Episode 1: Jeffrey Thompson

“…one thing that I really try to highlight in my book is that a calling is not a single destination. We become very disenchanted with the notion that there’s a perfect job for everyone, I don’t buy that. I believe human beings are so multifaceted, so multi-purposed that we will evolve through different stages in our life where our calling may express itself in different ways. And so, if I can get away with this, I would like to think everyone ought to be a little bit of a generalist and a little bit of a specialist as well. Over time you’re going to discover unique gifts that will specialize you for particular roles. But you also have to be agile and flexible enough to adjust to changes in your environment, changes in your circumstances that might have you apply those skills in different ways than you ever thought you would as you are Tracie in your career.” (Read full transcript)

Tracie Edwards:

Hello and welcome to Traceability Podcast. I am your host Tracie Edwards and today we have Professor Jeffrey Thompson from the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University. Go cougars. And he is a co-author of one of my favorite books called The Zookeeper’s Secret. And so, I’m so thrilled to be able to have Jeff here with us today to be able to talk about The Zookeeper’s Secret and about careers and finding career happiness in general. So thank you for being with us today.

Jeffrey Thompson:

My pleasure. Thank you Tracie

Tracie Edwards:

So typically how we start out is give us a little background on how you got started in your career and what that looked like for you.

Jeffrey Thompson:

Sure, happy to share that. I actually, where I am in my career right now is a product of an autobiographical journey. The research I do is trying to figure myself out. But like many young people I struggle to identify my path. I got a degree in Japanese after considering many degrees and thought I would have a career in international diplomacy or international business. I looked at government work and tried an internship. I did an MBA and I actually had a corporate job for a couple of years that provided me a lot of great experiences and left me completely miserable.

Jeffrey Thompson:

I worked in a corporate headquarters where people around me were very energized but I felt just numb. I could not pour my heart into that organization. I couldn’t get excited about padding the bottom line and I thought, “Something’s wrong with me here because everyone else seems to be happy and I just feel adrift.” And at that point I’m in my mid twenties so like with many mid twenties I thought, “Well the clock is ticking and I should have this all figured out by now. Why don’t I know the purpose of my life yet?”

Jeffrey Thompson:

I went back to school and took a couple of courses that changed my whole perspective. I studied organizational behavior and business ethics and those courses helped me gain a vocabulary to explain what was happening to me at my corporate job which involved a lack of meaning, a lack of purpose. I also started to recognize that there were a lot of ethical challenges in the culture of that organization, nepotism, sexual harassment, a lack of transparency. And it was so liberating to me to have concepts to make sense of that experience.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So, I headed off to get a PhD because I was so fascinated to understand this that I wanted to teach other students how prepare for corporate life and to be successful there. But as a PhD student again I wandered trying to figure out what I was meant to study and what I ought to do and I was pulled in a lot of different directions. I almost quit a couple of times because it was so hard. And I finally decided I need to make sense of me and so my research turned toward motivation and understanding what makes people feel a sense of purpose in the work that they do.

Jeffrey Thompson:

It’s not quite as simple and tightly packed as I’ve just described it, a lot of wandering and a lot of confusion, but I’ve reached a point now where I’ve finally figured out what I have to say to the world and feel like I have found my calling. I’m teaching students who are preparing for careers in public administration as they’re heading toward the non-profit world or the government world, very meaningful work. And I just can’t picture myself anywhere else that would be a better use of the gifts I have and the opportunities that I am grateful that came my way.

Tracie Edwards:

Well, that is fantastic to be able to feel that. I know so many of us struggle with finding that meaning and that purpose and I certainly have in my own career. I know that I fell into a career unexpectedly. It probably didn’t even exist when I really was graduating and I had no idea what it was that I wanted to do. So, a couple of questions for you there. First is maybe I’ve been reading a lot lately about the concept of generalist versus specialist. Do you think there’s anything to the whole point of why some of us struggle is because we’re maybe being asked to specialize a little too soon or that maybe just some of the things that we could specialize in maybe aren’t opening up to us yet.

Jeffrey Thompson:

Yeah that’s a great question, Tracie and I’d actually like to rewind a little bit. You talked about how you are in a position that you never could have predicted, that’s so common. I present this material to groups all the time. I’ve talked to thousands of people and one of the questions I always ask in my sessions is, “How many of you knew you were going to be doing the work you’re doing right now?” And it’s probably less than 5% who raise their hand. People don’t generally know where they’re headed when they set out on the quest to find their calling. Life guides them and end up in surprise. So, that doesn’t surprise me at all that you have a sense of surprise in your work.

