Loving What You Do!

Herson's Funeral Home, Ithaca, NYHersonWagner Funeral Home, Ithaca, NY

While my best friend was grilling sirloins at Ponderosa Steakhouse and after I’d already tried filling “Papa,” “Mama,” and “Teen” baskets at the A&W restaurant in Ithaca, NY, I went down to Herson’s Funeral Home and asked the esteemed Mr. Matthew J. Herson himself for a job.

It was 1976 and he hired me for $3.33 an hour. I was 18 years old and not only did I find my niche, I was in my glory!

For the next four years, I did it all. No, really …

I. Did. It. All.

I drove the hearse with the, ah hem, “client” riding in back. I picked up bereaved families in the Herson’s new ’76 silver Cadillac. I set up chairs, greeted guests, and picked up new caskets for delivery to Herson’s. I vacuumed the chapel, washed cars, and mowed the Herson’s lawn at their fine home near Cayuga Lake, one of the renowned Finger Lakes of upstate New York.

But there’s more. Much, much more.

I picked up the deceased right where life had ended for them. It was a grandpa who fell asleep watching a Yankee game on his couch and never woke up and then an elderly lady in her nursing home bed. Sadly, on some days, it was a young dad in the morgue following a tragic auto accident and Cornell students who’d chosen to end it all in the gorgeous gorges of Ithaca.

Somebody had to do this all-hours-of-the-day work—and for me, it sure beat flipping burgers.

I recall one time, Mrs. Herson phoning my home at 4am. After my dad answered the phone and came to wake me up, I bounded down the stairs, ran through the living room, and into the kitchen where the phone was affixed to the wall (yep, I’m that old) with so much energy that Mrs. Herson’s opening words were, “Wow, I could hear you coming!”

That’s exactly right, Boss, because I love this business and everything about it!

And then there was the embalming. Oh my, did I mention I’d found my … passion!?!

The first time I was called in to help the on-staff mortician embalm (a woman in her 90’s), he stopped me just outside the door to the embalming room and said, “Now, John, the first time I assisted in one of these I almost fainted. So if you start feeling queasy, feel free to step out.”

Well …

No stepping out was required for this young man!

I asked a million questions—fascinated by every aspect of the process—and before I knew it I was doing stuff and seeing stuff in that room that few 18-year-olds dreamed of doing or seeing.

I suspect many of you would not find any of this to be your “cup of tea.”

But I went on to help embalm so many people during my Cornell years, that my gal, Karen—now my wife of 33 years as of 6/21/13—became so accustomed to the smell of formaldehyde on me she almost stopped noticing it.


Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t turn my college years’ work experience into a career. Honestly, I’m not sure what caused me to choose a different path, especially since the Hersons graciously offered to put me through mortuary science school.

I suppose upon graduating from Cornell in 1980, it seemed natural to step from the campus into the business world. The problem was this: It wasn’t much fun. My new corporate “8-5” desk job was just that—a job. Oh, how I missed the funeral home where the hours flew by like minutes because I was being challenged, learning every day, truly serving people, and having fun!

Thank goodness I found all of that again when in 1986 I fell into a career selling training. How fortunate am I to have experienced this twice in my life! Everyone should be so blessed.

Exit question:

What about you? Do you have a job where you’re waiting for your next paid vacation day or do you have a career where the years are flying by faster than most people’s Monday mornings!? 

Please share below … we’d love to hear from you!

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47 Responses

  1. I have, I think like many people, a combination of both.

    I love that I can work when I want (mostly) and where I want. I love that I can go the zoo at noon on a Tuesday with our daughter.

    I love 90% of what I do. I love writing, helping people, and I especially love the stories I hear from people when I help them. That keeps me going. I love selling the right way and yes…I even love the rewards (certificates of appreciation as Rabbi Daniel Lapin calls them).

    Wait…what was it I don’t like again? I must have forgotten.

    (Seriously though, my work is not easy most days but when I focus on the positives, it gets really fun)

  2. Unfortunately, I’m in the first group. But I’m working toward the second. I have several vacation days scheduled throughout the summer that will give me several long weekends. There are two main reasons I’m looking forward to these: 1. So I can put in some more dedicated time into the business I’m starting, and 2. So I can spend some time with my family!

    It really is amazing how much of a difference there is when you are doing something you love! There’s an excitement in everything, and even the problems don’t seem as bad because you’re focused on the good.

    Thanks for sharing this story, John.

  3. John,
    Nice Article as always. Care to comment on a question I have been contemplating? The answer to this question might require a totally new article.

    Do what you love or love what you do?

    I’m not particularly a natural match for my current professional situation, but I still love it because I chose to.

  4. My passion as long as I remember is the art/science of flying. My mom always said I was “Plane Crazy”. So, I went to school, got an aerospace engineering degree, and now work for a large manufacturer designing, testing, and certifying business jets. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a model I worked on lift off the runway, tuck the wheels in, and climb for the sky!

