We often rely on books and lectures and TED talks to motivate us, but maybe the answers to what matters in a career are right in front of us.
Let us pause our chaotic work lives a moment and reflect on a dog.
This dog’s name is Cooper. He’s some form of golden Labrador, I guess, though I can’t detail his pedigree with any accuracy. It doesn’t really matter and, as you’ll find, the “who” of Cooper is far less important than the “why.”
I was with my family on a small lake in Michigan this past summer and we were standing by the water with our dog when Cooper came tromping up, his belly caked in grayish mud. He checked us out for a few minutes and we patted his head and then he jumped into the cold, shallow water and started to bark.
Then he started to bite at the water. Then he started to whack the water with his front paws, while still barking and biting.
It made for an interesting scene, with our humble city dog pacing the shore looking confounded and the rest of us laughing hysterically. One of my kids tossed a stick out past the dock and Cooper swam off and grabbed it, brought it back and, using eyes filled with anticipation, requested it be thrown again.
When the stick-throwing stopped, the water biting and barking resumed. Had we the time and patience, I assume Cooper would have gladly done this for the rest of eternity.
Later that day I met a neighbor and asked him about this odd aquatic canine.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s Cooper. He’s the lake dog.”
It’s a fine job title. A little vague, perhaps, but who among us wouldn’t roll the dice at a chance to be Cooper the lake dog?
It wasn’t until after the weekend that I realized Cooper was, in his own unwitting way, teaching me a lesson about work. And that, in case you’ve been wondering, is why I’m sharing this dog’s story.
We often rely on books and lectures and TED talks — and workplace advice columns, of course — to motivate us and help us build careers that at least have a shot at being meaningful. But often the motivation and maybe even the answers to what matters in a career are right in front of us. We just don’t notice them.
Which brings us back to wet, muddy, golden-furred Cooper.
That dog’s job is to roam the shores of a small Michigan lake, encourage residents and visitors alike to throw fetchable objects into the water and gleefully bark and bite and paw at the lake as if it were both the best and worst thing in the world.
During our stay, we would be relaxing in chairs while the kids built sandcastles and then Cooper would zoom up out of nowhere and get to work. His high-pitched barks and muddy splashes became part of the day’s rhythm. My wife and I would be chatting and then we’d notice the noisy presence of this sopping wet weirdo and say, “Oh, hi Cooper.”
No big deal. He’s just clocking in. Busy day ahead.
The beauty of the lake dog is that he loves his work. His job is his being. Because we never actually met Cooper’s owner, we joked about wanting to adopt him and bring him home, but we realized he’d be miserable in any other locale.
He was meant to be a lake dog. And what are we doing as we carve out careers? We’re trying to figure out what we’re meant to do. What brings us some level of joy and purpose. What we can devote ourselves to each day that will make us happy and satisfied and, hopefully, make the world a better place.
Cooper, I see now, was job satisfaction fully realized. Every bark and splash and sniff was time well-spent. He works hard and loves what he does. And his work, absurd as it may be, has meaning. He makes life around that lake more interesting. He makes strangers laugh and helps build memories.
Given that we aren’t dogs, it’s unlikely any of us can achieve what I call “full-Cooper.” But it’s certainly a worthy goal.
We all need satisfaction in our work lives, so no matter where you are in your career, you should never stop striving to find the place where you can feel at least somewhat Cooper-esque.
And the place itself might be key. Cooper wouldn’t be as happy anywhere but that lake. So maybe if you’re not finding happiness, it’s because you’re not in the right place.
Keep looking. Don’t settle. Believe there’s a job out there that is your version of Cooper’s lake.
Sometimes all the motivation we need is right in front of us. And sometimes that motivation is a soaking wet lake dog, splashing and barking joyously, ever-driven to get us to pay attention.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.