It's an old saw on the golf course: "Your worst day golfing is better than your best day working."
For me that's never been true. My worst days golfing are bad, because I feel like I'm wasting my time, and my best days working are fantastic, because I feel at one with the universe.
There are dreary days at the keyboard, but exhilaration happens every week: a far-out story idea is accepted, an interview turns out better than I thought, a story (finally) goes to bed, the issue comes out, something I write generates an unexpected conversation among strangers.
But how many truly wonderful days have I spent working?
Those, in my experience, happen about once per decade.
It's November 1995, and I'm lying on the sofa in Larry Ragan's office at 3:00 a.m., trying to grab a few hours sleep before the graphic designer comes in to lay out the memorial issue I've been working on in the days since he died. I'm using all the skills my mentor taught me in order to honor him. As I try to sleep through the coffee buzz, I think of the line in a James Taylor song, "No one can tell me that I'm doing wrong today."
On a wintry day in 2002, I'm riding in a rusty GMC Jimmy with a struggling standup comic I'm profiling for the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Magazine. We're headed for a two-night gig at a Holiday Inn in Eau Clair, Wis. I'm inhaling the fumes from his Nicorette gum, asking him how he prepares beef stroganoff on a hot plate, and thinking to myself that my competition is exactly no one, because I'm the only asshole in the world who thinks this is heaven.
In spring of this year, I'm holding my first "speechwriting jam session" at a speechwriters conference in Phoenix. I'm playing great speeches and watching the eyes of the writers in the audience fill, as my own eyes fill, as I remember my dead writer dad, who agreed with all of us that communication and love are the same thing.
What was your best moment at work? Communicate it to us.
Mine was September of 2003. I’m working late with my boss on a Friday. We’re writing and rewriting copy for a publication with the graphic designer sitting in the next room, cursing the last-minute writers.
We’ve been at this all afternoon and now it’s getting dark. We’re agonizing over every word and phrase. We’re alternating whose sitting in the chair at my computer pounding on the keyboard. I slump into the seat and clean up a sentence. Then he nudges me aside and goes back up a paragraph because the line we were struggling with 5 minutes ago has now become clear to him. We’re both starving and running on too much coffee. A chain smoker, he hasn’t been out for a puff in hours so it’s getting a bit tense. Sleeves are rolled up, ties are cast aside, shirts are sweaty.
And then we get to the end of the piece. We quibble over one last edit. He overrules me and types in his version. And at the moment he pounds the final triumphant period (I swear I am not making this up) the building starts shaking with an earthquake. It’s not a huge one, and it lasts for about 15 seconds of us just staring at each other in stunned silence. When it’s over, I look at him and say, “See, I told you we should have gone with my edit to that last sentence.” He laughs, and we spend another hour working on it.
To be honest, the end product really didn’t deserve the energy we put into it that day. It was just a set of goofy brochures. But man, the work was fun. And we were good. If only on that one day, we were really good.
David Murray says
Fantastic, Rueben. At the risk of swallowing all the smarm about “teamwork,” we must acknowledge the joy, fickle as it is, of working with other people.
I don’t always “play well with others.” But it was different with this boss. The example above kind of shows why. We were always comfortable enough with each other, and confident enough in ourselves, to be able to say “no, that sucks” and it wasn’t a big deal. It was honest without being fragile. And, while we got along really well personally, we were both always focused on the work and not egos or anybody else’s delicate sensibilities. A lot of people didn’t find it so easy to work with him. I quite liked it.