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Thank u, next
If Thanksgiving’s any indicator, this whole “gratitude” thing might be one big grift. So this month, we set out to find readings that remind us of the gift that thankfulness can actually be.
Welcome to What We’re Reading. Each month, we’ll curate a list of books―from perennial classics to new releases―chat with authors, and review titles with the hope of co-creating a community of well-read makers. Discussions around work, creativity, and entrepreneurship are constantly evolving; here, we aim to create a space for different ideas and approaches to be in conversation with one another. Whether you’re already an avid reader or wish you read more, we hope you’ll feel inspired to read along with us.
This month, we’re reading three books and a narrative essay that all revolve around the transformative power of gratitude: giving it, receiving it, and implementing it as a framework for our relationships with ourselves and with one another.
It’s that time of year again. For a lot of us, the weather’s cooling off and leaves are changing. Others of us (namely, me) saw temperatures in the mid-90s well into October. Yet we all share two things: the ascendance of pumpkin-spice everything, and the appearance of decorative gourds for Thanksgiving.
In the spirit of the season, I thought it made sense to wrap myself up in a comfy scarf (I did not do that; it was too hot), curl up with a cup of tea (I did not do that; it was too hot), and read about thanks in the workplace (I did that; it was still hot).
It was much harder than I thought it would be to find books about gratitude in the workplace. Or, at least, it was hard to find the kind of books I was looking for. Almost everything I found was about “instituting” gratitude; “incorporating” it as a way to improve employee morale or boost productivity. And it got me thinking: Are we simply in the business of using gratitude as a carrot to extract more from our colleagues? Do we catfish workers with thanks?
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, at worst, the American economy inspires us to wield thankfulness as a tool for and justification of profit while presenting it as an objective moral good. After all, that’s what we’ve done with the story of Thanksgiving.
But I digress—let’s get back to the books. Because, though I had to cast my net a little wider, I did eventually find what I’d set out for: books and essays about how the giving and receiving of thanks might help us not only line our pockets, but push us to be kind and appreciative of our work and the work of others.
It’s New Year’s Eve, there’s some puffy-faced woman with mascara running down her cheeks crying at the bar, and a feeling of hopeless dread sinks in as you start to think maybe it’s all a sham, and this year will be just like the last one. We’ve all been there. Or, at least, I have. And so has Janice Kaplan. But, where most people would just distract themselves with champagne, Kaplan, faced with a sad mascara dripping oracle, does something different. She makes a promise to change something.
So begins The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, in which Janice Kaplan shares her journey as she spends a year trying to live gratefully. A professional journalist and editor, Kaplan approaches her New Years Resolution/life makeover like an assignment, researching relevant psychology and history, interviewing friends, family, and strangers, and enlisting experts from a variety of fields to help her institute gratitude in a different part of her life each month.
Kaplan’s journalistic chops keep The Gratitude Diaries from veering too far into the self-help genre and her friendly, almost playful tone ensures that even her discussion of how physiological responses link our physical health and our emotions isn’t dry or boring. And, if sections about the author’s familial relationships are a bit sappy (there’s a chapter called “Falling (Back) In Love With My Husband,” for heaven’s sake), that’s a fair price to pay for Kaplan’s discussions of how gratitude allows for a shift in the way we think about finances and work in both the long and short term.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Gratitude at Work: How to Say Thank You, Give Kudos, and Get the Best From Those You Lead, was written by June Cleaver or Carol Brady. On the surface, writer April Kelly seems to be an archetypal middle American mom, and, just in case you can’t tell she’s from Omaha by the writer photo on the back of the book (a smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman in a neutral blazer and pencil skirt with a tasteful red lip and high-but-not-too-high heels), beginning by telling the reader to “Imagine the setting: the heartland of America in the year 2000.” But this former “household engineer” has an impressive corporate resume, and, while her writing style might be a bit hokey (yes, this book includes a Ghandi reference), Gratitude at Work has its merits.
There’s value in Kelly’s conceptualization of gratitude. As she explains, it isn’t simply saying thank you. Instead, it’s both the “mechanism” for expressing thanks and the idea at the core of thankfulness. At first, it seems like vague feel-good synergy talk, but Kelly draws on her experience as Director of Account Management at Paypal and Senior Director of Customer Operations at LinkedIn, fleshing out her ideas with tangible, real-life examples of the “mechanics of gratitude” in action (think of the posh amenities for employees at Google’s campus as corporate gratitude). Her discussion of corporate philanthropy and work-related volunteerism as mechanics of gratitude is especially interesting.
