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Joy at Work (and Working at Joy)

Why butterflies might matter in the business ecosystem

Butterfly flying off of a flower

What follows is a stepping stone; the start of my understanding of something that, on the one hand, I’ve lived with my whole life, and at the same time, I haven’t given nearly as much thought to as I could have. Fortunately, I get a lot of joy from learning, and maybe even more of it from putting that learning to work in the world. In the spirit of synergy, helping others helps me at the same time. As progressive educator Maria Montessori once said, “Joy is the evidence of inner growth.” The understanding of which, right now, gives me a lovely little moment of the joy this piece is about. It’s only a matter of minutes before something else intrudes into this joyful space, but while it’s there, it’s most certainly making me smile.

Unlike long-term visions or well-built buildings, joy is fleeting. Like a butterfly alighting on a newly opened blossom, it’s there to be appreciated for a few seconds, maybe a couple of minutes. If we miss it, life goes on apace; the world won’t end, but our energy erodes a bit. If we notice it, we smile, our eyes light up, endorphins are released, we enjoy the joy. As poet Lisel Mueller (who passed away just before the start of the pandemic last year at the age of 96) writes, “What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.” Most moments of joy pass pretty quickly, but the best of them, if we’re paying attention, become precious memories we can carry forward into our personal and/or collective futures. What follows is about mindfully making joy into an active—and actively sought after—element in the story of our daily work.

Rich Sheridan rewrote his story to make joy an important part of his work, and that addition altered his life. I’ve known Rich for at least twenty years now—he and his partner James Goebel and their colleagues at Menlo Innovations just celebrated their 20th anniversary. We’ve had countless conversations over the years. Menlo’s mission is about “Being intentional about restoring JOY… to technology” and “to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” Joy, Inc. came out in 2013, and, it’s all about creating a joyful work culture. The Menlo folks are long-time ZingTrain fans, and the two organizations have many things in common, including commitments to visioning, Servant Leadership, getting away from hierarchy, and Open Book Management. Having reread Joy, Inc. and its sequel, Chief Joy Officer, two or three times now, probably the biggest thing I got from the books is the belief what we can take joy out of the abstract—a pleasant thing that’s mostly about eight-year-olds playing in the park—and intentionally put joy to work at work. As Rich writes, we can focus “on the business value of joy.” All of which is why, when my mind got going on the subject while I was out running the other day, I immediately thought of reaching out to Rich. Later that evening I sent him this email:

 I was thinking about the organizational ecosystem model and imagining that joy could be butterflies—it’s well known in healthy natural farms and ecosystems that butterflies show up in abundance, and they’re also a sign of health returning to an ecosystem. When an ecosystem is being restored to its natural state, butterflies come back!

Rich’s response? “I LOVE that idea!” My reaction? Joy! His email made me smile. Which, in the wonderfully sustainable cycle that joy can generate, still gives me joy right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

My partner Paul didn’t write a book about joy, but he did give a speech about it when he and I did the commencement address at Michigan Stadium (you’ll find the whole speech is in the back of Part 4). Here’s a bit of what Paul said:

Class of 2015, mentally pull up your “Must Have” list for success and scan it. Really, take it out and give it a good look. Raise your hand if joy is at the top of that list. It wasn’t on my list when I graduated from this fine institution. Joy is not the typical yardstick of success. … So why would you want joy on your list, and what is it, anyway? Joy is a feeling so profound that it sits at the top of the human experience chart. Just above love and just below peace and enlightenment. To feel joy, you don’t have to wait until you’re old, like us, I believe you can have it now, starting today.

The “feeling of joy” is, indeed, what I get when I see—or even just think about—butterflies. I mean that both literally, and also metaphorically when I imagine butterflies as joy in the ecosystem of Zingerman’s. We fall short, I know, every day. And yet, I also have come to understand that the healthier we are as an organization, the more joy will show up. Science writer Hayley Ames explains, “An abundance of butterflies is often an indication that an ecosystem is thriving.” Same goes in business; the healthier the ecosystem gets, the more easily joy can be experienced. I tested it out informally the other day—I went around and asked about ten people on shift at the end of a busy evening what had given them joy during the shift. I had no idea what they would say. We haven’t—until now—spent a lot of time talking about joy the way Rich and the folks at Menlo do. And, yet, I’ve realized, it’s present anyways. What blew my mind in the best possible way is that they all, quickly, offered up good answers. And they smiled when they shared them.

