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Feeling Stuck? Find Purpose in Service.

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Feeling Stuck? Find Purpose in Service.

In this recent article on Get Rich Slowly, J.D. explored the topic of using positive reinforcement to foster smart money habits. He began it with something of a confession: While many of his articles take a few hours to produce, he had drafted the above article several times over the course of the last year and a half yet still wasn’t satisfied.

Rather than give up on an idea he thought could benefit his audience though, he turned the topic over for discussion with his readers. While I haven’t scrapped a 3,500 word draft among several like J.D., I’ve been similarly struggling with today’s article.

The title has been on my blog post ideas list since July of 2017 and I’ve brainstormed different approaches to it on several occasions. Completely by coincidence, it was something J.D. shared during our bi-weekly mastermind call that moved this article back to the top of my list of posts to tackle.

With all things on my blog, I live by this motto: What I do, I do in service of my readers. -J.D. Roth

As a reader of his blogs since 2006 or 2007, I know this isn’t an empty aspiration. J.D. walks the walk. I think this attitude of service and his strong work ethic help to explain how he’s been able to make a living and ultimately achieve financial independence through his passion for writing.

In my experience though, I believe anyone can benefit from approaching their work and life this way, not just the rare entrepreneurs who’ve established profitable businesses doing what they love.

Below, I’ll take you on a tour through some of my work history to discuss how a focus on being of service to others has guided me throughout my career and often made my work more satisfying.

Serving as an Educator—The Noblest Profession

It should come as no surprise that my first job, at 15 years of age, was my lowest paying job. What may come as a surprise though is that it was arguably my most fulfilling job. From my sophomore year in high school through most of my college years, I worked as a martial arts instructor.

As a teacher, I found it quite easy to remain focused on being of service to others. As a martial arts instructor in particular, students improve quickly and obviously. Their progress is also regularly celebrated by opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and potentially advance their rank.

Besides belt progressions and physiological improvements, I got to witness other important changes, particularly in our younger students. We praised them for high academic achievement in front of their entire class. As such, many performed better in school.

We also praised students whose parents reported an improvement in their behavior and, sure enough, parents often reported attitude improvements.

We were able to provide the structure and high expectations that many students needed to become better versions of themselves.

One of the adult students at my first martial arts school had been a victim of rape. On several occasions while sparring and grappling with her, I witnessed visible terror, tears, and other outward expressions of the fear and trauma she was suffering from every day.

She later shared with me that she had gained more confidence when going outside alone as a result of her training. To think that I played even a small role in easing her burdens meant a great deal to me and has stuck with me all these years since.

Prominent 19th century philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill regarded teaching as the noblest profession.

Through teaching, one can impact the lives of many.

Still, I think this attitude of service can and should make noble professions of most lines of work.

Serving as a Retail Employee

The mother of one of my martial arts students was chosen to be the business manager of a Dave & Buster’s that was opening near us and she suggested I should apply. As much as I loved my job, the chance to earn a lot more money was difficult to ignore.

When I showed up for my interview though, I found out she’d prepped my interviewer and that I was instead there to discuss joining the store’s management team. It was a little intimidating at the time, but I accepted and shortly after my 21st birthday I found myself responsible for a six-figure inventory and a staff of more than 30 people.

Dave & Buster’s was an incredible place to learn some early management skills. It had (and presumably has) a rare Disney-like focus on the guest experience.

I was trained to frequently step outside of my role as someone working in the business and to instead try to see it as our guests would.

Through that subtle but intentional shift in perspective, I’d always notice something we could improve. Someone was missing a name tag or some price tag was out of place. Something was visible that shouldn’t have been or something was missing from our display.

Some guest was growing impatient while waiting for help from another department. Another guest was visibly having a bad day that I might be able to make a little brighter through some genuinely friendly engagement.

As I said, through this exercise I could always discover something I would have otherwise simply missed while working through my day-to-day transactional responsibilities. So I came to regard this practice of shifting to what I’ll call a guest-eye view as particularly useful and I trained everyone in our department to do the same.

