What makes life worthwhile?

When the dotcom bubble burst in 2001, hotelier Chip Conley went in search of a better business model as his business was suffering. In fact, San Francisco Bay Area hotels went through the largest percentage revenue drop in the history of American hotels during that time. In one of his visits to a bookstore at that time, he read one of the most famous theories of human behaviour – Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which separates human needs into five ascending levels – from basic physiological needs such as food to the highest goal of self-actualization, characterized by the full realization and achievement of one’s potential. Influenced by Maslow’s pyramid, Conley revamped his business model to focus on the intangible, higher needs of his employees and customers. Conley mentions that this change in his business model based on happiness helped his Joie de Vivre Hospitality to triple its size between 2001 and 2008.

Chip Conley has written three books, and interestingly one of them is called – PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. And it is interesting to see how one can get inspired from personality theories of Maslow and convert that into personal happiness, as well as a successful and happy business built around it. Today, Conley’s Joie de Vivre Hospitality operates nearly 40 unique hotels across California, each built on an innovative design formula that inspires guests to experience an ‘identity refreshment’ during their visits.

 In this talk, Conley talks about his experience and learning during 2001 dotcom burst and how his quest for measuring the intangible took him to several places, including his travel to Bhutan to study its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index.  He narrates a story of his employee Vivian, an immigrant from Vietnam and her reasons to find meaning in her work. This is how Conley puts it –

How could someone actually find joy in cleaning toilets for a living? So I spent time with Vivian, and I saw that she didn’t find joy in cleaning toilets. Her job, her goal and her calling was not to become the world’s greatest toilet scrubber. What counts for Vivian was the emotional connection she created with her fellow employees and our guests. And what gave her inspiration and meaning was the fact that she was taking care of people who were far away from home.
In Vivian’s case, her unit of production isn’t the tangible hours she works, it’s the intangible difference she makes during that one hour of work.

You may recall the story of Luke, a cleaner from a hospital that I had discussed here on My Zen Path in the article based on Barry Schwartz’s book Why We Work.  Whether it is a hotelier like Conley or psychologist studying the connection between psychology, work and economy like Schwartz – they have similar stories to share when it comes to finding meaning in what we would otherwise look at as mundane, ordinary jobs.

Conley also discusses an important concept from positive psychology – gratitude! This is an interesting part from his talk –

I think the Bhutanese believe happiness equals wanting what you have – imagine gratitude – divided by having what you want – gratification. The Bhutanese aren’t on some aspirational treadmill, constantly focused on what they don’t have. Their religion, their isolation, their deep respect for their culture and now the principles of their GNH movement all have fostered a sense of gratitude about what they do have.

I think this talk is useful and insightful because Conley talks about higher needs of his employees, and moreover he has demonstrated that businesses could be run successfully by creating the conditions for the employees to live their calling. I also liked it because this talk and his book exemplify use of personality theory (in this case, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) for creating better workplaces for employees and as a result, making the organization more successful. I firmly believe that it not only helps individuals when their work is aligned with their calling, but it also helps organization to have lower attrition, better employee satisfaction and more profits. It is wonderful to hear it from someone like Chip Conley who has done it himself. You can watch his TED talk here –

It would be appropriate to end this article with a wonderful question from this talk –

Why is it that business leaders and investors quite often don’t see the connection between creating the intangible of employee happiness with creating the tangible of financial profits in their business?

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