Conversely, when things aren’t going well—at work or in the natural world—it gets harder and harder to find those butterflies, both in the literal and the metaphorical sense of the word. I don’t know that any boss arrives at work saying that he or she is going to take away everyone’s joy. Most of the world has become so accustomed to a joyless existence at work that its absence is generally unremarkable, in much the same way that the average city dweller fails to notice how hard it is to find a butterfly. The disappearance of the butterfly in nature is causing a lot of well-documented problems; the absence of joy in the American workplace causes comparable issues in our ecosystems. I’ve certainly seen it happen here when we don’t do our work as well as we should. In both cases, the impact is not immediate and nor will it be obvious to the casual observer. But for those paying close attention over time, the loss of butterflies and of joy will slowly but surely lead to disastrous results. With that understanding in mind, we would be right to remember Lucinda Williams’ great song “Joy”: “You took my joy, I want it back.”

Interestingly, I realized that finding joy might actually go better if I approached it with “obliquity;” if we try too hard to make joy happen, we probably won’t find it. The work is more about surrounding ourselves with people and things like music, art, poetry, great food, and philosophy, around which joy is more likely to appear. Like butterflies landing, we need to be mindful, to pay close attention. Otherwise, the opportunity to appreciate it passes unnoticed.

All of which brings me to a Bulgarian American poet by the name of Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. Stoykova-Klemer grew up in the town of Bourgas, the Bulgarian “city of poets.” Like Rich Sheridan, she’s both a software engineer and a writer. Interestingly, when Stoykova-Klemer came to the U.S., the change in ecosystem impacted her self-expression; she struggled with her writing. “As soon as I stepped on American soil, I stopped. Didn’t write for 11 years.” Fortunately, her software work went well. She and her husband moved around the country, eventually settling in Louisville, which she loves. Back in a healthy ecosystem, her writing returned. In an article in Kentucky Living, she shares that, “It just came over me.” On her way to work one day, she pulled off into the parking lot of the local Kroger where, she says, “I wrote a poem. And I felt such joy.” All of which leads me to a tiny piece of poetry she wrote that sums up the delicate and nuanced sense of awareness that I believe best makes joy into a reality:

Catch the air
around the butterfly.

It’s by working hard every day to notice “the air around the butterflies” that the joy most meaningfully brings delight to my days. Both the image, and the imperfect but attentive reality, add loveliness to my life. In the ecosystem metaphor air is purpose; transliterating, the poem might then be pushing us to consider honoring joy as a positive purpose in our daily work. 

As most of you will know, I’ve written a lot about the application of art and beauty into our daily activities. Writing this piece got me pondering the connection between joy and beauty. Beauty, to my view, could be anything from a well-bussed table to a lovely loaf of dark-crusted Country Miche from the Bakehouse, to a great service experience, to a six-year-old about to eat her first Donut Sundae on her birthday. Beauty becomes a prerequisite, but joy happens only when we take notice. Beauty ignored isn’t enough. We need to, as John O’Donohue suggested, train our eyes (and ears and palates) to take it in. When we do, we get better at spotting the butterflies. As Walt Whitman writes “Do anything, but let it produce joy.” 

As I think further on how all this plays out at work, my belief is that when we deliver what would be a 9 or a 10 on our Zingerman’s Experience Indicator (our adaptation of Net Promoter Score) to a guest, we probably brought them joy. Similarly, when we have a product that’s a 9 or 10, that’s a spot for joy as well! The potential for joy is embedded in our Mission Statement and in our commitment to giving great service. It’s in our food and drink. As Paul said in the commencement address, it’s in the spirit of generosity that we try so hard to live every day: 

Generosity leads to joy. It’s simple and it’s guaranteed. Generosity follows the natural law of the harvest—you reap more than you sow. When you give, you get more back. Minimally, you get a joy buzz.