Published in 2009 and written by a baby boomer, Gratitude at Work is aimed at managers and team leaders who work in the type of traditional corporate structures that are increasingly out of reach for millennials and Gen-Zers, especially freelancers and creatives. But many of Kelly’s suggestions for creating a corporate culture of gratitude could apply to the home office or cowork space as well. And, if it sounds too cheesy or outdated to apply in your own life, just tell yourself it’s not gratitude; it’s self-care.
In her 1991 book Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish, an overstretched, overworked Sue Bender leaves her life in a liberal, urban enclave in California to research Amish quilts. The lessons she learns living among the Amish are about far more than traditional crafts; Bender is sure that the Amish’s ideas about time, work, value, and community will be restorative and transformative when she incorporates them into her own life.
But, spoiler alert: it turns out life is a little more complicated than Plain and Simple. In Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home, the follow-up to Plain and Simple, Bender takes her quest a step further than simply mimicking the patterns of Amish life. As a model, Bender turns to the story of a French playwright who wants to live as a monk, roaming the countryside with a begging bowl, and accepting whatever is placed in it as nourishment. How can we be our own bowls; embrace and accept whatever life throws at us as a nourishing gift?
If Everyday Sacred seems a little like an elevatedly woowoo Eat, Pray, Love, that’s because it is. There are vaguely spiritual references (Mother Teresa quote, anyone?), second-hand stories about temples in small Indian towns, and, on page 104, Bender’s friend Gale tells her to “Draw your pear… and work from your heart.” I’ll admit it; I rolled my eyes a lot while reading.
But I kept reading. It wasn’t that difficult, partly because Bender’s prose is smooth, understated, and soothing. And because there are sweet doodles and illustrations every few pages. But Everyday Sacred kept my interest because it is a record of Bender’s frustration with her work—her frustration with her writing. Throughout the book, Bender engages directly with the “harsh judge,” a critical internal voice that tells her she is unworthy, and that her work is not and will never be enough. It is this voice that leads Bender to try to write a followup to Plain and Simple. It was this voice behind the burnout that pushed Bender to the Amish in the first place. By focusing not on constant progression and achievement—the “never enough” attitude that informs her “harsh judge”—Bender creates space to establish her own metrics of success; to accept, and even be thankful for, the imperfect work she does, eventually, complete.
In this quietly beautiful narrative essay, Sean Towey weaves together the strands of an aspiring Jesuit’s life before and after entering the seminary. In the before, there’s the narrator’s quest “to get laid one last time before committing [him]self to a life of never getting laid again,” and his sad, turbulent courtship with his coworker, Tamara. In the after, there are the differently sad, differently turbulent communal meals of priests-in-training.
Towey’s narrator shifts back and forth between a singular voice—an I that is the narrator as an individual, in the before time—and a plural one—a we of aspiring clergymen who move through their world as a collective force of prayer, hunger, sensation, and longing. The singular, profane I is selfish and immoral, bribing a child with ice cream to keep them from ratting on him at work; treating Tamara’s live-in boyfriend as “an obstacle to overcome, something to sweeten [their] first carnal pleasures.” And the communal, sacred we isn’t much better; the Jesuits drink and fight, and even waterboard one another.
What saves them, though, is thanks. And not the performative prayer of thanks that, as Towey writes, “every single Catholic has memorized but no one actually understands” (“BlessusOLordandthesethygiftswhichweareabouttoreceivefromthybountythroughChristourLordAmen”), but the one prayer that each member of the we knows: “thank you.”
There’s no direct reference to the workplace in “Jesus and Blueberry Cobbler” (though, I suppose, one could argue that the seminary is an office, and I never thought about it before, but the pope is kind of the CEO of the The Church, and praying is kind of like filing a request or complaint with HR). But, as workers, thinkers, and creators, it is just as useful for us as it is for Jesuits in training to remind ourselves every now and again, as Towey does, that “we have a long way to go, but we are grateful.”
Thanks for reading, y’all.