A diversity consultant came to The Washington Post's newsroom several years ago to assess our sense of well-being, and I, for one, was surprised by his findings: People in every group--not just my group of black people, but white people, too---somehow felt that they were getting the short end of the stick.
Very few of us were genuinely happy, but it was hard to pinpoint exactly why. Not enough opportunity? Too little attention? Not enough pats on the back?
Here we were at arguably the best newspaper in the best city in the best country on Earth, and it just wasn't all that it had been cracked up to be. Perhaps it was a sign of the times: Successful people plagued by a nonspecific funk, felt most acutely by baby boomers who, on the eve of a new millennium, were moving into midlife and an inevitable confrontation with their own mortality.
What was to be done?
The diversity consultant favored "brown bag lunches," where we could gather to rap about our existential angst. He recommended mentoring programs, better "feedback processes" and improved management training. All of these have been helpful, I suppose. But most of them just didn't get to the heart of the matter for me.
Over the years, I have talked to a lot of people about this: ministers, doctors, professors of various stripes. And all of them invariably have reminded me that answers to much of what ails us have been around for a couple of millennia now.
One wise old head spoke to me about a "hole in our souls" that exists at the level of the spirit and cannot be filled with things. No promotions, advanced degrees, pats on the back or even cash bonuses can fill it.
As Jesus Himself said along these same lines (and as Moses said before Him), "Man does not live by bread alone."
It made me think: Do the recognition and rewards that I sometimes crave truly bring heartsease and happiness? Or does each plaque, certificate and citation turn to ash the moment it touches my hands?
Bill Wilson, a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, seemed to be speaking directly to me when he wrote in 1958: "My basic flaw had always been dependence--almost absolute dependence--on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression."
What was the cure?
Again, a 2,000-year-old antidote: Love your fellow man, unconditionally, and rely on a power greater than yourself.
I know, from those few times that I've tried it, that love changes people for the better and can smooth out the toughest of relationships. I also believe that Saint Francis was onto something with his notion that it's better to love than be loved, to comfort than be comforted, to understand than be understood.
Of course, putting that philosophy into practice is something else. It is actually amazing, when you think about it, that an idea as simple as a having a diverse work force would cause such acrimony when, in fact, people are so much more alike than different.
But the hard work does pay off. The more we try to help somebody, the better we feel about ourselves. The more we teach, the more we learn.
One of the best suggestions The Post's diversity consultant came up with was for us to start a mentoring program for new reporters and high school students.
Those who go out and work with young people inevitably return to the newsroom seemingly happier than the rest of us. Nothing about life as we know it has changed, only their attitude toward it.
This is not to say that nothing outside of us needs changing, or that all is well in corporate America. Some of us have good reasons to feel bad about our jobs and our lives; some managers, as Dilbert reminds us, leave much to be desired.
But being grounded in something more substantial than a pat on the back from the boss can make life a lot easier.
At The Post, which is not a bad place to work, we are still more likely to get beat by ourselves--by the way we mismanage talent--than by the competition.
As our diversity consultant made clear, we cannot survive the challenges of a high-tech news delivery system by ignoring the problems that erode the efficiency, excitement and relevancy of the institution.
We must have a talented, diverse and well-managed work force, not just here, but throughout the United States. To that end, management has its work cut out for it.
But so do I.
My contacts have left me with several good questions to ponder in my search for happiness: Can I keep ego and pride in check long enough to find contentment as a worker among workers? Can I find value and growth in suffering and struggle, and not be so quick to seek an easy out? Do I realize the only person hurt by my bitterness, resentment, anger and fear is me?
One of the beautiful things about writing for a newspaper is that you can call up the experts who will help you formulate such questions.
Thankfully, the answers are still accessible to anyone willing to get down on his or her knees and ask for them.