Of course, I know that working in retail can be mundane work. But it can also be rewarding work when approached with this attitude of service. I took pride in our department. It was frequently singled out by corporate as an example for other stores. And I wasn’t the only one who was proud of our work.

This focus on the guest experience seemed to extend to most employees in our department. We had an unmatched employee retention rate. 67% of the people working in the department when I left the company in 2004 were part of my opening team in 2001.

I found working in this atmosphere of service and excellence rewarding and don’t recall ever dreading a day of work there.

Before graduating college and moving on from Dave & Buster’s, I got the opportunity to serve as the company’s corporate trainer, traveling to new and existing stores to impart or restore this culture of service.

Serving in the Family Business

I never imagined myself following in my parents’ footsteps professionally. Well, that’s not entirely true.

When I was around 10 or so, my bedroom was also my father’s “home office”. I remember often waking up to him sitting in his underwear talking to people on the phone and joking with him about wanting to do that for a living someday.

Shortly before I graduated from college with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Spanish, my father and his 3 business partners asked if I would consider joining their company as the International Sales Manager.

I didn’t take the decision lightly.

My best friend’s brothers were no longer on speaking terms after working together. And this was just one of a handful of second-hand reference points of family business relationships ending poorly.

I nearly declined the offer to protect our relationship but I ultimately accepted on the condition that family came first and we would simply stop working together if either of us ever decided we were no longer enjoying it.

I was employee number 3 (not counting my father and his 3 business partners) — one of the only other two employees was my mother, the bookkeeper.

They were running the company from a spare bedroom in my parents’ house, yet were booking a pretty respectable amount of revenue for such a small team. From a sheer revenue standpoint, I remember telling them the company was definitely not what most people pictured when they thought of a home-based business.

The company also had a 2-person tech support office in Las Vegas which had only recently moved out of one partner’s house. Before that, metal shelving racks of various parts lined the walls of his formal living room and dining room.

There were a number of accounting and administrative issues associated with operating the two small offices, and the partners of the company agreed to migrate the Las Vegas office’s functions to Dallas.

While I was hired for the more glamorous job of launching the company’s foray into international sales, it was clear I could be of the highest use to the team in the near term by assisting with relocating the office.

I agreed to postpone working on international sales, which also meant delaying the commissions that were expected to form over half of my compensation. Instead, I moved to Las Vegas a week or so after starting with the company and dove head first into our tech support function.

I suggested we also hire one of the most talented people I worked with at Dave & Buster’s and he thankfully agreed to assist us with the transition. Together, we learned enough of the functions of the office to relocate it to Texas in around 10 months.

Finding Purpose in Tech Support

Understand that people rarely call a tech support or customer service number to say thank you and report that everything is still working just fine for them. Now that I think of it though, I should! That sounds bizarrely fun to me.

Being on the front line of customer complaints all day is draining. However, helping people solve problems only you can resolve can be pretty rewarding. And our products improved our customers’ operations and workplace safety. So keeping them working well made people’s day easier and likely saved lives across our install base.

When I allowed one caller’s negativity to affect me, it made my work harder. When I instead focused on the good we were doing and on how we were making people safer, it made my work easier.

Finding Purpose in Sales

When the migration was eventually complete, the deep product knowledge I developed during my time in customer service became an asset in my newly assumed sales role. Without it, I likely would have been less successful in the role.

When someone agrees to take a sales call or takes the time to reach out for someone in sales, they want to be talking with someone that can answer their questions.

My product knowledge allowed me to be relentlessly honest about whether we could or couldn’t help.

Philosophically, I was pretty opposed to what I viewed as the typical pushy sales techniques. I wanted to be a different kind of salesperson. In fact, my only interest in working in sales was my interest in non-profit management. I’d read somewhere that sales experience was a highly regarded skill for directors of non-profits to possess.

