had richness. When I think about some of the intellectually more demanding things I have done since, it is tempting to label that grocery job as unimportant, dull, certainly not prestigious. But I don't think that is the right way to look at it.

The useful texture of that simple job was satisfying in itself. In contrast, some complex jobs can end up being marginally satisfying or downright frustrating. Either the job itself or how one performs it gets in the way of good results. It isn't that we intentionally take jobs that do little good, but getting too serious about a job can shrink one's perspective. Then we have a harder time being really helpful to others around us and even worldwide.

The satisfaction I got from the Valley Market job was solid and genuine. What I liked about the job was the thought of the work -- and keeping the thought of the work separate from the thought of me.


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