Jeffrey Thompson:

To the question about generalists versus specialists one thing that I really try to highlight in my book is that a calling is not a single destination. We become very disenchanted with the notion that there’s a perfect job for everyone, I don’t buy that. I believe human beings are so multifaceted, so multi-purposed that we will evolve through different stages in our life where our calling may express itself in different ways. And so, if I can get away with this, I would like to think everyone ought to be a little bit of a generalist and a little bit of a specialist as well. Over time you’re going to discover unique gifts that will specialize you for particular roles. But you also have to be agile and flexible enough to adjust to changes in your environment, changes in your circumstances that might have you apply those skills in different ways than you ever thought you would as you are Tracie in your career.

Tracie Edwards:

That’s a really good point. Speaking from my own experience again having landed in a career and finding myself at a place where I was not necessarily advancing but not necessarily feeling fulfilled either it ended up being time for me to move on and try and take another path and that path ended up not working out very well. And I think sometimes we get, well certainly we’re used to stability, we’re used to security, we’re used to perks and that kind of thing. And so, it can be hard for us to move on and then if we do move on and it doesn’t work out what are some things we can do whether it’s just through continuing to explore our gifts or to be a little more fearless and resilient when those opportunities don’t necessarily work out the way we hope they would.

Jeffrey Thompson:

The way I would respond to that, as you read my book there are a lot of stories that involve discouragement and detours, people who run into roadblocks, and I did as well in my career. And every time I hit a roadblock my reaction was, “I’ve done something wrong. I’ve gotten off the path. I clearly made a mistake because the path before me no longer makes sense.” And I would go to a place of despair. What I’ve learned in studying people who have a sense of calling is they have experienced those same roadblocks but in many cases those roadblocks took them where they needed to be.

Jeffrey Thompson:

We talk in the book about Dr. Dale Hull. He’s a Salt Lake obstetrician and that was his calling in life. He loved his work and was outstanding at it. He had an accident and in a moment found himself a quadriplegic no longer able to practice. I can’t even begin to empathize, to understand what it must be like to have everything taken from you in a moment like that. And his calling was gone. He’d lost [inaudible 00:08:59] He could never deliver another baby again let alone all of the other things about his life that had changed. His story is a remarkable one. He was able to miraculously make more recovery than expected. He now walks with a cane. He still is unable to practice medicine because he doesn’t have the manual dexterity that it requires. But in the process of his recovery he found so many people coming out of the woodwork saying, “Dr. Hull, how did you do this? How did you get better? How did you make this improvement? Is there hope for my child? Is there hope for my spouse? Is there hope for me?”

Jeffrey Thompson:

And he recognized in that moment that he had something to offer that he didn’t appreciate before. Not only did he have a very specialized medical background but he also now had an experience base that he could use to serve others. The reason I know him is he became one of my students as he was preparing to be a director of the nonprofit organization he founded called Neuroworx. It’s in Salt Lake City. It’s this amazing clinic that provides cutting edge, in some cases exploratory therapy for spinal cord injury victims.

Jeffrey Thompson:

When you talk to Dr. Hull now he has this sense of gratitude. I’ve heard him say, “I would never wish what I went through on anyone but I’m glad it happened to me because now I really know what I am supposed to be doing.” So when we think about these roadblocks that we run into I have come to believe, and this is not just from Dr. Hull’s experience or my own but from [inaudible 00:10:35] that it is often in the worst things that happen in our lives that we find where we are best equipped to serve. It is sometimes the roadblocks that are the greatest blessing to propel us in a direction where we can uniquely share our gifts with people.

Tracie Edwards:

That’s terrific. I very much agree with that. And I know that some of that sense of failure that I did have I’ve been able to channel that into some other opportunities and into the podcast and that kind of thing. So, maybe if you could speak to some techniques perhaps for how we can channel some of those experiences that we’re having and take a different type of perspective with them perhaps.

