What an Angry Flight Attendant Taught Me about Doing Meaningful Work

The only way to do great work is to love what you do.
—Steve Jobs

Not too long ago, I was traveling and came across a rude flight attendant. This woman was clearly jaded about her job. Nonetheless, she taught me something important about doing meaningful work.

Flight Attendant
Photo credit: Bas Bogers (Creative Commons)

The attendant was curt and sarcastic with passengers, responding to drink requests with a quick reply: “Yes, I heard you the first time.” She never smiled or seemed sincere. More than once, I overheard her complaining to another attendant.

The experience left a mark on me. Nobody likes being around people who hate their jobs. We all need to love what we do, or go work somewhere else. It’s really that simple.

We can learn a thing or two from these types of people: the snappy flight attendant, the disgruntled Walmart cashier, the bitter toll booth operator. We’ve all encountered someone like this: angry, frustrated workers who make their jobs worse by complaining about them. It’s not fun, is it? However, these observations can serve as lessons for what not to do.

When nobody cares what you do

Flight attendants are used to nobody listening to them. They’re used to boring people. They probably even bore themselves. Going through the same motions (instructions on crash landings and emergency exists) over and over again — I’m sure it’s easy to fall into a rut.

If you have a job like that, you may feel like you don’t have a choice. But that’s ridiculous. You always have a choice. You can always be creative. You can always make what you do matter in some small or large way.

It’s time to call your own bluff, to face the lie that says what you do mandates how you do it. Time to remember that anything can be remarkable, if you have eyes to see.

It doesn’t have to be this way

On that same trip that I encountered the rude flight attendant, I read an interesting story.

In the book, Made to Stick, the Heath brothers tell of a real-life flight attendant who changed things up. While going through routine safety checks during pre-flight, she surprised travelers starting to tune her out with this announcement:

If I could have your attention for a few moments, we sure would love to point out these safety features.

If you haven’t been in an automobile since 1965, the proper way to fasten your seat belt is to slide the flat end into the buckle. To unfasten, lift up on the buckle and it will release.

And as the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft: two forward exit doors, two over-wing removable window exits, and two aft exit doors.

The location of each exit is clearly marked with signs overhead, as well as red and white disco lights along the floor of the aisle.

Made ya look!

You don’t have to give in to the temptation to believe your job is boring. It can be amazing, if you let it be.

How to make your work matter

It’s easy to get lost in day-dreaming of the perfect job, of waiting for something extraordinary to just come along. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a little dreaming. But in doing this consistently, you miss out on the chance to be amazing now.

Want to do work that matters? Make your work matter. Do what the flight attendant did:

  1. Reject the mundane-ness of your circumstance.
  2. Embrace your creative spirit.
  3. Enjoy yourself.

If you do this, you will surprise and delight your boss, coworkers, and even yourself. You can do creative, interesting work that people will pay attention to. But only if you want. Here’s a final illustration from a Psychology Today article I found:

Three men are in a quarry, crushing rocks. Someone asks them what they’re doing. One says, “Breaking these boulders into little rocks.” Another says, “Earning a living to feed my family.” The last one says, “Building a cathedral.”

The best way to do what you love is to love what you do. And if that’s just not possible, pick something else. You have a choice.

Have you encountered someone who obviously loves what they do? What kind of impression did that experience leave on you? Share in the comments.

69 thoughts on “What an Angry Flight Attendant Taught Me about Doing Meaningful Work

  1. I agree Jeff, life is way too short to be stuck doing jobs you dislike. Its great to be an inspiration to others in your work. However, there are seasons in my life when I’ve had to do something I didn’t like and learn from the experience. But I was also very aware to leave the position as soon as the lesson had been learnt. Thanks, Simon

  2. Many of us have been tricked into believing we are supposed to be miserable at work. Instead we should remember we were created for it. If we can’t work at our dream job, we should make our job a dream with right attitudes. We are more likely to get our dream job if we do that.

  3. Great points, Jeff.  I’ve had many stinky jobs in my life but it all comes down to attitude.   I’ve learned, in hindsight, that sometimes you are placed there for a reason.  There are so many lessons to be learned  when we have do “time” in less than exciting  jobs.  The stinky jobs have helped keep me grateful.  And, like you said,  we always have a choice.  It’s what we make of the situation.  We can either contribute to the thorns or we can choose to be a light. 

    1. I’ve also noticed that even the “stinky” jobs have in some way contributed to the person I am today. Every job I’ve had has been a building block in one way or another.

