What Is Your Apostolate?

Dear Adrienne and Lance,

More than 20 years working in a very competitive corporate environment taught me many things: financial spreadsheets, earnings reports, office procedures, corporate politics and the shortest routes to the washroom and cafeteria. I learned how to write reports, speak in front of skeptical managers and sit through long meetings.

I also learned that, at the end of the day, most people just want to do a good job — and be happy. Lots of the people I worked with were happy. Some were not. You might expect that relative happiness had something to do with career success. That was my assumption.

I figured the guys in the corner offices with private secretaries, fat paychecks, limo service and membership in the Grand Poobah Club would be the happiest. Actually, some of the most unhappy people I worked with were people who had “won” at the corporate game. They had the perks and money. And there was an unspoken understanding that all this stuff should make them happy. Only occasionally did it.

As time went on, I kept a sort of mental inventory of the people I worked around and who seemed to be happy or unhappy. Although my research could hardly be called scientific, I did find patterns. And it was only after I found these patterns that I could explain why there were both very happy and very unhappy people all the way from the loading dock to the boardroom.

The people who were unhappy had tied their self-esteem to getting things. This is the attitude best exemplified by the slogan “He who dies with the most toys wins.” I really did see that carved on a paperweight in an executive’s office — and I’m afraid he believed it.

I observed people with extremely successful careers who were nevertheless miserable because the trappings of money and power proved shallow and cold. I observed people with failed careers, bitter because they didn’t get the corner office.

At the other end of the spectrum were the many happy people I met. What they had in common was service to others. One, I remember, spent a couple of evenings a week coaching a girls’ volleyball team. One spent Saturdays teaching new immigrants how to speak English. A senior executive I worked with spent countless hours in volunteer work, some of it fairly menial. Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), he didn’t seem to care much about the trappings of his high office.

When I think of the times I have been happiest in my life, it has been when I’m doing something for others — not when I got a raise, was promoted to a bigger office or got a new car. No, it was when I was doing something that I believed would help other people.

I’ve seen that in the two of you. Lance, remember how excited you were, going with your school chaplain to a poor village in Mexico to paint the local church? Adrienne, remember how good you felt before Christmas when you spent the day cleaning the soup kitchen in Chicago? What you and those other happy servants were doing, we in the Catholic Church call acts of apostolate. Oh, not all of the people I worked with had our religious faith, but they had some faith, and they realized it needed to be expressed by helping others.

As you get older and move into the working world, I wish you every success. But don’t forget where you will find happiness. Don’t be surprised when I ask, “What is your apostolate?”

Jim Fair writes

from Chicago.