Work Spirit

Helping People Create More Satisfying Work Lives

Sherrie Connelly
Illustration of a construction worker by Nip Rogers

This article first appeared in the March/April 1996 issue.


WORK, ASSERTS STUDS TERKEL IN HIS 1972 BOOK WORKING, “is by its very nature about violence to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.” After reflecting on the lives of the steel-workers, teachers, firemen, supermarket checkers, flight attendants, factory owners, real estate saleswomen, bookbinders, waitresses and car salesmen who opened their lives to him, Terkel concluded, “To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”

And yet work is a place where many of us seek, and sometimes find, far more than our daily wage. “Work,” Terkel writes, “is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying.”

We live in times when many people are dissatisfied with their jobs and yet terrified that they might lose them. Since 1991, nearly 2.5 million workers have fallen victim to corporate restructuring. As a management consultant for 25 years, I have also met people as unhappy in the wrong job as those who temporarily have no job at all. Many organizations are difficult places to work, badly managed or undercapitalized; some bosses are workaholic perfectionists. Moreover, many people stay in jobs that fit their talents poorly, mean little to them or batter their self-esteem even when they have the skills, savings and education to take the / risk of finding a better fit elsewhere. Many would never accept the idea that they should settle for a bad relationship, so why do they believe they must settle for a difficult boss or a job that doesn’t bring out the best in them? What stands in the way of people discovering and then doing what they find most satisfying in their work lives?

The challenge of these questions led me to work that helps revitalize workplaces and people in them, and to discover what I call “work spirit” the spark and vitality people express when they love what they do. A highly satisfying part of my work is guiding people to build a positive vision of themselves at work. By celebrating the past and imagining positive possible work situations, people can be empowered to make changes, removing internal and external barriers and mobilizing their creative powers.

Most people I work with are yearning for something better. Some have a chance to make a worthwhile change and they want to manage it right. Others are wounded and afraid. How, they ask, can this ideal of positive work be realized, when many workplaces are confounded by competition, discrimination and other negative norms that mitigate against success. It’s not unreasonable to be afraid. For example, women and minorities regularly face glass ceilings, lower pay, workplace harassment and greater job insecurity, leading some to believe that their job dissatisfaction can never be remedied. American middle-managers of every race and gender now fear, realistically, that their jobs will disappear at mid-career, with no safety net to catch them. Employees with only a high school education seldom feel as confident about changing jobs or getting more training as do well-educated white men (or fast-track women and minorities) with friends at other companies, money in the bank and an advanced degree from a good college. In this economic climate, even Ivy League graduates worry about their career prospects as the job market becomes tougher and more unpredictable. While there may be potentially limiting or difficult circumstances to overcome, many barriers to work spirit are internal: too many people automatically believe that work is inherently frustrating, joyless and draining. It’s a limiting belief with a long and venerable history. In the Bible, work is the way God punishes Adam and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge: henceforth, humans must earn their bread by the “sweat of their brows.” The Puritans who settled New England, and the Victorians who later founded its knitting mills and shoe factories, believed work was a religious duty and an expiation of original sin. To take pleasure in work (or anything else) was suspect. Then, the Industrial Revolution in 19th-century England and later in the United States transformed work into a depersonalizing, exhausting endeavor that left no room for the pleasures of life. Millions were forced to leave casually organized jobs in fields, shops and cottages to become shift workers on relentlessly clattering machines in urban factories.

Karl Marx contemplated the misery of factory workers and concluded workers under capitalism were inevitably alienated from their labor because they neither controlled it nor reaped its economic fruits, draining any chance of work spirit in these jobs. Later, radical industrial theorists like Harry Braverman argued that, no matter who owned the means of production, assembly lines were inherently alienating. Time-and-motion experts, he said, had de-skilled industrial work and robbed it of satisfaction: the complex crafts practiced by blacksmiths, cobblers and carpenters had been replaced by simplified, repetitive tasks on modern assembly lines that churned out cars, shoes, house trailers and even bits of electronic data. Work became something to be endured, to survive, with little chance to exercise control, let alone creativity, on the job.

Clearly, work may be many things, all the way from brutalizing to ennobling, from a joyful shaper of character to a demoralizing teacher of helplessness. How is it, then, that some people suffer through it while others doing the same job thrive in the workplace?

Reviewing the workplace literature for a business school doctoral dissertation in the early 1980s, I was surprised that previous researchers really hadn’t asked the question directly. In books on athletics, science and art, I found plentiful accounts of violinists, pianists, sculptors, quarterbacks, runners, golfers, biologists, medical researchers and physicists reaching a state of joyous, transcendent absorption in their work. But academic journals in management and organization psychology emphasized conflict, for the most part, focusing on motivating difficult employees, addressing worker dissatisfaction and labor relations. Attention to what wasn’t working in the American workplace was obscuring the realities of what was working well.

