Amusing ourselves to Death Valley

death valley

It’s not about death. It’s about our honeymoon.

Ten years ago my wife and I had our honeymoon. We travelled to the west side of the USA. We did a fantastic tour, starting in LA, going to Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and back to LA. As it was our first time over there, we dit all the “obligatory” sites. Not that it felt that way, because I was almost literally “away from this planet”.  Seeing the stunning beauty of nature and overwhelming environments, e.g. the Grand Canyon.
We also did Las Vegas and Death Valley.

Las Vegas

Trip Las Vegas to Death Valley
Trip Las Vegas to Death Valley

Of course everybody knows Las Vegas. I have questions about the extreme decay and artificiality of this city, literally in the middle of the Nevada desert. How is this possible? I asked myself all the time walking over the strip. Well, it is. It was also a perhaps once in a life “must-see” for us. So we did see it. And we enjoyed it


In all this overdo one particular story of Suzy, a waitress in our residence, touched me. You can imagine I am also in my holidays busy with human resources. I noticed she had been very friendly to us during breakfast. Of course, she wants her tip, I thought… But when I forgot to give a tip at the end of the breakfast ( I honestly did not do that on purpose, in Europe there is no such necessary habit), she simply stayed very friendly. In fact, precisely because she continued her behavior, I thought all was ok.
A few minutes later we were getting in our car for our next stop (Death Valley, close to Las Vegas). My wife asked me if I had given a tip. No, I had forgotten the tip! And exactly that girl Suzy had been so very friendly to us.
So I returned to give her a very nice tip and offered her 1000 apologies.
She thanked me and started smiling happily. I asked how she voted with the working circumstances in Las Vegas that are not always optimal. Clients are extremely demanding and spoiled. The competition is killing; the temperature too.

Suzy’s team

She replied: Well, I work in a fantastic team of people who have suffered together some serous shit. And we made it. Things go better now than a few years ago. Our boss is giving us total trust. Sometimes this brings him into trouble with his own hierarchy but he proceeds and so far they let him. Last but not least, there is a lot of humour, sometimes there hear us laugh together at the other site of the strip. Yes, we try to laugh our stress away, together, literally. Sometimes it’s about total nonsense, but if feels so good to laugh together….

And now i am going to share your tip with a colleague who yesterday had exactly the same situation. But she was less lucky. We do that sometimes…

You are kidding ? I thought. No she wasn’t. She waved us out and went to her colleague
You can imagine that, during the ride afterwards to Death Valley, I was very silent. As I am very passionate about engagement and happiness on the work floor, Suzy had just given me a course replacing all the books ever read and blogs ever written. My wife asked me if I was ok. I said yes. Well, she knows me well enough to figure out what was going on. A rare combination of deep reflection and a slightly smiling face… we were on vacation after all 😉

Death Valley

I was not ready at all for Death Valley after this experience. For those who do not know Death Valley. It’s a must see because there is literally  nothing to see. There wasn’t even a sign indicating we had arrived. The landscape became dryer and dryer. Fauna and flora had vanished already some time ago. There was just erosion, a lot of white salt and one road. The contrast with Las Vegas could not be bigger. And the thought that people had created Las Vegas in this very environment became quite morbid. Temperatures up to 50 degrees centigrade. The brochures recommended us not to get out of the car to walk on feet. Some visitors wanting to do a “small tour” and leaving their car on the road, take enormous risks. They also recommended not to use the air conditioning all the time for obvious energy reasons. And to take in extra water.

Trip Las Vegas to Death Valley
Trip Las Vegas to Death Valley


Anyway, after driving about 20 kilometers in this environment, we were still not sure we had found the place… there was no sign. You can’t miss Vegas, but you can miss “nothing”. To our surprise there was a very small restaurant. The only one it seemed later on. We entered, ordered water and asked if we were already in Death Valley. Jeremy, the cook, answered we were almost out of it again.
Ah, ok, so this was it ?
Wasn’t it dead enough ? He asked.
Sure, sure, but now we’ve done it without “officially” knowing this was it.
That must be horribly frustrating indeed… I heard him thinking cynically.

Jeremy’s team

Then he introduced us to his team. As we were probably the only customer of that day, they were really glad to see “someone”. They all started talking about their life, their homes, their work in this restaurant, and their travelling in the USA.
Then I made a very stupid mistake. I asked if they would not rather work in Las Vegas. It’s a place were living surely is more comfortable than in Death Valley.
Never ever ! they answered in chorus. My wife looked a bit embarrassed.
I did not have to do a lot.