Jeffrey Thompson:

Certainly. So, I’ll pull out the formula from the book. The reason the book is called The Zookeeper’s Secret is it’s based on research that my coauthor Stuart Benderson and I did with the zoo-keeping profession. We interviewed many zookeepers and then we surveyed 1300 zookeepers across the country. This group of people really taught us what a calling means. And just to explain why study zookeepers we wanted to find a group of people that we could study who had very little monetary reward in the work they were doing, they clearly are not doing it for the money, who had very little opportunity for advancement or social notoriety. Don’t advance, they don’t climb a ladder and they don’t get a lot of attention. But they are people who are incredibly passionate about the work they do. And despite the fact that they are underpaid and under-recognized they have the highest levels of satisfaction in their work that I’ve seen anywhere as an organizational scholar. An amazing group of people.

Jeffrey Thompson:

And so we said, “Okay, these are the folks we want to study because we remove all of the noise, all of those incentives and it’s just all about the purpose.” And as we talk to them we ask this question, “What are the ingredients of calling?” And through our research there were three themes that really came out and this is finally getting around to answer your question.

Jeffrey Thompson:

The three things that we emphasize in our book for people to focus on are first something we called hard wiring. Zookeepers are animal people and they recognize in themselves that they are wired, they are made to do certain things. Some of them describe it as, “It’s in my DNA. I have to work with animals.” That hard wiring that comes with a calling.

Jeffrey Thompson:

The second thing that they talk about is a duty to serve, an obligation to serve their animals. Now you might think, “A zookeeper job that’d be really fun. They get to play with the animals. That must be really enjoyable.” And there are elements of that but also it’s really hard work. It is stinky work, it is disgusting work in many ways. It’s dangerous. You’re out in the elements. You’re up all hours of the night. And this is not fun work in the traditional sense of fun but zookeepers feel that they have to do it for the animals. It’s really a matter of losing themselves for not another person in this case, another animal. So a duty to serve is the second thing, finding a need that you can serve.

Jeffrey Thompson:

And then the third thing that we heard from them, we ended up calling it destiny and it was something we didn’t expect at all but zookeepers almost to a person how a sense that life had guided them where they were supposed to be. They used words like, “It was magic. It was cosmic. It was luck.” Which sounds like a religious narrative [inaudible 00:14:22] None of them talked about God but they all had the sense that life had been good to them and led them where they needed to be so the sense of destiny.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So, back to your question what advice do you give we start with those three things. And the first question is, “How are you hardwired? What are your gifts? What are your talents?” And the way that we explore that with our students is we send them back to childhood and say, “Tell me what you did when were a kid and no one was telling you what you had to do. How did you play?” Because the way you played revealed things about your natural dispositions, your natural talents that are probably still part of your life today, even though they may manifest differently.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So were you a storyteller? Tracie I’m guessing you were more of a storyteller as a child, right? Or were you the kid who always put Legos together and it’s all about spatial awareness. Were you athletic? Were you competitive? Were you collaborative? Who you were as a kid probably says a lot about your hard wiring so that’s where we start. And then for the other two in terms of the duty to serve we ask, “What causes do you think about? In your spare time [inaudible 00:15:37] you worry about someone or something what does that worry involve?” Because all of us, I believe, feel drawn to help different types of people with different types of problems.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So, whereas the first question’s inward looking, “What are my gifts,” the second question is outward looking, “What do you feel pulled to?” And then the third question comes back to our discussion about the roadblocks. It is okay where has life led you? Where you are is probably a good clue about where you can find ways to serve using your gifts. So that’s a really surface level answer to your question but in the book we really try to dig down into the nitty gritty of help people answer those three key questions about themselves. And I think that’s where we get a sense of clarity just like [inaudible 00:16:25] for how those three elements come together in our lives.

Tracie Edwards:

I love that and I certainly have spent a lot of my time trying to understand some of those things about myself and you’re right some of that has led me to the podcast and to some of my recent to career change and educational endeavors and that kind of thing. I think that especially in the times that we are in people can be wanting to find meaning, wanting to find fulfillment, unsure how to do that in times of uncertainty although I would submit that everything is always uncertain. Particularly now, what would be some advice or thoughts you would have around timing and when you’re going to try and make jumps or what opportunities you’re going to look for when and that kind of thing.