Tom Peters began to correct this imbalance when he wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982, but until then few theorists had paid much attention to the value of teamwork and collaboration, and hardly anyone wrote about enjoyment or pleasure. Fred Herzbeg, an organization theorist from Case Western Reserve, broke new ground in his examinations of healthy workers and workplaces, and humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow researched “peak experiences” at work, based on his theory that people have an innate drive to develop or “actualize” themselves, contributing to the greater good once their basic needs are met. For the most part, however, it was as if the entire work scene was seen through a dirty and scratched lens, portrayed as controlling and invalidating, depersonalizing and difficult, a daily grind most of us would just as soon escape with a fantasized lottery windfall or unexpected inheritance.


ALIGHT WENT ON FOR MANY people who secretly loved their work when Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi later published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which investigated the phenomenon of ordinary people finding everyday happiness and contentment in their lives. His research subjects reported that some of their most positive life experiences occurred on the job. Even though they generally said that they would prefer not to be working, they often reported surprisingly low moods when they were supposed to be enjoying their leisure. The concept of “flow” parallels the essence of work spirit, the elusive condition we’re all searching for in our work lives. Flow is the pleasurable experience of wholehearted awareness, effectiveness, mastery, exciting complexity, order and vitality that can take place in one’s work. This nirvana is not reserved solely for the geniuses, the intellectual elite or professional athletes. It’s a state that even the most humbly employed can achieve.

Csikszentmihalyi described Joe Kramer, a welder in a South Chicago boxcar plant, who had a fourth-grade education and had turned down several promotions because he didn’t want to supervise other workers. Everyone in the plant agreed that Kramer was the most important person there: he had learned every task, could fill in for anyone and could fix any machine from huge mechanical cranes to tiny electronic monitors. It was a skill he had developed in childhood, through a strange process of technological empathy. “When my mother’s toaster went on the fritz, I asked myself: ‘If I were that toaster, and I didn’t work, what would be wrong with me?'” he told Csikszentmihalyi, describing how he then disassembled the toaster, found the defect and fixed it. For his flower garden at home, Kramer had designed and built his own sprinkler heads to produce a fine mist and a panoply of rainbows. At home and at work, wrote Csikszentmihalyi, Kramer “had transformed a mindless, routine job into a complex, flow-producing activity.” His approach to his work called for an exercise of human will, freedom and meaning-making that made him remarkably successful at being satisfied and continually challenged to grow in his job, regardless of his place on the company food chain.

In the early 1980s, I intensively studied 20 business, government and nonprofit managers who loved their work. I wanted to find out what principles lay behind their extraordinary vitality and joy, and to find out what they had to teach us. All of these people had enormous energy, a positive attitude and a sense of purpose in their work. When things went wrong on the job, they did not blame circumstances or others but became focused on solutions. All had a deeply felt belief that they were entitled to pursue what interested them, and had left jobs that didn’t suit their temperaments or interests. They cared about the work itself doing it artfully and well rather than the prestige or money it would bring them. They were spontaneous, willing to live in the moment and to take risks. Their work had meaning for them: it fit with their larger sense of how the world worked and their own contribution to it. They cared about the people with whom and for whom they worked, genuinely enjoying the time spent with colleagues and clients. Such possibilities are not confined to fortunate, well-educated, upper-middle-class senior managers although control over one’s work environment and a measure of self-awareness and confidence certainly makes it easier to experience work spirit. I’ve met taxi drivers, secretaries, truck drivers, dentists and house-cleaners who love their work as well.

Work spirit isn’t about what work you do, necessarily, but how you feel about what you do. Misak Pirinjian, who runs Tony’s Shoe Repair in Mill Valley, California, gave up law to return to the business his father, an Armenian immigrant, started in the 1960s. “In law, you never finish in one day. In shoes, you start and finish the same day,” he says, in his workshop stuffed to the ceiling with high-heels, purses, valises and black leather jackets in various stages of repair. “Soles and heels are pretty standard,” he says. Pirinjian’s challenge and joy comes when he works on purses, belts, orthopedic shoes and luggage. “Purses come in in a shambles, with no life to them they need to be dyed, they need new buckles. Matching the color of the leather is hard. Luggage you need a lot of skills to put in zippers. And leather coats every single one is different. I never get bored.