  5. I only have a minute so I’ll spare everyone the novel I could write about this. Although there have been times in my almost 20 years here where I did have that “bounding down the stairs” experience (especially when we were more of a startup), I’m not there now. If it were not for college tuitions looming, a spouse who was out of work two years, and my own battle w/ self confidence, I would almost certainly have made a change by now. But it’s never too late and I thank you for this illustration of why it matters. This tribute to my friend Jarrod has a great quote in it about following your passion; it’s so true! http://biggreenpen.com/2010/12/20/jarrods-lesson-be-who-you-are-passionately/

  6. You are indeed fortunate John – I wanted to be a mom – not a working mom – however we needed health care benefits for the family and my job was one way to get them. Now with a grown family I need health care benefits and my pension! It works – don’t get me wrong – life is good – however, I can’t say I am passionate about my work. Now 4 years from retirement I do the best job I can and I love the people I work with 🙂

  7. Needless to say I agree. I think it is extremely important to find a job that you love. In my opinion I think “balance” is also a very important part. The more I practice balance in the job I love the more I love what I do.

  8. I would not change it for the world. Once thought I would and started looking in want ads (yes the newspaper) and found I was unemployable. as I wanted my schedule and my time off etc.

    Nice to know when you hit you niche

  9. I am blessed to work in the funeral industry. As I write this, I am completing 5 of the most fullfilling days of my career as a pre-arranged funeral salesman. I offer families the most wonderful, greatest gift they can give their loved ones…the peace of mind of knowing that they have taken care of the business of dying prior to having to face the agony of losing a loved one. What a privilege it is to serve families this way.

  10. I am a middle school teacher-librarian and I LOVE my job! I love the kids and helping them discover things they didn’t know or find confidence in being who they are. Many tease that I live for summer, but I honestly have a hard time knowing what to do with myself in the summer. The kids give me a firection and a purpose!

  11. I am quite literally counting down the days to 10 years (8 months and 4 days) and heading out of the door as fast as I can. Thankless, boring, meaningless, mindless, work with no pay raises for 6+ years and a disengaged boss who could really care less – unless something reflects poorly on him. I am working for an organization (government) that treats people like dirt and takes forever to get anything done and wastes a lot of money in the process. No, I do not like the work I do, but I do have a choice to no longer work here and will exercise that choice.

  12. I am in a position that has morphed from the latter group to the former group. I became a judge in 2007 and immediately fell in love with the opportunities: to learn, to grow personally, and to serve others. I’ve had the chance to do many different areas of law and meet hundreds of people. However, the new experiences have run their course and I am looking for the next growing opportunity. I do not resent or despise my position, I simply recognize that it no longer meets those needs within me. So I’m teaching part time and looking for ways to get into mediation/conciliation on the side while I find the right transition process. QBQ! sure helps me keep perspective on taking charge of the process and not getting upset that things have changed, but enjoying the journey and new lessons. Thanks!

  13. John,
    How do you know exactly what I need to hear? Right now I am NOT enjoying my job. It’s not the actual work, it’s the office politics. I was laid off in 2009 and started my current job part time. It was a life saver and i enjoyed it greatly. I kept on applying for full time positions when they opened up and I finally got the full time position almost two years ago. This job, which was awesome as a part-timer, is not the same as a full-timer. I regret the day i switched to full-time. I stll give the job 110% but some days I feel like giving it 90%. I’m hoping that the job market opens up before I am stuck here forever – miserable.

  14. Great blog post!

    I serve as a pastor and I love what I do! I love the not normal hours and that I get to help people!

    Good thoughts. I’ll be sharing this post with others.

  15. I love geology, rocks and finding oil. But the industry keeps going through upheaval. I am a geophysicist and I enjoy seeing the world from a geophysical point of view. The job is fun when I can find one.

    So when my child took up cello. I viewed the cello as a geophysicist would.

    A luthier had a problem, his cellos were great in his workshop and had problems everywhere else. I worked with him to find that it was the concrete floor of his workshop that made the difference. How to make a 4′ x 8′ piece of concrete portable. Two rock tiles tuned to the cello.

    Now I am explaining to cellists how a rock can solve a problem that has plagued cellists since the first cello was built. – No I am not a musician, and I do not play the cello. I enjoy listening to the cello. I enjoy hearing and seeing how the stone helps the cellist play better. I am not a salesman and I do not do that part well. I leave the rock; they buy it or I get it back – either answer is ok. I only understand how a cello makes music. Not sure this will make money (not my goal) but I am having fun and I have applied for a patent. Some of the best cellists in the world use the rock as well as some up and coming students and some just for fun cellists. I enjoy watching them all.

