The Wisdom of the Bus Driver
This is a really wonderful quote: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” (Herman Cain)
I thought about this while getting on the bus for my 20-minute commute to the MAX station to downtown Portland. The bus driver, a middle-aged guy with a short, greying beard greeted me. “Gonna be a beautiful day today I think!” He said. It wasn’t exactly the type of sentence I expected to come out of someone at work at 7:45 on a Tuesday morning before the sun had fully risen above the trees, but it didn’t surprise me in the least because of his occupation.
Sure, not all bus drivers are happy-go-lucky types. But I’ve heard this line, and others like it from a myriad of different ones. Many of them are actually very satisfied with their jobs. They may have “reached for the stars” for a “higher career” years ago, or they may not have. Circumstances vary, but one thing or another led them to becoming a city bus driver, taking the same routes every day, often waking up earlier than me.
There is nothing particularly glorious about it. They get on the road, get to know their route for the day, say hello (if they choose) to passengers, take fare, pick up more people, drop them off, and repeat. It’s one of the more “simple” jobs I can think of. But I also happen to think it is one of the best for producing job satisfaction. Indeed turnover in this profession is quite low. Why is this? What have the bus drivers figured out that so many of the rest of us struggle with every day? We try so hard to further our careers, to reach the top, get that promotion, be rewarded for our work, and yet many of us are miserable.
My theory is that many bus drivers secretly laugh at our blind climbing up towards nowhere. They have found their success. They have reached an occupational mecca right under our noses.
Let’s examine why.
My first theory is that bus drivers get to know people on their jobs. There are the regular passengers, and there are the newcomers. I’ve observed conversations between drivers and regulars that are quite personal in nature. It’s like chatting with an old friend that isn’t really a friend, but a familiar face that you see every day. Social interaction is important for everyone, even the most introverted of among us. Jobs without any human-to-human contact can get lonely, depressing, and isolating after a pretty short period of time. So can jobs with only a small number of people, (say 3 or 4) especially if you don’t happen to get along. I suffer with this situation myself, being in an office with three co-workers, two of whom I share nothing in common with that I can tell. (And the only thing I have in common with the 3rd is a desire for autonomy, which he has achieved in some measure. After all, he is my boss!)
If a driver gets to know his route well, he will eventually pick out the familiar faces and get to know them a bit. This isn’t the case with every driver, especially those who work late nights when the traffic is more random, or in particularly dangerous areas. That is just unfortunate.
Many of us seek job security. It’s something that is becoming much more difficult to find these days as companies outsource, re-assign and collapse different divisions, departments and offices all the time. It’s like a giant, out of control amoeba that has nothing better to do than change and morph into the same thing. Bus drivers rarely feel that their jobs are threatened because there is always the need for transportation. They do collect a steady paycheck (and it’s good pay, too!) and can rest assured that their job will most likely be waiting for them next year, and the year after that too.
Bus drivers have actual freedom on their jobs. They don’t have a boss standing over them telling them which way to turn or asking why they ran that yellow light. They call the shots about how to drive, (within reason) how long to wait for that person running desperately to make the bus, and even when they wish to read and eat on the job. While they have to make pick-ups and drop-offs and follow a schedule, what they do within these parameters has some degree of flexibility. And once the route ends, they get to take breaks at their discretion as long as they are ready for the next loop.
I can’t think of too many other jobs that are as service oriented as this. People absolutely depend on drivers to get them to work, school and home. The drivers have a direct connection to the purpose of what they do. People need purpose in their jobs, and it is all the better if they feel like they are helping others while performing this service. Here in Portland, many passengers will thank the drivers for taking them to their destinations. I’m sure it happens in your city, too. So the drivers feel good, because day in and day out they directly see their role in helping people.
In this world it isn’t always the flashiest or most glamorous that are content. We often assume (falsely) that being in a position with more power, control, and/or especially money will give us greater happiness. We could take a lesson from the bus driver, who performs a service to help others and has wonderful job security, and with time in the wee hours of the morning to admire how beautiful a day it’s going to be. If only I could see that clearly at 7:45 on a Tuesday morning.
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Wendy October 24, 2007 at 3:07 pm
How true! This piece really resonated with me, and I felt myself longing for the symmetry and balance of the bus driver’s universe. If only life were that simple, and work that rewarding.
Thanks, Mike, for this enlightening piece of writing, which was a reward for me, after a tough day at work.