“I don’t call it a job, because there’s no perspiration or pressure. At the end of the day, I feel the way I felt in high school when I played a lot of soccer you go out, run a lot, exercise. You feel good and tired, and you have won the game. You have accomplished your work load, and you go home.”

Architect Kent Cooper of Cooper-Lecky Partnership in Washington, D.C., feels as if his work is no different from playing. In kindergarten, he took up much of the classroom building his castles and towers out of blocks. When he was eight, he and a playmate in Woodbury, New Jersey, began building whole cities and towns out of blocks, cardboard, wood and sticky brown-paper tape losing themselves in a fantasy world for hours after school. “We spent three years nearly every afternoon building space stations and absolute fantasy stuff with whatever we got our hands on,” he told me. “It went on endlessly on the entire top floor of the house agrarian environments, space stations, urban environments integrated with electric trains transporting between rooms.”

When he was 16, Cooper turned away from his love of building. His father, a manufacturing executive, had died in an airplane accident, and under the influence of an orthodontist who took him under his wing, he decided to become a dentist, and then a surgeon. One summer day, as a pre-med student, he found himself in a university lab, cooking formaldehyde out of a dead cat. “My clothes reeked and I reeked, and I looked at my friend and said, ‘This is the stupidest thing in the damn world. I don’t like blood, dead cats, dissecting things. What I want to do is create beauty.'”

The year after this epiphany, Cooper was drafted and went to Japan as an interpreter with the occupying American forces. In Tokyo, he served as an aide to a colonel supervising the renovation of a 19th-century government palace and an adjoining outbuilding of classic Japanese architecture into an officer’s club. When Cooper later returned to graduate school, he studied architecture, not medicine. “I never questioned the fact that I had the right to change my mind,” he says. “I had made the decision [to be a pre-med student] to start with a decision that upset a plan that had been in my mind since I was in kindergarten. I came back to doing the one thing I have always been extremely happy about doing: building things. I’m doing the same thing I did in kindergarten except that I’m getting well paid for it.”

Cooper went on to design zoos, playgrounds, churches and museums. He loves the immediate experience of building, but his work also often serves a higher meaning, a greater goal. When he redesigned the Roslyn Episcopal Conference Center near Washington, D.C., he spent days at other local conference centers with a camera, recording the intricacies of the interactions

between people, buildings and the natural world. “I’d get up before dawn and set up the cameras to watch people, and watch the sun come up, and the grass cutters come, and people begin to wake up and lights go on in buildings,” he says. “This went on all day, just sopping this stuff up. It became very clear what the design problems were.” He wanted not just to design a pretty building but a place removed from the demands of ordinary life, one that would allow users to “turn on to a different kind of clock” and experience wholeness and aliveness. “I really believe in this kind of conference activity, so I was totally tuned in to everything I was doing,” he says. “It seemed absolutely appropriate and worthwhile.”


KENT COOPER IS A GOOD EXAMple of someone who has followed his childhood joy to a sense of larger meaning in the adult world of work. It is tempting to think he is one of a lucky few, but I believe this experience is one that is possible for everyone at any employment level. My exposure to hundreds of people who enjoy what they do for a living has convinced me that we all have a few kernels of gold in our psyches that can be mined to our great benefit. Once people examine closely their unique work path and focus their attention on those special times, at work or in pastimes they love, when they feel most truly alive, then an important journey can begin. As a coach and guide, my job is to help them to build the confidence, self-direction and navigational skills to find the right work for them in what, for most, is a mysterious and sterotypically unfriendly culture of work.

Researching work spirit caused a shift in my own professional priorities and approach. I had grown tired of identifying “stress factors” as a management consultant and coach. Increasingly, I began asking my clients a different set of questions about themselves at work and about work systems: What are you like at your best? If you have the best possible job, what would it be like? How would you like your work team to function? What department is a good model of excellence for your organization? If your organization were functioning at its best in the year 2000, what would be happening? How would people feel?

By assisting clients to evoke images of healthy, well-functioning and positive outcomes at work, I focused on the gap between what was envisioned and what was attainable, devising pragmatic and concrete actions that could produce incremental change in the desired direction. While it is important that a person’s stresses and complaints are heard, I shift the conversation as soon as possible to a discussion of what’s wanted and what’s possible. And if a person is being held back by the negative experiences of the past, or a generalized belief that work is by its nature a difficult or dreadful thing, I help them to see how the factors may be keeping them stuck and unable to act.

In contrast, people who appreciate the purpose, values and activities underlying their work, the human contact or the satisfaction of solving a problem (or whatever particular thing has a personal meaning), realize that their work pleasure is generated from within themselves, is personal and subjective. They understand that it helps if they have a healthy “can-do” attitude and, by knowing themselves, correct or avoid things that may sabotage them and take the time to make good choices. In jobs where they aren’t thriving, appreciated or well-matched, these employees somehow muster the courage to cut their losses and move on, calling on some kind of faith that they will find or create something better.

