I wanna vacuum

Lessons in motivation from a six-year-old

I had an interesting experience with my son last night that reminded me of an important lesson.

The context

In our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we have no paid ministry but accept voluntary assignments to serve. As part of that, we all take turns cleaning our church building on a regular basis. Last night was our family’s turn.

The story

I took our oldest four kids to help me clean, while my wife put the younger two to bed. My six-year-old wanted to come help me vacuum the chapel room, but quickly announced how bored he was. I assigned him the job of moving the cord so that I didn’t trip on it and it didn’t get stuck. He continued to complain about the lameness of his task. Surprisingly, my sage advice about how service is not always what we want to do was not particularly helpful in changing his attitude. He announced, “I wanna vacuum!” I tried tell him that he needed to be taller to work the vacuum properly, but with no effect.

Finally, I decided to take a different tack. I realized that we were halfway done, and it had been about ten minutes. “Last time I had this job,” I told him, “I vacuumed by myself and it took a full hour. This time, because of your help, we are going way faster. We make a great team!” It was like a switch had been flipped. He jumped up and ran forward to grab the cord and make sure I had some slack.

We continued through the rest of the room like that, with him jumping at each opportunity to smooth the way. As we neared completion, he asked again, “Dad, could I try to vacuum?” I realized that he mattered more than a perfect vacuuming job.

Six-year-old vacuuming the church A six-year-old husband-in-training

The lesson

As we drove home, I thought about what I had seen. There was a moment when the task transformed for my son, and it was a moment that I recognized happening in my own life. As soon as he understood how his contribution made a meaningful difference, his boredom changed to excitement. His perspective changed so that instead of being given a menial task with no consequence, he was helping to dramatically increase our capacity to serve.

So often, whether at work or in other areas of life, we can feel that we are plodding along, marking time. We see a role that seems to be more exciting or more prominent, and also cry out, “I wanna vacuum!” As a leader at work, part of my most important job is to help my team see how their contribution makes a meaningful difference. As an individual contributor, we all have the responsibility to seek out that meaning, or sometimes even to create it. Rarely are we truly stuck doing something that doesn’t matter at all. But often we lament that this is the case, instead of searching for meaning and purpose ourselves.

My hope is that I, and we all, can remember this vacuuming lesson from a six-year-old. Our perspective makes all the difference.