Jeffrey Thompson:

Yeah. Uncertainty. So, when I start talking to people about calling the first reaction is often this defensive like, “Well, that’s a little bit la la land. That sounds too perfect and I don’t live in a perfect world. And I have too much uncertainty, I can’t relate to someone who has found their dream job.” I completely agree with that skepticism because that I think is not a legitimate way to look at a calling. I don’t believe in dream jobs. And I worry that many times when we talk about finding a professional calling what people hear is a dream job. The zoo [inaudible 00:18:14] don’t have a dream job they have a hard, painful job that breaks their hearts when animals die. I mean, it’s tough. It’s a calling not because it’s fun every day, it’s a calling precisely because it demands a lot of you.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So with that said, in the midst of uncertainty I think the way to look at it as a calling is not a destination, it’s not an end point that you reach and then your story is over. A calling is a lifelong pursuit. And I found in my life and in some of the stories I tell in the book people weave in and out of a sense of calling based on where their uncertainties lead them. And there are times I think in all of our lives when we feel like, “I am just not there. I’m not in the place right now where I’m doing my best work for the people I want to do them for.”

Jeffrey Thompson:

Uncertainty can sometimes amplify those feelings, uncertainty can also sometimes redirect us and get us where we need to be. I know there are a lot of people really suffering economically, mentally with the COVID crisis. I do not relish that as anyone wouldn’t. But I do think we will all come out of this having learned some things about ourselves and I think some people will come out of this with a new found resolve to say, “Okay, I’ve seen what life is like now when it’s completely uncertain, maybe it’s time for me to take a risk. Now is a good time for me to leap.”

Jeffrey Thompson:

So uncertainty is both an enemy and a friend I think in a way. I don’t enjoy it while I’m in it but the results can be great. And so, I think the advice I’d give to people is when you feel unsettled you need to pay attention to that. I mean, not throw caution to the wind and forget that you have a mortgage and try to start a nonprofit from scratch. But if you’re feeling unsettled it’s time at least to explore, to take a class, to read a new book, to shadow someone on a job, to start reaching outward. The whole look before you leap thing, there’s a lot of wisdom to that. And so if you’re feeling unsettled you don’t need the leap right away but at least start looking so that you don’t get stuck in a paralysis of fear.

Tracie Edwards:

I very much appreciate that and love the plug for exploring what your options are, exploring different paths and that kind of thing.

Jeffrey Thompson:

This is personal to me as I think about this tendency we have in uncertainty to turn inward rather than outward. This happened to me in my corporate job. I mean, no one had to tell me I was miserable I knew it. I felt very unsettled. And my reaction which I think is a natural human reaction was to turn inward. I withdrew. I did my job and I put my head down and thought, “I’m going to get through this and just wait for the next good thing to come along.” And that was the worst possible reaction I could have had. Looking back if I was to go back in time and talk to myself I would have said, “Okay Jeff, you’re miserable here. You’re not happy. If you look around there are probably other people here who are not happy as well. As long as you’re here, is there someone else you can help? Is there something new you can learn that you can maybe make things better here? Can you extend outward rather than inward?”

Jeffrey Thompson:

And if I had done that, I think a couple of things would have happened. First, maybe most importantly, I would have learned some things about my own gifts. I would’ve been expanding what I was capable of doing. Secondly though, I think it would become apparent to other people what other things I was capable of doing. I think [inaudible 00:22:15] faster way out of a bad position to do your very best at it and learn what you can learn then to pull in and just wait to be saved by the phone call that’s going to change your life. And so I fell right into that trap and I think and maybe it’s in times of uncertainty that in a way it’s terrible we have all these restrictions but [inaudible 00:22:39] time to start exploring something new or maybe it’s time to reach out to people in a new way and try to help them in a new way and learn some things about ourselves in the process.

Tracie Edwards:

I appreciate that and it actually caused me to think of a point that you make about not every job is going to be bliss. There will be times, as you said when studying the zookeepers there were definitely times of difficulty. It was not all sunshine and roses.

Jeffrey Thompson:

That’s true, yeah.

Tracie Edwards:

We can have great jobs and we can find fulfillment and we can still have trial and difficulty. Maybe if you could just elaborate on where we fall into the trap of expecting less.

Jeffrey Thompson:

I think we unintentionally teach it to our young people. We tend to celebrate people who are famous for the important work they do and undervalue people who are hidden for the important but non-glamorous work they do. I try and I hope to inspire others to try to celebrate the nobility of labor wherever you see it. In my book I try to use a lot of examples of custodians and food service workers.

