Are we falling into a trap of believing that our work, and indeed, our lives, should always be fascinating and all-consuming? Are we somehow lacking if we’re bored at times or buried under routine tasks or failing to challenge ourselves at every turn?
So asks New York Times writer Alina Tugend, in a recent article asking what it means to “be passionate” about your job, and whether it’s a faire tale of the modern work world: nice to imagine, but not really possible.
Keima Sheriff can speak to that. An Organizational Systems student at Saybrook, she founded the Institute for Balance Restoration (IBR), a consulting company that builds stronger organizations by building stronger, and more passionate, individuals. Keima also just got an experience in practicing what she preaches, when she became interim CEO of a Pennsylvania non-profit.
Cookman Alternative Learning Community is a small, alternative school that helps kids the educational system has given up on get an education and graduate into a better future. It was also no exception to the freeze on government payments when the state of Pennsylvania couldn’t agree on a budget.
Suddenly left with an organization whose employees she couldn’t pay, Keima called a staff meeting in July.
“I gathered the staff together and said ‘my gut is telling me that even if the state comes up with a budget by October, we won’t have money by December to start paying you,’” she recalls. “‘But we have these kids, and we know that if we send them anywhere else they will not graduate on time. So, guys, what do you want to do?”
The Cookman employees decided that they would all get other jobs, and then donate their labor as full time volunteers until the state passed a budget that could pay them to come back again.
Why? Because they cared for the kids, and they loved what they did.
“So my staff have gotten other jobs and then, based on their availability, we’ve cobbled together a schedule that they can use to run the organization,” Keima says. “I have a teacher who comes in after five, one who has to leave at 3, one who can only come in three days a week … and they love their work so much that they’re doing this, for these kids.”
Keima, too, has had to pick up other contracts to keep the money coming in while she serves as CEO of an organization that can’t pay her. “I’m in the same boat,” she says. “But we support each other. The pastor of Cookman United Methodist Church has been fundraising for us like crazy to get them something to help out, and while I can’t pay their salaries I can ask ‘Who has a mortgage payment to make this week? Who has a car payment?’ We pool our resources, share carpools, and know we have each other’s back. And some days my team has to step up and remind me of why I’m doing this: I’m not just here for them, they’re here for me on my rough days.”
The experience of working with employees so dedicated that they’re willing to work as unpaid volunteers – at a time when many larger non-profits are closing their doors and losing their workforces – has both reinforced and expanded Keima’s own expertise as an organizational development consultant who works to help employers and employees find passion in their work.
“Love of what you do, passion for what you do, these things are possible,” she says. But it requires as much of a focus on why you’re doing the work, and who you’re doing it with, as it does on the work itself. “Because things will come, problems will come, money will be a problem, politics will be a problem … but if you have a good reason for ‘why am I doing this work,’ and you can keep that answer central, then I think you’ll find the love to do the work.”
It’s easier to find passion in work, in other words, when it lives up to standards beyond just “a job.” And if that’s something workers need to keep in mind, it’s even more important for employers to remember: if they want their employees to be passionate and dedicated to their work, then they can’t just be offering them ‘a job’ – they need to offer them a community, and a purpose, that brings more to their lives than just a paycheck.
“The minute we start applying lower standards to our jobs than we do to the rest of our lives, that’s when we lose,” Keima says. “When you think of it more as the work you’re trying to accomplish, rather than the job you’re trying to do, then your vision expands. Then a career can be something you feel love for. I ask my clients: how does your heart want to respond to the human needs of those you serve and serve with? This is where you will find your passion. This is where you will build community. This is where joy resides.