The attempt to shame Geoffrey Owens didn’t work. As we saw, Owens was the victim of an act of sheer pettiness when a petulant Trader Joe's shopper posted a social media picture of the man simply doing his job. Social media users’ response ironically reinforced the meaning of Labor Day, the day that celebrates how workers contribute to the “strength, prosperity, and well-being” of America. Even better, Owens dominated the moment with his “Good Morning America” interview as he showed grace, style and a got in a beautiful one-liner that someone “photoshopped” the viral pic.
But his most memorable sentiment from that interview was about the “honor” and “dignity of work.”
We can learn a lot from Owens whose dignity was unquestionably challenged and the lesson is that dignity trumps status. Let's take my home city New Orleans into consideration. We have one of the highest shares of low-wage service jobs in the U.S. at 51.2 percent according to CityLab. Among those are local artists and entertainers who we enjoy in tourist publications, on tour, on local radio stations, in movies and theatre, and on television shows.
Having dignity about the work we do counts. It is estimated that we spend about a third of our adult lives at work, so having “a personal sense of worth, value, respect, or esteem,” as Kristen Lucas an associate professor of management at the University of Louisville puts it, is important. Even for those who aren’t celebrities, think of how many times people are judged based on what they do. It happened to me when I took jobs at colleges that were under heavy public scrutiny and people treated me as if something had gone horribly wrong in my life. But I am anything but ashamed of those jobs because I discovered a tremendous sense of purpose in what I did.
During my August career segment on the "Sunday Journal" radio show, I talked about finding meaning in a job that’s meant to be a stepping stone because I understand how our jobs can affect our identity and value. I made the point that people who find meaning (and dignity) in their jobs tend to have great attitudes and that positively impacts their marketability. As one hiring manager in the auto collision industry told me, “If someone has a great attitude, I can teach them the technical side. I’d rather have a great attitude than someone who knows their stuff but is difficult to work with.”
While all of this talk about dignity is lovely, I am not discounting the importance of dreaming big. Whether someone wants to use a job as a path to entrepreneurship or becoming a highly-paid corporate CEO, everyone has different ideas of success and I want them to crush their goals.
The brutal truth, however, is that many on that nice avenue to success will wind up taking side streets with obnoxiously big potholes; and they will have to be okay that. Just be like Geoffrey and navigate with style.