Jeffrey Thompson:

And I guess if I could share a brief story, [crosstalk 00:24:07] I learned this was as a young professor I was at Miami University of Ohio at the time struggling to make my way and thinking a lot about my own reputation and my research. And every day the custodian would come to my office. It was this tiny little woman named Barb. She was probably four foot five and just this bundle of energy. And she’d come like a tornado into my office and clean things up and take the trash and she’d share a cheerful word. And just day after day I had this very brief interaction with her and she started asking me, “Professor Thompson, is there anything special I can do for you? Do you need anything cleaned?” And I thought, “I’m not going to ask the janitor to do more work. I don’t want to make her do more of this work that I saw as menial.” So I resisted that. I said, “No Barb, thanks. That’s very nice of you.” And she kept asking me and I finally realized, “Maybe she really wants to help me more.”

Jeffrey Thompson:

And so, the next time she came into my office I said, “Hey Barb, if you have a second could you tell me about your job? How do you feel about what you do?” And she said, “I am just so proud to be part of this university. I love it here and I love that I’m good at cleaning and I can make this place cleaner and I just love feeling like I’m part of it.” And I was so humbled in that moment to recognize that her work day after day was an offering. It was an offering to me and I had been undervaluing it and that conversation changed me. It changed how I thought about my work. I think I was a little less self absorbed with my own career and more recognizing, “I need to make an offering too.” If the custodian is giving her heart to this place why am I not?

Jeffrey Thompson:

Anyway so I think where it starts is celebrating the fact that that work itself is noble, that work that serves other people is a calling. And hopefully expanding our narrative a little bit for young people to help them think about not just how fun and exciting their careers are going to be but what sacrifices will be required. Because the sacrifices are actually what makes it meaningful. Meaningful work doesn’t come cheap. If it was easy to do we couldn’t stay committed to it.

Tracie Edwards:

That’s a really good point. So, as we start to wrap up today any new research that you’re working on, new books coming up?

Jeffrey Thompson:

Thank you for asking. I’m a long way from having a book but the new research that I’m super excited about I had the opportunity to do a sabbatical last year in London with my family, and this was a research sabbatical. And so, I began a project where I’m studying historic interpreters. So these are people who dress in period costume at historic sites and act the part of a historical figure interactively with the public. There’s no script, it’s all improvisational. And I encountered these folks and thought, “Well, that’s goofy and it’s fun.” But as I begin talking with them I recognized that these are very serious historians. They know their stuff. They have to not only know everything there is to know about their character but also the events surrounding their character and the culture. And I am so impressed with their knowledge but also their ability to just on the spot answer questions and interact with the public in such a positive way.

Jeffrey Thompson:

So I’ve fallen in love with historic interpreters. I’ve now interviewed about 60 of them in the UK and Germany and the Netherlands and a whole bunch in the U.S. Just wrapped up our colonial Williamsburg interviews. It’s yet again a profession of people that find deep meaning in the work that they do. And what I love about this research is they understand the power of story. I expected them again to do their job because it was fun but I’m learning that historic interpreters have a sense that they are creating more justice in the world. They tell these stories to challenge people’s assumptions and to get them to appreciate difference and to appreciate what we can learn from history. I just find it fascinating. So Tracie, I guess the takeaway is when you talk to people about what their work means to them it is so enriching and I think we don’t take advantage often enough of just asking people to tell us what their work means to them.

Tracie Edwards:

I love that. I will certainly be doing more of that as I talk to more people. I love the historic interpreters. My bachelor’s degree is in history and never knew what to do with that history degree. I might have to look into historical interpretation.

Jeffrey Thompson:

I have another career path for you Tracie [inaudible 00:29:25]

Tracie Edwards:

Very cool. And you’re teaching and you’re living the professorial life here. So how can folks get ahold of you whether through LinkedIn or BYU or what’s the best way for folks to find you?

Jeffrey Thompson:

Yeah, so I’m pretty easily found on the BYU website. I’m in the Marriott school of Business and in the Romney Institute of Public Administration, actually changed our name, the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics within the Marriott school. So you can look for me there. If you’re interested in the book, the book is available on Amazon, it’s called The Zookeeper’s Secret. It is a book written primarily with a faith-based audience written for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints but I think has pretty general applicability. And yes, I’m welcome to outreach so look forward to it.

Tracie Edwards:

Awesome. Well, I in particular have loved the books so much and I have recommended it to many people. And for those of you who are listening I hope you will take the time to check it out. And if anything that we have discussed today has resonated with you or you have found it particularly meaningful shoot me an email at Tracie, T-R-A-C-I-E, @traceabilitypodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you. And Dr. Jeff Thompson thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Jeffrey Thompson:

Thank you Tracie, it’s been my pleasure.