Joy is easily accessed too in the appreciations we end our meetings with, in the delight we take in going the extra mile for each other; it’s in the artwork that you can see on our websites, walls, newsletters, catalogs, and business cards. It’s in the humor that we try to use and the love that we work hard to bring to every interaction we have. We still have to do the work to take notice of it for the joy to become real. But the good news is that we—and other healthy organizations of all sorts—have a lot of opportunity to make that happen. I’ve been thinking of having folks end their shift by sharing a moment of joy that took place while they were working that day. For a minute or two, or even for just a few seconds, a metaphorical butterfly lands in the room.

Joy, to be clear, is not just flowers and fun. Working hard to help make a healthy ecosystem, and then pausing to pay attention to the joy that is created, is a real-life way to work towards a better world. Hanif Abdurraqib writes, “Joy, in this way, can be a weapon—that which carries us forward when we have been beaten back for days, or months, or years.” Finding joy does not preclude us from finding fault. In fact, the two can, and do every day, coexist. As Gareth Higgins writes, conveniently for my metaphor-loving mind, “appreciating the butterflies does not make us naïve.” Joy, I’ve realized, comes, really, only when we also allow ourselves to experience grief and loss. The highs come only when we also allow in the lows. As Khalil Gibran writes, “Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.” To wit, Charlie Parr, whose new record I referenced down below, started writing songs many years ago as a way to process his father’s passing. His music, I know, has given me and many others great joy and I would imagine it has for him too—his new album is the 20th Parr has put out.

How do happiness and joy relate to each other? They’re not, Rich Sheridan makes clear, the same thing: “Joy is deeper, more meaningful, and purposeful.” In my food-focused mind, happiness is more like supermarket strawberries—they look nice, I think of them fondly more often than not (even though we know that there are many issues with industrially farmed berries). Joy is more like Michigan strawberries that are out at the market right now. We only have them for brief moments; the shelf life is short; but they’re so much better and they make my eyes light up. Joy in edible action!

Amelia and Emily Nagoski, in their fine book, Burnout, talk about joy as an antidote to apathy and depression. One of their big learnings is that “… joy comes from connection. We can’t really do it alone.” Which is why the workplace is such a wonderful environment in which to encourage it. We are all, always, in this work together. And the more we help each other to grow and develop into our true selves, the better things will go and the more joy we’re likely to generate. John O’Donohue said, “We have a sacred responsibility to encourage and illuminate all that is inherently good and special in each other.” The opportunity to do that is, for me, one of the most joyful things I ever engage in.

(Part of what drew me to so much anarchist work, I realize now, was that unlike so many other approaches to revolution and change, it wasn’t about a retreat to ascetic poverty. Joy comes up over and over again. Emma Goldman wrote, “… the Lack of Joy and Purpose in Work which turns life into a vale of misery and tears. Anarchism aims to strip labor of its deadening, dulling aspect, of its gloom and compulsion. It aims to make work an instrument of joy.”)

Focusing more on joy will not, I know, eliminate all our problems; pain and poverty will still exist in the world; we will continue to make many mistakes. There is no perfect way to be in the world, and no way to be perfect. But both joy and butterflies can bring a bit of loveliness and liveliness to our days. Working on this piece has reminded me to look for joy—to work to weave it in our daily work, and to encourage the kind of ecosystem health in which it’s much more likely to appear. It’s up to me, I see now more than ever, to embrace that joy as Rich, Paul, Emma Goldman, and so many others have suggested. Like so much of life, it’s an inside out activity. As Holocaust survivor and positive psychologist Edith Eva Eger says, “Today, I have a joy that is within me that I cherish so much, because I don’t have to wait for anything to come from the outside.” Like butterflies in a field, potential moments of joy are easy to miss, but when we catch them they enhance our energy and improve lives in the process. As Rich Sheridan assures us, “Those closest to you start to notice a difference in who you’ve become.” Over time, he adds, “You’ll start to see joy, feel joy, and almost touch joy within your entire team.” As he ends Joy, Inc., “More than anything, I wish you that joy.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!