  4. I agree. But as you mention briefly, it is also easier for us to appreciate  our jobs when we are treated with dignity. Too many people in service positions are treated as if they are invisible at best, and walked all over at worst. We are all responsible for our own attitudes, but we also have a duty to make it a little easier for others.

    1. Character shows up when you are walked over and still treat others with dignity. I’ve seen quite a few airline employees who handle stressed out travelers who rage at them over a flight. The employees handle them with grace and dignity, even when they are getting yelled out. It’s always impressed me because I don’t know if I could react as graciously. 

      1. They are supposed to be trained to handle difficult customers. They know which way to react unless they give in to their emotions and throw what they know out the window.

    2. You are so right, we have the responsibility to make life easier for others too. At the same time, we need to realize that we can only change ourselves and we only have control over our own behavior. Yet, I’m always amazed and how when I work on and improve myself that others seem to change for the better too.

  5. I love that last illustration about the cathedral builder.This whole idea has really hit me hard lately. I’ve realized the crucial importance of our motivations – not just in providing the power to drive us forward, but also in providing us the perspective to be truly fruitful in everything we do. I think for me the best motivation for any job would be “working as unto the Lord” as the Bible says. It’s great to have a big-picture view that you’re building a cathedral. But take another step back and see how your actions are impacting eternity – that’s when you really strike motivational gold.

  6. Great article, Jeff. It’s true. I love to complain, but it doesn’t get me anywhere, and it wastes time I could be using to do something meaningful. 🙂

  7. I like to fly Southwest because the flight attendants often pepper funny asides into their travel safety monologues. This makes me pay attention when they’re speaking because I’ll never pass up an opportunity to laugh. People who make the most of their jobs, whatever they might be, are infectious to be around.

  8. I’ve worked for my parents for a very long time now, and a lot of times the line between employee and daughter get blurred in a very unprofessional way, and it’s not in a positive one either. I won’t go into details. It really doesn’t matter. Why? Because I choose to stay. My employment is my choice. I could go off and get a job somewhere else. It probably wouldn’t pay as much. I would have to relearn a new set of skills, especially since the ones I’ve learned here are hard to reapply. In the end, you’ve got to weigh out the pros and cons of staying or leaving. 

    It was Joseph Campbell who said a man who stays at a job that doesn’t serve a purpose beyond money is a slave. I agree thoroughly with that. Whenever the only logic behind me staying with my parents or any of the other billions of jobs I’ve had was to make money, I immediately felt trapped and unhappy. The kind of unhappiness that gives you heartburn. 

    So, when I realized my unhappiness was ruining my life I had a sit down with myself , weighed out the pros and cons, and adjusted my perspective. Sure, bad working circumstances suck, but you’re never gonna get away from “cons” in a job, but you can change your perspective. When I decided to stay, I also decided to focus on why I was staying, my pros. When I find myself getting negative and angry about where I am in my job, I tell myself to not give into the temptation to think negatively, but to fix the problem or let it go. 

    I know I spend most of my day working, and I need to feel fulfilled in my job, or I am not going to feel fulfilled as a person. My job needs to matter to me. Just like you said, if I can’t find a way to make my job creatively work and have a good attitude every day, if I can’t be a team player and work for the betterment of myself and where I am working for, rather than just clocking in and clocking out each day, then I either need to have another sit down with myself, or choose something else. 

    Good post. Very relevant to life. Thank you.

  9. I needed to read this. I’ve been in a job that sort of falls in the customer service realm and have caught myself being lackluster and disgruntled lately. Thank you for the reminder.

    “Want to do work that matters? Make your work matter.” – Brilliant.

    Thank you, Jeff. And congrats on the endorsement from Seth Godin.

  10. I uses to work for Johnny Rockets as a line cook.  Not the most amazing job.  But I am fully convinced that you get out what you put in.  So instead of flipping burgers for 8 hours a day, I put on a show.  I danced, flipped burgers like Tom Cruise from Cocktail, and made my boring job enjoyable.  People would clap and laugh, which made their dining experience fun.  They would come back to eat there just to see the dancing and singing cooks.  We became the USP for the restaurant and valued members of the staff.  Sure I knew I didn’t want to flip burgers for the rest of my life, but if I was going to flip burgers then I better well do it the best way I knew how.  You’re right, Jeff.  It is a choice.  I could have been miserable, complaining about my grease-caked clothes and how I smelt like burgers when I came home.  But I had a blast instead.

    1. Totally reminds me of when I was a cook at a summer camp. No one wanted to chat with me while I flipped burgers on the grill, so I would sing silly songs to myself and laugh. 

