The Dignity of Work – Part II Finding Joy in Work or Why My Wife Wanted to Be a Garbage Man

Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “Find a job you enjoy doing and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Few would argue with the premise of that statement. Most of us would also agree that finding a job you love to do is not always easy. What about those jobs that few would relish? How does one find joy in work some would consider undignified?

These questions reminded me of Walt Disney’s classic 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and one of the songs from their soundtrack, Whistle While You Work. The lyrics are:

Just whistle while you work
And cheerfully together we can tidy up the place
So hum a merry tune
It won’t take long when there’s a song to help you set the pace
And as you sweep the room
Imagine that the broom
Is someone that you love and soon you’ll find you’re dancing to the tune
When hearts are high the time will fly so whistle while you work (1)

Apparently, Snow White and those Dwarfs may have hit on something. Researchers now tell us that humming or singing, while you work, has multiple benefits. It can help you focus and make it easier to complete an otherwise boring and uninteresting task. Music can also help set a better mood, reduce stress and spur creativity.

After reading my recent blog post about the Dignity of Work, my wife Patrice recalled an episode from her youth that illustrates the impact of song on performing what some might consider unsavory work. As a five-year-old living in Rome, Italy, she has a vivid memory of her first career ambition – that of becoming a garbage man. Why would a child want such a vocation? That’s the rest of the story.

In her own words,

“When I was five years old, I lived in Rome, Italy for a brief time. I recall how everyone left their windows open to take advantage of the cool Mediterranean breezes during the warmer times of the year. Every Tuesday, was garbage pickup day. Oh, how I looked forward to Tuesdays. I could hear the garbage trucks making their way down the narrow streets. From blocks away, I heard the clanging of trash cans and then above it all I heard the singing. The garbage men would be singing Italian arias. Songs of Puccini, Faust would echo along the cobblestone streets. I always stuck my head out the window as far as I dared to catch a glimpse of this traveling operetta.

These crooning troubadours serenaded the streets of Rome pitching the trash and the tunes from one to another. And the way they loaded the trash cans made it appear as if it was a choreographed dance. One would toss a can to the other who would pour the trash into the truck, embrace the can as he would a lover, then hurl the can back to his partner. It was an amazing sight. Neighbors and those walking along the street would stop and watch. Applause usually erupted, and these singing garbagemen would stop and take a bow. They were not only wonderful to watch, they were awe-inspiring. So when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, there was no doubt in my mind what career I wanted to pursue – I wanted to be a garbage man! I wanted to sing like that, dance in the streets and have friends who sang with me.

These men made their work joyous and made everyone who watched them happy. It was a gift to the people of Rome. Surprisingly, many of them did not have great voices. Some were just ordinary. But some were phenomenal. We later joked that unless you auditioned to be a Roman garbage man, you could never sing in the cantorie. (church choir). It was a spectacle I remember to this day.”

To be sure, whistling, humming or singing while you work may be an unwelcome distraction to your co-workers. I know if I sing when I take the garbage out, the neighborhood dogs would howl. So I do suggest caution. But then the Harvard Business Review (February 2012 issue) reports that “happy employees have 31% higher productivity, their sales are 37% higher; their creativity is three times higher.”

Yes, work is still a four-letter word, but finding and creating joy in your workplace can make a tough job easier and even make it look dignified. Just ask Snow White…or the garbage men of Rome. Attitude makes all the difference.

Today, it is my wife who has a remarkable voice. The good news is that I don’t have to look out a Roman window to see her riding a garbage truck to hear her sing.

And she smells good too.

(1) Lyrics to Whistle While You Work, Songwriters Frank Churchill/Larry Morey.

3 thoughts on “The Dignity of Work – Part II Finding Joy in Work or Why My Wife Wanted to Be a Garbage Man

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