  16. I am 42 with a safe corporate job. I always wanted to be a photographer, but I was scared and wanted stability. So I have been with my desk job for 12 years. However I had a son 2 years ago and realized, “how can I teach my son to follow his dreams if I don’t?” So I got a business license, built a website and have been both volunteering my services and charging low fees for family portraits…while at the same time making amazing connections and smoothing my rough edges.
    Just this weekend I shot for the American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure bike ride locally, and did the team photos. I was really scared and at some points thought, what have I gotten myself into? But you know what? I did a GREAT job and it was for charity – so I didnt have to worry too much. It was an amazing experience and the networking opportunity was priceless, especially with the companies and corporations who’s teams I took photos of!
    I know this is what I love because I love the networking, the shooting and even the editing. I hope I can transistion out of my job where I reached salary cap this year, and move 100% to photography. Check out my website, (not to purchase anything, but) just to check out the pictures! Thanks!

  17. I have been in the medical field for 28 years. I currently work at City of Hope National Medical Center and I love my patients. I’ve spent most of my career life in Emergency Rooms, as manager. I love what I do. However, I do have a 2nd passion that I am agressively pursing….and that’s Real Estate. I hold my current job during the normal work week and take care of my Real Estate clients after work and/or weekends. My goal/vision is to replace 1/2 my income as a Realtor with the long term goal of being able to be a full time Realtor and in business for myself.

  18. I love what I do! I investigate why well-intentioned people make decisions that result in bad outcomes. I do root cause/process failure analysis to the end that corrective actions can be developed so that people will not get hurt again or companies will not suffer business losses/interruptions again. I have been in the position where instead of seven years experience, I had one year of experience seven times. This is a much better life. I get to travel to see the clients and that takes me all over the world. Loving life!

  19. Right now I’m in a job I thought I’d love but it’s only providing paychecks and vacation. My joy has left me.

    So I’m working on advancing to the next career space. I’m thinking it might be helping people do much the same thing. Getting them excited about leading and stepping out and into a better role.

  20. This story reminds me of the rancher with a stable full of stallions. He has ready-to-go energy and potential, but without the steering power of passion, the strongest of what he has to offer will go unused.

    We have a responsibility to ourselves, our family, and to God, to harness that which is within us.

    As an author focusing on “clarity, confidence, and direction,” I absolutely LOVE what I do! Since it’s aligned with my passion, it is what I cannot-not do.

  21. A little over 16 years ago, I left a federal government job of 13 years with all the benefits and went back to school to be a licensed massage therapist……quite a switch, but after working for the government, I wanted a job where I could be my own boss and “rub people the right way” once……it has not been all roses, but I love my job….there aren’t to many jobs where you make people feel really good…many days, you do a lot of listening to life problems as well as the physical part….for all those scared to make the jump into a new career, how will you ever know unless you try!!! I had been out of school for 18 years, and I still managed handle the classes required and pass the national board certification…..you’re never too old to start something new …and always too young to give up on life!!!!!!!

  22. John, I used to love my job and what i did to help our company succeed. Now, things have changed so drastically with our company that it seems as though they don’t value experience. I’ve got 8 years to go before retirement. I still love my job but not the atmosphere here. I’ll give 100% as I always have for the past 20 years until I retire, that’s the only way I know how to be. Some days it’s hard to get myself motivated. When I have those days, I stop the victim thinking and change my mindset. That usually gets me moving!

  23. I have loving what I do for over 12 years, but lately have found it to become a grind. I’m now looking forward to those days off and facing a tough decision as to which move I should make to change my situation. Because it’s up to me, right? I’m in control of my own destiny.

    Until last Friday.

    I’m in HR, and a very grateful employee left a gift and a card on my desk. She recently changed jobs because I knew she was looking for a different opportunity and when the right one came along, I let her know to get her application in. I knew she’d be great at the job and would love the new challenge. With no other influence from me, she nailed the interview and made the move. I’m so proud of her. I told her so a couple weeks after her transition date. Then came the card with words that made my heart swell and brought me to tears. She was thanking me for how I’ve impacted her life.

    That’s when I remembered exactly what it was that made me love what I do before my recent frustrations, and that reminder could not have come at a better time.

  24. John,
    I have known you for 11 years and still learning more about you. Thanks for sharing stories about your early years. I think you like the job so much because your customers couldn’t complain.

  25. John,
    Such an important concept. I think I can best summarize my feeling about work with the statement: I love Mondays. I really look forward to my work week. The potential to serve, solve, and create, keep me energized and engaged.
    In my former career I loved going to work for 16 yrs and then the last 2 I found I was completely spent. Going through the motions wasn’t serving me or my company, we both deserved better. I got the rare opportunity of having 2 careers that I’ve loved. I’ve been blessed. I will add that having a wife who has always been supportive has helped me enjoy my work.

  26. Its amazing how being in a career field that I love can sometimes feel difficult. As Matt McWilliams said, I am in a career that allows me to go with my family to the zoo on a weekday. I have the pleasure of participating in their learning (we homeschool three boys!), and being a very big part of all that goes on in a busy home. I HAVE to go to “work” 10 days a month and ONLY get 20 days a month off! And I still find things to complain about!! I truly appreciate that I found this tonight. It has helped me to realize that because I found a job that I love, I have not “worked” in almost 15 years and actually look forward to coming in every time I have to. Thanks so much for the reminder.

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