Want to Find Joy at Work Again? Be a Student

So at age 18 I headed off to Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois with a couple of sets of sheets, my very first bank account, a bad perm, and a whole lot of expectation.   My hands trembled as I cut into my deep dish sausage pizza — the last supper I shared with my parents before they headed back to St. Louis in their now-much-lighter Lincoln Continental.  Trembled with fear, with expectation.  I shut the door behind them and sat on my single bed (my mother had propped up a cushion with my initials on it).  I had a new room, a room of my own. And suddenly my life had a new amount of room in it.    In that tiny, drab dorm room, I could immediately sense a sort of spaciousness in my life.

I loved my four years at Northwestern.  I mean still-remember- specific-moments-and-exact-dates-kind of loved them.  My husband thinks I’m a nerd — to him “University” in South Africa was just a necessary step in getting a job. The chance to get a new nickname coined one night when you somehow got drunker than your friends.

But for me it was different.  College wasn’t about getting a job.  It was about  joy.

(Full disclosure here, I hated high school.  Stifling high school with its daily grind of avoiding and pretending.  High school was joy-less, and even now I can conjure up the palpable sense of relief I felt on graduation day.)

But with college came joy – possibly the first time I’d felt it.  The joy of unbridled exploration. Of sensing endless possibility both in myself and in the world around me.  My clay wasn’t fully molded, my scripts still in draft form.

For the first time, I experienced the joy of re-creation.  No, I don’t mean kegs of beer and football games.   I mean re-creation.  Realizing the power to re-create my passions, my beliefs, my sense of purpose.  Trusting in my power to forge a new path for myself – one totally unique to me, neither borrowed nor handed down.

Up until college, Jill Reilly had been a product of other people, of a distinct place with its very definite sense of expectations.  But suddenly in college I was no longer just a product.  I was a producer.  The producer of my very own based-on-a-true story.

I was exercising control over my narrative.  And that for me is where joy lies.  Because it’s freedom.

Periods of Discovery

Can you think of a time in your life when you felt free — saturated with possibility?  For me it was in college, but maybe for you it came with a new job, an overseas trip or a move to a new city?  A time when you were so receptive and curious that you yielded to the unknown and in it found a new way of knowing yourself?

I think of those as our periods of deep discovery and it can be an interesting exercise to map them in your life.  To remind yourself of your times of acute learning and exploring, like spikes on a graph.  For me they were in college, moving to South Africa, becoming a mother.  Exhilarating, difficult times when I had to simultaneously adapt and surrender in order not only to survive, but to embrace the joy of not knowing.

It’s important to remember those periods of discovery: when we laughed and cried, when we hid or stumbled.  Because those memories help us everyday to conjure up the magic of being a student. We are students in those moments in the unknown – those not-knowing moments — though our classrooms aren’t necessarily in a school, our lessons taught by people and places around us.

So many of us surrender our sense of freedom and discovery as soon as we “settle in” –  to a new place, post, team or relationship.  We give up questions for answers, risks for safety, play for productivity, learning for delivering.  We forfeit control over narratives, give up the title of producer in favor of “best boy” (or girl).  And then one day we wake up and realize how stifled we feel.  How we’re avoiding, pretending.

Embedding Discovery in Our Workplace

So how, then, do we generate those periods of discovery in our lives — particularly in our workplace, which is where so many of us find our sense of purpose —  even when our circumstances remain the same?  How do we embed curiosity and receptivity into our workplace roles and relationships so that we don’t settle in and settle for less.

In essence, how do we rediscover the  joy of learning in our workplace?  Harness that joy to deliver on our individual and collective sense of possibility?

As leaders — which we all are — we have to ask ourselves these questions:

Me:  Do I give my team and colleagues the incentive to learn, the safety to take risks, and the space to grow? Do I trust?  And am I worthy of the trust of others?

Me & You:  Do we feel safe enough to share ideas together, to say “I don’t know”, or “how about this?” Do we protect and support each other to experiment and grow?

Us:  Do we create a fertile environment for re-creation in small and big ways:  changing up our everyday patterns of behavior and continuing to stoke our collective belief in our ability to deliver on a shared sense of purpose?

And to all of us, do we take responsibility for cultivating joy in our work places?  The joy of everyday discovery and growth that comes when we embrace the idea that we are all students — every day of our lives.

I found a new kind of space in my tiny dorm room.  Maybe you can find it in your office again?