The Supply Closet
In my late twenties I was the campaign manager for a U.S. Congressman. Every two years, during the campaign season, I was able to bring up one or two government employees from the D.C. congressional office to work on the campaign. All the young, ambitious staffers wanted to come up to “the district” for this opportunity. They would go off their congressional salaries, true, but they got daily access to the congressman, a chance to see what a campaign was really like and a change from answering constituent mail in D.C.
Over the years I had learned to be picky about which staffers I chose. Campaigns are grueling and demand a certain type of person – one who can put up signs at train stations at 4 am and pick up a U.S. Senator and have an intelligent conversation with them at 11 pm. I called down to my D.C. counterpart and asked her who she thought was the right choice. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Michael Fox.” Now, Michael was one of the youngest most untested of the legislative assistants in the office so I shot back, “Why him?”
“Easy” she said. “The supply closet. When he first got here as an intern I asked him to clean it out. I do that with all the new interns. It tells me a lot about them.”
“Uh-huh.” I replied.
“So, he tells me that’s cool and disappears. I don’t see him the rest of the day. At 4:45 he stops by my office and asks if I would like to see the closet. I’m like, sure, whatever. I get up and step in the closet. I gasped. Honest to God, it was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. He had collated everything, made labels for all of the different sections and put it all back in just the right places. I couldn’t believe it.”
She continued, “The best thing was that he was proud of it. He said he was really glad I had given him that job, even though it wasn’t what he had been expecting, because he was able to do something useful and do it well.”
I said, “I’ll take him.”
It will be no surprise that Michael turned out to be the best campaign worker I ever had. I could ask him to talk to the press or go get donuts and he did both with equal grace, confidence and success.
I have never forgotten that closet and have shared it with countless college students as both a counselor and, later, a professor. It reminds me that little things matter. They tell others about our character and, if done with passion, perseverance and enthusiasm, inevitably lead to bigger things. Michael went on to be a standout in the congressional office, but we all knew he would. And it wasn’t his fancy college degree, but his persistence, humility and joy in a job well done – large or small.
I recently told that story to a friend who had landed in a job that didn’t really fit her qualifications. Plus, she was the “oldest person in the office!” I told her my “Michael Fox” story and a few days later she told me that it had really helped how she approached projects that seemed both menial and a bit degrading.
That reminded me of a favorite Bible quote: “ ...thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.” (Matthew 25:21) At my age I know I don’t want to be ruler over many things. It’s an awful lot of work. But I do want work that is meaningful and satisfying. Sometimes that means doing a fabulous job cleaning out a closet. And sometimes it means creating something completely original and mind-boggling. But usually it means (and I quote here from one of my favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham, “Men achieve happiness, not by pursuing it, but by doing with all their heart whatever in the day’s work needs doing.”
Michael knew that, and he unconsciously taught it to everyone who was paying attention. Including me.