My approach to sales seemed to resonate with enough of the people I contacted. Or maybe we just had the right products at the right time.

Whatever the cause, within my first couple of years as our International Sales Manager our overseas revenue grew to account for a little over half of our total revenue, even as our domestic revenue was growing rapidly.

As our international sales grew, so did my commissions. I became the highest paid person in our company approximately two years after graduating from college. That only lasted for a year or so though.

When one partner retired in 2007, I was offered the opportunity to become a partner in the company. In exchange, we agreed that I’d forego my commission structure and reduce my compensation to that of the other partners in the company, cutting my pay nearly in half.

Serving as a Small Business Owner

When I joined the company, there was already a strong service focus in place. After I became a co-owner of the company, I simply canonized our focus on service by drafting a formal mission statement that consisted of three interrelated components. Our Service Mission was intentionally depicted as the central component, the glue that brought our Product Mission and our Economic Mission together.

Now, I know that a mission statement isn’t worth the ink it’s printed on if it isn’t lived, but I think in our case it really does accurately reflect and reinforce the culture of our company.

Our tech support employees don’t hesitate to throw everything and the kitchen sink at solving a customer’s problem if needed and never doubt they have our support when they need to take that approach.

As an example of this, we came in one Monday morning to find our Director of Customer Care wasn’t in the office. It turns out a key customer of ours in the northeast had had a problem over the weekend that we couldn’t resolve for them over the phone. We were also unable to get a technician on site over the weekend either. He took it upon himself to buy a ticket and fly halfway across the country to take care of it himself.

Did he feel he needed to ask permission? Nope.

This is just one example of the very real culture of service that permeates our company’s service function.

When donning my owner hat, I also got really into thinking through how we could improve our processes and what systems we could introduce to make our work more efficient and therefore a more positive experience for us and our customers.

Over the course of my twelve and a half years of full-time employment in my company, I replaced, reworked, or automated nearly every system we use to run our business. Everything from our accounting system to our CRM system, our email server, calendars, virtual meeting software, call tracking, our website, our phone systems, our security systems, and on and on.

I’d often dig into these projects after-hours, when I could best focus on them. Now, spending my nights tediously merging and migrating spreadsheets of data from disparate accounting systems and CRM systems into a common system doesn’t sound like a good time. And it often wasn’t.

But I would derive tremendous satisfaction every time these efforts eliminated some mundane activity our employees had been doing.

Serving as a Writer

A large part of what draws me to writing here is what originally inspired me about being a martial arts instructor:

Through teaching, one can impact the lives of many.

I’ve gained so much from so many writers and love that Ellen and I can participate in this tradition here in our own way. Time will tell if these articles prove useful to others. Regardless, I find the act of sitting and writing them in this spirit fulfilling and plan to continue doing so for some time.

Serving Your Friends

For a less career-oriented example of this attitude of service, read Ellen’s recent post about serving our friends who recently gave birth to twins. While there was an element of self-care to Ellen’s trip (particularly after I convinced her to extend her time in Oregon), the driving motivation of her trip was one of service to our close friends.

They are the highest quality people one could ever hope to befriend so we both jumped at the chance to serve them in our way when we had the chance.

Final Thoughts

The work that has given me the most satisfaction over the course of my professional life has always included a clear element of service to others.

If you ever find yourself feeling disengaged from your work, it can be helpful to remember that all businesses exist only to help people. While that isn’t to say all businesses are morally equivalent, businesses only survive by meeting the needs of others.

Try to connect with the underlying mission of your workplace, department, or role. You may just find, as I often have, that it’s the perspective shift you need to reengage more fully in your work.

As long as you believe you’re part of an organization that is doing some good in the world, identifying those benefits and aligning yourself with that purpose may result in a heightened degree of fulfillment and satisfaction with your work.

This practice isn’t only about making your workdays more enjoyable. Although, given how much of our life is spent working, that alone would be enough.

The resulting increase in your engagement with your work will likely be quite visible to others and may also accelerate the advancement of your career.

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