When people are stunned by an unexpected firing, restructuring or layoff, want help negotiating a work transition or hunger to find another kind of work they can love, I coach them to find the internal resources to take charge of the changes they want. All experiences and dreams are grist for the mill. By reviewing their career path, coping and work styles and general levels of stress and effectiveness, I identify how I can help them. I may also refer them to other resources a therapist, support group or resume writer. Assessing what they are ready for and what’s needed is important. Usually I then follow a structured, five-stage coaching process, using experiential exercises and assigning homework between sessions, tailored to a client’s unique circumstances, needs and goals.

Work History – This first stage explores the entire history of work in a person’s life, focusing on their unique career path, their choices, stumbles, lessons and dreams. I use a lengthy guided imagery process, listening to the entire story of the client’s work history, making observations and giving homework to help the client identify themes, talents, self-limiting beliefs and sustaining strengths.

In one Work History session, Bob, a highly successful international trade attorney in his forties, recalled the influence of his loving but controlling mother, and the loyalty his dad demanded. It became clear, as Bob’s story unfolded, that in his legal job he was still expressing his filial duty through his work, years later, by feeling bound to an exciting but highly stressful corporate job he secretly longed to leave. I helped Bob to see how he was repeating a pattern forged in youth, and to distinguish between the strong sense of loyalty that kept him bound to his employer and the growing loyalty to himself, which was impelling him to move on to more creative pursuits. As he began to imagine some vivid scenarios of other career paths, such as developing a comedy writing project with a favorite colleague, Bob was able to envision the specific steps he needed to take to expand his career alternatives.

Work Spirit – This stage helps clients to understand actual work experiences they have had that might form the basis of a positive work vision that they can move toward. “When did you have experiences at work that were extraordinarily enjoyable and meaningful?” I might ask, leading them through a guided imagery exercise. I listen for animation in their voice, and watch for the moment that they start to sparkle. Once people have emotionally and tangibly invoked such memories, my work is much easier. There is a palpable, physical experience of joy; their confidence often battered by unemployment or unsatisfying work also rises as they remember their capacity to perform well. Their visceral recall of positive work experiences gives them hope that they can recreate it, a sense that the goal of work spirit is attainable.

Mary, a human resource trainer in her late thirties, recalled the delight, surprise and boost in self-confidence she experienced when developing an organization training session in her highly structured government agency. She wanted to bring people together to share their ideas regardless of rank or position and sitting in a circle, instead of relying on the formal reports from department heads that usually watered down the ideas of the lower-level workers. She worked hard on a proposal to her boss and explained why this might just add a spark of creativity to a work team overstressed and burdened by political hassles and threatened budget cuts. She overcame her boss’s objections, was given a chance to run a trial two-hour meeting with the group, and it went so successfully they decided to meet again for an entire day. Recalling this experience of success helped Mary to recognize her need for more challenges at work and her interest in creative, innovative solutions to organizational problems. Shortly afterward, Mary left her agency and began a new career as an independent consultant.

Work Purpose – In this stage, the client is guided to write a personal purpose statement. A good purpose statement acts like a laser beam, illuminating a person’s desired career direction. After we discuss the themes, satisfactions and various purposes that have shaped his or her attitudes to work, the client crafts a single, succinct purpose statement that begins with an energizing verb, is 7 to 14 words in length, has no “ands” (to avoid a split purpose that might take clients’ energies in conflicting directions) and ends in a result beyond personal satisfaction. A dentist’s purpose statement might be, “Sustaining cavity-free teeth without fear,” an accountant’s purpose statement might be, “Creating numbers you can trust.”

Marlene, an exhausted project manager of 40, who recently quit her job, sick of trying to please a difficult, demanding boss, described various purposes, such as helping people, doing creative work and organizing events. She identified pleasures such as enjoying a concert, giving a party and working with children. She thought of her work as putting on events, taking an idea from concept to reality and finding the right people to do the job. Marlene’s purpose statement became, “Choreographing entertaining events that help participants savor their creative, personal expression.” I then explored with her the kinds of situations where this 11-word purpose might find specific, tangible form an events management firm developing conferences and annual meetings for organizations, a school that helps students develop their creativity or a talent management firm specializing in creative individuals, actors and artists. Marlene’s general sense of discouragement about her worklife lifted as she began to grow excited about new possibilities that really fit her. She is currently being considered for a position by a prominent public relations and events firm.

