Who’s it for?

When I worked as an assistant psychologist I found there were many dry things I had to do. Lots of interesting things, too – I was blessed with some great managers who found activities that tallied with my needs and interest. But I had to complete a lot of documents, validate bits of basic but faffy data, double-check addresses and collate forms in envelopes before sending them out. At this point its worth saying I was already 40, and had progressed within careers to points where other people were there to do this for me.

I think of myself as never too proud to pick up a broom and muck in, but it was always possible that I could find my ego pricked by this and become resentful. So I thought about this ahead of time, and decided that when I came to these tasks, I would try and find something within the task that meant more than the task itself.

You might know the anecdote. JFK goes to NASA, asks janitor what he does, janitor says “I put men on the moon.” Whether myth or fact, it’s useful to try and apply this.

Firstly I just thought of the implications. E.g. with address-checking, that what I was doing was avoiding drawing any risk to the service, but mainly to patients, that could come if their clinical information went to the wrong address. This was true – it was how a manager would have justified the practice to me – but it was way too dry to be a stopping point.

So the further step is going to be wildly idiosyncratic, and I encourage you to find your own approach. But for me, I thought of saints. I had been reading Butler’s Lives of the Saints over that period, each day a history of a life, and struck by the immensity of the mission of these men and women that lifted them above the everyday and gave their acts, whether loud or quiet, purpose. Exploring saints and post, I found that St Gabriel the Archangel is, as supreme messenger, the patron saint of messengers and postal workers. So in that duty, I saw myself as carrying out postal work in the spirit of Gabriel, enabling safe passage for important messages.

You may bristle at introducing a religious flavour (fervour?) to a secular role, but the main point is to find an enlivening way of seeing, by wrapping the task within something resonant and greater. I have recognised, thanks in no small part to psychotherapy, that mythic and heroic understandings also play a part in my making sense of the everyday – roles such as the leader, the healer, the bearer. On a slightly different tack, when I was on stage I took the advice of a seasoned performer to sometimes try and play in the skin of a (real, human) role model – ‘be like Gene Wilder’, say. Perhaps that too can work at the task level (in psychology, be like Albert Bandura maybe?), although I haven’t tried it – and it would need to include the sense of ‘do right by Albert Bandura’ too, not just about style but about standards. And coming back to the dry ‘protect patients’, perhaps having in mind an archetype of the service user could be a way to do this using concepts closer to the everyday.

This is all slightly separate to the more modern-conventional approach of figuring out your priorities (promotion! fame! work-life balance) and relating your work activities to those to motivate yourself. This can be important to do but I find the danger with relying just on the self-focused approach is that things can fall between the cracks, in a kind of cost-benefit analysis (”I could probably get away with doing a shoddy job on this thing, and spend more time buffing my CV….”). In contrast, it’s not easy to feel good about conning an angel.

I will admit to falling away from this practice, over the course of the last years and various roles. Perhaps I should pick up Butler again?

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