A man named Joe started talking. He was an African-American.
This is really the only place where nobody ever looks at me or treats me as a “black man”. Perhaps because there is nobody anyway. The brotherhood that we’ve built together here is phenomenal. We have to here. There is nothing out there. We’re up to ourselves. If we don’t continually support each other, and that goes further than professional life,  we’re all dead. And you may take that literally. We make fun, we thoroughly know each other, we are also an amateur band. When we have a conflict, we have a rule that the younger always takes the initiative to solve it. When he does so, the older start first with appreciation for his courage and listens intensively to the younger. That way, both generations work on their weaknesses: courage for the young. Listening for the experienced older. We recruit extremely carefully and exceptionally, you can imagine. Every new person must truly 200% fit in, or won’t make it.
So, for as far as someone can be happy in this place, I truly am. I would never want to switch Vegas. This kind of thing, simply does not exist there.
At that moment he boss interrupted: hey Joe, listen, we’ve truly enjoyed the show but would you please do us favor and drink your beer. Ours is gone already man…
And they all started laughing… The other side of the valley couldn’t here it. There is no other side. But I was – again – completely gone!

Two totally different places, one lesson.

Two totally different people saying exactly the same:

I want to be here because  I am happy here. And because I cannot imagine having equal fun, support and appreciation at any other place.

In both cases a specific context contributes to this:

  • a leader behaving in a certain way
  • a very intensive collaboration, co-creation and true friendship within the team
  • lots of humor
  • the awareness and gratefulness about these unique circumstances.
  • and so many other, invisible, unspoken but extremely important small things.


Other blog to read

Do Happy Cows give more milk?
This is not my movie, but it gives a clear impression of the trip anno 2012


Purpose lies outside yourself

“You are our motivation” Poster in the Brussels Subway


Give me an example of a true purpose that lies within yourself? If your purpose is being a loving father, than the meaning of that purpose is to offer love, protection, … to your children. If you make a self-propelled combine harvester, you do that for the farmers who use it and for the people who are fed by the grains that are harvested. If you’re a musician, you need an audience. Do you write a book solely for yourself or for the people you’d like to inspire? Surely, a book does not make you rich?
In many purposes there is also selfishness. Or vanity. Being a loving father makes you feel good. Helping someone gives you a sense of purpose, worth, identity … But that’s OK.  There’s no harm in benefiting from doing something for someone else. Viktor Frankl wrote about his experiences as a prisoner in a concentration camps. He described that there was humanity in those dire circumstances. Sharing a piece of bread with a fellow prisoner was an act of kindness. That small act gave a sense of dignity to the one who gave it. Listen to Viktor Frankl

There’s an African Philosophy Ubuntu (or is it life wisdom) that says that we live thanks to the other. Also in Western Philosophy the relationship between me and the other is a key theme (Buber, Sartre, Camus, …). Psychology has discovered that your mental development is triggered by interaction with others. You cannot healthily exist without the other. You define yourself, based on the interactions with the other.

With what Purpose?

One key element of human nature is empathy (read De Waal to see it’s more a primate thing, than only a human thing). Empathy helps us to feel what the other feels and to act upon it.
There are some ’empathopaths’ who lack that feature. They are either extremely introverted (like in autism) or psychopaths. I apologize for this diagnostic simplification.
The fact that you need others to be successful, to be happy, to lead a meaningful life comes out at the end of your life. Two of the 5 regrets of people (as described by Bronnie Ware) in the last phase of their life is about not having given enough attention to others, mostly family and friends.
Imagine that you ask only one question to people “with what purpose are you doing this or that” (I’ve learnt this from John Whitmore) and you keep repeating that question regardless of the answers, you end up most of the time on an existential level, where the other plays a significant role. Try it.
Read also

This blog is based on a discussion in the Linkedin Group on Employee Engagement.

Decent Work. Decent Life.

The most important aspect of work is to have work. Of course the job has to be decent. The International Labour Organisation has a program me for decent work. This is how the ILO describes decent work:

Work is central to people’s well-being. In addition to providing income, work can pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities. Such progress, however, hinges on work that is decent. Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives.

In itself this is a vague notion work decency. Decency is conformity to the prevailing standards of propriety and morality. So decent work is work that conforms to what we see as appropriate. But what is appropriate? Even today we it remains difficult to reach consensus about that.
Here’s an example to illustrate how difficult this is. There is consensus that child labour does not conform to standards. Clearly, child labour is not decent. But still we see that millions of children do hazardous work in dire circumstances. More, some families depend on the income that kids bring in. It is not that easy not to judge. Looking with our standards is easy. They are the result of more than a century of humanizing work. Even when we are appalled by working circumstances in some countries, a solution is not easy.

Decent Work as a fundamental Right

The decent work program starts from a consensus that decent work is important. The universal declaration of human rights (articles 22-25) is clear. Decent work is a fundamental right. But this right is still jeopardized. Unemployment rates have risen. The increased youth unemployment is a big concern in many countries. Countries and companies have difficulties creating jobs. This is a threat to social stability. Not having a decent job is not only an individual problem. It’s a societal problem.

Decent work and Development

When I browse through the ILO decent work program, I could not help but notice that the national programs seem to be restricted to states that are under development. These are the European countries that have such a program:

  • Albania (2012-2015)
  • Armenia (2007-2011)
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina (2012-2015)
  • The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2010-2013)
  • Republic of Moldova (2012-2015)
  • Serbia (2013-2017)
  • Ukraine (2012-2015)

That made me wonder. What about the other countries? Don’t they have issues with work decency? Is it really about development cooperation? The Western World can indeed help countries to develop an approach for increasing decent work. Their history and their economic links with developing countries put them in that position.
After the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh, many people were outraged about the work conditions there. Politicians and consumers in the West can have an impact on the decency of work for people working in those countries.

