Earlier this week, a midlevel employee at a company I work with got on a plane at his own expense, prompted by a decision that he felt had not been fair to one of his colleagues, and flew several thousand miles across the ocean to discuss the situation directly with his supervisor.
That’s how much he cared — about his colleague, about doing the right thing and about the values he wanted his company to uphold. His boss could have been defensive. Instead, to his credit, he was moved by this younger employee’s passion.
Care is what makes life most worth living, and it’s especially moving when it’s expressed for its own sake, without expectation of personal return.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot while reading “Ghettoside,” Jill Leovy’s book about two extraordinary detectives in south Los Angeles and the case that brings them together. The younger detective, John Skaggs, chooses to spend his career working in one of the most violent neighborhoods in America because “he believed his work there mattered and should be done well.” The older detective, Wallace Tennelle, chose the same neighborhood because “the poor people down here never get anything and they need good detectives.”
It’s not just what we do with our lives that matters, but even more how and why we do it. “In the service of what?” is a question most of us don’t ask ourselves often enough. “The good life,” said the psychologist Rollo May, “comes from what we care about.”
Impressive an accomplishment as it was, Tom Brady’s role in the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory last Sunday wasn’t remotely as meaningful, courageous or admirable to me as the work of two detectives who solve murders that no one else cares about or even notices. Or the commitment of an employee willing to fly halfway around the world to express support for a colleague and a principle.
Care cures a host of ills. It’s no surprise that the most powerful influence on people’s engagement at work is the experience of feeling genuinely cared for by their direct supervisor. Feeling valued is critical to our well-being from infancy. What’s less obvious is how satisfying it can be to care for others — and how that can invest even routine jobs with meaning and nobility.
In the course of the Energy Project’s work with leaders, we ask them to write by hand a note of appreciation to someone with whom they work, put it in an envelope, and mail it. That investment of time increases the impact of the note. So does making the appreciation highly specific and personal. On one level, we want leaders to experience how much impact even simple expressions of care have on others. But we also want them to see how deeply satisfying it is to send such notes.
One morning many years ago, when I was a young reporter at The New York Times, Joseph Lelyveld, then the foreign editor, walked by my desk. I hardly knew him, and I was on the phone, but he pulled out a pen and a sheet of paper from a reporter’s pad in his jacket pocket and wrote me this note: “Yours is the best story in the paper today.”
That was more than 30 years ago, but the memory of feeling appreciated and inspired still feels bracingly fresh. Still, it was only when I began writing notes of appreciation to others that I realized how rewarding it also is for the sender.
I once had an extraordinary tennis teacher, Jerry Alleyne, whom I met when he was in his 60s. He had been teaching for four decades and his care for his students was evident in every moment he spent on the court.
“Is your pleasure just that you love teaching?” I once asked him.
“I do,” he said, “but I could be happy working in a tollbooth. I would just make it my mission to connect with every driver who came to my booth — to say something that would make their day a little bit better.”
I believed him. There may be no more immediately affecting expression of care than giving someone your entire attention and being genuinely interested in what that person has to say and how he or she is feeling. “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference,” Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote, “ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
One of the best fuels for care is self-care, which is too often confused with being selfish. Over and over in our work with hospital nurses, schoolteachers and other caregivers, we’ve discovered that it can be possible to care too much. In one hospital, for example, intensive care nurses were so committed to their patients that they sometimes failed to go the bathroom for up to 12 hours, and occasionally ended up with urinary tract infections.
More commonly, we’ve observed a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,” in which overburdened caregivers experience increasing fatigue, burnout and even loss of the capacity to care. When the oxygen mask drops in a plane, we’re meant to put it on ourselves first, so we’re capable of caring for others. Many hospitals have become so focused on increasing the quality of their patient care that they overlook the importance of truly caring for their own employees.
Caring about others makes them feel better, safer, more trusting, less preoccupied and more able to care themselves, about others and about the work they do. Care is also a way to make better decisions by asking such questions as, “Is this the most caring choice I could make?” and “Am I finding the right balance between care for others and care for myself?”
I see the visceral, thrilling power of care in the unfettered joy of my 9-month-old grandson responding to the loving attention he so regularly receives. Why should we imagine it to be different for adults?