Work Scenarios – This stage helps clients to create positive scenarios of their work at its best, in the current situation, in a somewhat different situation and in a radically different, highly risky situation that corresponds to their deepest dreams and desires. Writing up one or two scenarios and making them as vivid and detailed as possible is the homework I assign.

John, a 45-year-old chiropractor, identified how he wanted to take his practice out of an urban setting and move to a more casual and expansive environment, perhaps joining a holistic group practice where the other practitioners would share the same philosophical and political values. His description included the kind of co-housing community where he would live, how the team of healers would work together, the kind of intimate relationship he would have and the canoeing, painting and other activities he would enjoy in his leisure time. John’s vivid description led to his meeting with a West Coast therapist who has the land, the architectural designs and the first investment partners in a community that is very nearly John’s imagined vision. John’s not so sure he wants to move to the West Coast, but having tried his vision on for size, he now has a much better idea of what he really does want and a lift from a sometimes boring routine.

Work Strategies – In this stage, clients focus their work history, work spirit, work visions and renewed sense of purpose by developing concrete career strategies and action plans. In this stage, which can be short if a person just needs a jump start, or long if they want ongoing support, I ask the client to set clear, time-limited goals for exactly what they want to accomplish. We identify a client’s support systems and look at strengthening a person’s stress-management skills and practices. Finally, we create a very specific action plan, with goals, results, action steps and specific people who can be called on to help, so that the client knows what he or she wants to do right away and has the support to do it.

Although 26-year-old Eileen had built an unusually successful graphics business in her early twenties, her business had failed because of increased competition from companies better adapted to new computer technologies. She became depressed about her failure and dreaded entering the job hunt. In the Work Strategies session, Eileen set goals to raise her self-esteem, increase her job-hunting skills and generate job interviews with firms that weren’t listed in the employment ads.

To deal with her depression, we looked at how her family dynamics kept her in a reactive mode, and I recommended Alanon meetings to help her separate herself from those influences and become more proactive. She decided to visit an alumnae career development office and to identify workshops and courses she could take to become more confident in interviews. I recommended that she have at least 24 job interviews eight to figure out what she wants to do, using each interview as a test; eight for interview practice; and then eight for real. By viewing the job-hunting process in this way, Eileen will be getting something of value from each interview without allowing herself to become discouraged if they don’t immediately lead to the right job for her.


WE LIVE IN A TIME WHEN MANY people cannot count on specific work skills to carry them through a lifetime. But if they can access past experiences of competence and joy, they can tease out more general talents artistic creativity rather than a specific graphics skill; a facility at empowering others rather than specific work as a one-to-one therapist. To cope with the challenge of a world in constant transition, people need to develop greater skills in life-navigation, recognizing that if they don’t manage change, change will manage them. Stress management, job interviewing and career management skills will become a standard part of many schools’ curricula, and if neighborhood schools or colleges don’t offer them, the churches, synagogues and community centers will. Mid-career study will just as often involve participating in contemplative retreats or values workshops and assembling one’s own encouragement team as it will registering for traditional academic course for new theories or updated skills. Conversations about personal purpose will be more the norm.

I’m often asked what I think of the New Age expression, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” It’s a good start, but it’s vastly more complicated than that. The money follows when you find something you love to do, do it well and often and tell as many people as possible what you are doing and want to do. There’s one last clincher: the prosperity we want from satisfying work will only follow when we are doing something other people want, need, and are willing to pay for, when the energy loop becomes a circle of energy satisfying both the worker and the world. I like to think of wealth as an abundance of that which one values, and my work is about creating such an experience of wealth.

“But first the work, then the wealth?” you ask. Yes. There isn’t a pill to take or a set of guaranteed steps, despite the fact that I’ve described a few. And this process isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes, clients will deny their regrets and dashed hopes, fear having their hopes raised or will just as soon avoid facing what they might have to do in order to pursue their dreams. They retreat into worn stereotypes about the workplace being brain-numbing and spirit-sapping, convincing themselves that there’s no point in trying. But such stereotypes about work cut off possibilities by keeping us from looking, learning and stretching themselves.

When people do work they love, work that is aligned with their sense of inner purpose and vision, they have enormous energy. They express the venerable notion of having a vocation or calling the work they were put on earth to do. I believe each of us has something special to give, something we believe will advance the good of our world and community. Finding this work, one’s work spirit, may even be one of the deepest spiritual paths of all. Such blessings need not be limited to the fortunate few. “Let the beauty we love be what we do,” proclaimed the 13th-century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Sherrie Connelly, M.Mgt., DBA, is president of The Strategy Foundation.

Illustrations by Nip Rogers