Closer to home

But if we look closer to home, we see that there is still a lot of work in the so-called developed countries. The discussions about the minimum wage in Germany and the United States of America point out that there is still a big debate going on. In 2012 a German television show exposed certain unjust practices by Zalando and Amazon. Although developed countries have started to improve work conditions in the late 19th century, there are still employers that have a doubtful way of treating their employees.
Today 109 countries that have started or finalized a Decent Work Country Program, most of which developing countries. This is in itself an important fact. But when do you stop striving for decency? The West cannot be complacent about decency. Decency is about pay and working conditions. But also about well-being. There’s an increase of mental illness at least partly related to work. We see more refined ways of exploitation in Western countries. Work should be meaningful, a source of development and sustainable employability and a source of personal fulfillment. Work is important for people and their families and it is too important to be taken for granted. Even though working conditions in developing countries seem to demand work decency programs, I suggest we integrate decency of work again in the developed countries as well. Having a job is important. Having a decent job is a fundamental right. Having a decent life is a fundamental right.

Meaningful work

The meaning of work
A while ago I have read  Alain De Botton’s book “The pleasures and sorrows of work”. It’s a fascinating contemplation on why people work. De Botton touches with whit the full bandwidth of working. At the end he states that it’s better to work to prevent us from doing nothing. The meaning of working lies in the fact of being busy ?
Process vs Achievement
Compare it to a bicycle ride. Is the fact of reaching your destination, more important than the ride? What’s the meaningfulness of reaching your destination? If you’re into recreation you would say that you’d like to enjoy the view. And maybe you will state that the exercise itself is beneficiary. If you’re a competitive type you might want to reach your target before the others do, or in a better time than before. The meaningfulness is derived from your targets.
De Botton describes the passion of a painter who paints a multitude of similar paintings with nothing but a tree on it, and always the same tree. You might think that this is useless and even a little maniacal. Many artists and works of art would be categorized like that. So what’s the meaningfulness of the work of an artist ? He produces art for the sake of art.
There are many professions that are looked upon by others in a judgmental way. I have friends who were not allowed to study what they wanted. The fathers made up a list of acceptable fields of study like economics, law, engineering and medicine. The other list was longer : history, psychology, philosophy, art, archeologgy, Latin, Greek, … These ‘useless’ studies do not teach you a real job and do not prepare one for the tough life out there, or there were simply too many people already unemployed after having studied this. The fathers thought it was in the best interest of their offspring to make a choice. But those fathers forget that children need to make their own choices.
And if you want to be certain to have a job, you might want to consider a profession like plumber, or carpenter. You might consider to be a craftsman. Where I live there is a shortage of good plumbers and carpenters. But those professions are often not on the list of people that want the best for their children. I think those jobs are very meaningful. Belonging  to the category of clumsy people, I have a high esteem for people that are able to keep my house dry and make sure that there is clean water running from the tap. To me it’s meaningful that a carpenter repairs the broken window or that the guy that mends my roof does it fast before the next rain is falling.
Meaningfulness derived from others
So where does meaningfulness come from ? It comes from the person whom you are doing something for. It must be great to be a plumber. People are happy when you show up. People are thankful that you have solved the problem. There is relevance.The same goes for teaching. Isn’t it great that you give your kids into the hands of a teacher when they are about 6 years old and that 6 months later they are able to read and write ? This is a great achievement. Parents should be thankful. I can draw up a list of professions that are very meaningful to people and society, even when they are not very popular. Judges, policemen, the men that collect the garbage, the nurse in a ward for the terminally ill, …
De Botton also describes the jobs of accountants and auditors. Someone states that without audits capitalism would not be possible. Auditing is a very peculiar profession. When the Sarbanes-Oxley (Sox) law came into place there was a massive increase of the audits being performed in companies. The tasks of those additional audits is to check on the governance, avoid scandals like Enron and detect risks as early as possible. Did it help ? No it did not. Fraud is still out there. Madoff was found out only years after Sox came into action. And he was only caught because of the real estate crisis that launched the biggest post-war financial crisis. He could not keep up the facade and no governing body had seen it coming. So is auditing meaningful ? Is it more meaningful than teaching children to read and write ? I cannot judge.
Again, where does the meaningfulness come from ? To me it comes from someone else but you. If you think what you do is meaningful, but you’re the only one, you might have a problem. The undiscovered artist that gets no acclaim could say that the whole world is wrong. Or he could decide to work for people who don’t know his work yet. But he’s working for an audience, even when it’s a virtual or future one.

Van Gogh
Portrait of Van Gogh

Van Gogh did not sell much during his lifetime. He was not rich when he died. He had only one big fan, his brother. Who did he paint for ? Was what he did meaningful, or mad ?
Meaningfulness and meaningful work is the key to engagement.