“Whatever you are, be a good one.”
There’s a large and very famous bookstore in my hometown that has been a favorite haunt of mine since my teenage years.
Aside from glorious, sky-high stacks of cheap used paperbacks and its iconic retro-red-and-black marquee, one of the bookstore’s most unforgettable attributes is the man who runs the ancient parking garage located atop its main atrium.
This guy’s been there since, like, forever. He’s got a tricky-to-place accent and often sports a bright, abidingly practical rain poncho. And he takes his job very, very seriously.
He can be spotted most days hopping around the periphery of the narrow, one-lane ramp that serves both as an entrance into and an exit out of this busy and terrifyingly narrow garage, conducting cars up and down the single-lane ramp while simultaneously helping pedestrians safely cross its threshold, all of the action narrated with a stream of clipped, barked orders and commands.
When I first started driving, this guy used to intimidate me, as did maneuvering my loose-clutched Toyota Tercel through the steep, two-point turn-and-honk combo required to safely exit the garage.
I was scolded heartily by him more than once for failing to follow his precise instructions or for misplacing my validated parking stub. And I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why all of it mattered so very much to him.
It was cars and parking, not nuclear armistice, right? Who cares if things got cocked up once in awhile? Now that I’m older and settled into a career of my own, though, I get it.
I, too, have experienced the thrill of working in The Flow when a task goes off just right. I’ve experienced the disappointment of failing to live up to my own standards, of causing backups and hassles for others. And I’ve learned to see my work (writing) as the conduction of an orchestra whose music only I can hear, deserving of my intense focus, dedication and, yes, love.
And because of these things, I view this bookstore parking attendant quite differently now: he’s not barking orders because he’s angry. He’s not jumping about like a cat on a hot tin roof because he’s annoyed or frustrated.
In truth, the guy is very likely having the time of his life, and here’s why: he’s gotten a taste of how satisfying it feels to do a job well, of being, perhaps, the only person capable of doing that particular job quite so well, and he’s gotten hooked on the accompanying high. He lives for it.
And so he’s made it his mission to be the best parking garage attendant there ever was. He’s no doubt learned every contour of that narrow old garage with its tiny numbered spaces and its inopportunely placed poles. He can confidently gauge which car will fit where to a T, and he can often hand you back your keys just by memory when you return from your browsing.
And, despite his gruff exterior, there’s a twinkle in his eye that indicates he is having a very good time while he does all of this.
A week back, I found myself riding the elevator of that city bookstore with my husband and baby in tow. As soon as I stepped into the small vestibule, a man standing to the side of me demanded, in a clipped, gruff voice: “Which floor?”
“Three,” I said, and then glanced up at the man as he punched the button. He flashed me that unmistakable smile. It was the parking attendant, reporting for duty in his trademark poncho, up close and personal.
I’m normally shy around strangers, but this time, I couldn’t help myself. It was like meeting a local celebrity.
“I know you!” I cried. “You’re the parking attendant guy! You’ve been here forever! You must get recognized everywhere you go!”
He puffed up his chest and smiled even huger: “Yes! And see? I give you good service here just like I do there.”
Right then, I decided something: from now on, whenever I feel burnt out or beaten down by this creative path I’m on, I’m going to remember my favorite parking garage attendant, and the formula for job satisfaction he embodies: If if you’re not having fun, you’re doing your work wrong.
Is relative fun-ness really an accurate barometer of success? I’m going to argue that it definitely is. And what do we talk about when we talk about a thing being fun? We’re talking about a thing being satisfying and leaving you filled up, I think, even when it’s tricky or tiring.
Maybe, at the end of your day, you’re achy and exhausted and your contacts are glued to your eyeballs. But are you smiling? Do you kick your feet up and say to yourself, “I mother-fracking slayed it today!”
I’m pretty sure this guy does. If you do, too, you’re having fun, and regardless of where it is you’re ultimately headed professionally, you’re verifiably on the exact right track.