    2. I’ve found that even ‘menial’ jobs can be fun and rewarding if you avoid letting yourself focus on the aspects you hate and apply a little creativity. It always helps to have coworkers you enjoy being around, who also want to find ways to spice up the mundane activities and take pride in their work.
      I’ve also been a short order cook, along with bouncer, roofer, truck loader – and I’ve always come away from those jobs with a changed perspective and lessons that I can use in other areas of life. Most of the time you don’t have the ability to change the job, but you can change how you see it.
      One frightening angle of Jeff’s article that I don’t think anyone has touched on is the issue of employees with bad attitudes who have tangible power to affect your well being. As an example, given the touchy security environment, confronting the flight attendant with the bad attitude leave you face down in the isle of the plane in flex cuffs.

  11. Jeff,

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the mundane-ness of it all. 

    I do design work, and part of that is designing logos. I can choose to see that as making sketches and doodling little fun designs that mean very little in the activity, the doing. And, believe me, I have those days that I question my activity and the depth of it.

    Yet, as prompted by your article to consider this, I’m choosy about who I design for. I made my mind up some time ago to be so. I recognize that although the task is menial, the outcome can possibly attract, or at least it should. And I desire to be a part of attracting others to organizations that matter, that have a purpose behind the product, or even where the purpose is the “product.” 

    Choosing to view how the mundane task fits into the building of the cathedral makes all the difference in the choice of work … as well as the choice to do excellent work.

  12. I am a mom of four little ones under the age of six.  Mundane can be the name of the same game, every day of the week, but when I pour into my kids it shakes up the mundanity (mundane + insanity = ie…endless diapers, sippy cups, and where’s my blankie) and helps us enjoy life.

    I am in the midst of an opportunity to completely choose a different career because I am no longer able to work in my previous career.  I’m choosing to do what I love, because frankly, I want my work to matter and it matters if I’m happy about doing it.Great post and truly applicable to EVERY aspect of life, from the stay at home mom to the famous artist.

  13. We have all done something we like and something we don’t like. We know the difference, we just have to start listening to ourselves and stop listening to the outside forces that try to tell us what we ought to be doing.

  14. Great post, Jeff! And very timely too. It’s easy to get lost in mundane work, even if you are doing what you love. (I actually just posted about that same thing!) Perspective is sooo important, and it’s also important to shake it up a bit when possible to get out of the mundane routines 🙂

  15. Love this perspective! There are so many people I know who feel trapped in their jobs and don’t realize that they can see things differently. Also, I love how you took the approach of being able to learn from a negative situation where most people who have just felt negative about their trip and complained about the flight attendant. You set a good example of how to follow your own advice.

  16. Nice post Jeff! I LOVE the quarry story! I am stealing it! it is all about perspective and attitude. I am so pleasantly surprised when I come across someone who puts their heart and soul into their job. Like the valet parking attendant at a clinic we go to that greets and treats you like you are a most valued patient. That guy knows that he is the very first contact you have with the clinic and he wants to make sure he puts you in the right frame of mind. I love people like that. Passionate and proud of what they do. Thanks again for a set of stories that “make a difference  the world”!


    I’m pretty
    surprised at the positive response this article is getting. To me it comes
    across as intensely arrogant I feel bad for the person that this article was
    “inspired” by. It’s pretty clear that there’s not much empathy for
    this flight attendant. Working in customer service is incredibly difficult. Furthermore,
    no one has a clue what was going on in her life (personal or professional) to
    make judgments about how she hated her job.

    Sounds to me
    like the flight attendant who “did something about her mundane job”
    didn’t improve anything for herself; all she did was make it better for others.
    She probably still hates her life.

    It isn’t
    puppies and sunshine for everyone, and who are you to suggest they change their
    attitude. Not everyone can afford to do what they love, and not all jobs can be
    the best job ever. It might have to be a means to an end for some.

    This article is
    just whiney diatribe written by a person who was overly affected by mediocre
    service. If we could all be so lucky to profit from such nonsense…

  18. Attitude is everything! When you work for a company, you represent them. It is your job to put on a positive face for the customers. Many times people avoid places (restaurants, stores, banks, airlines) due to the customer service. Plus, life’s too short to be crabby. 
    Thanks Jeff, great as usual!

  19. I often get caught up in the day-to-day and am discouraged feeling like I can do something better, something that would be more appreciated. But I am reminded of 3 things 
    1) to think creatively 
    2) sometimes it’s the little mundane behind-the-scenes-kind-of jobs I do that teach me the most valuable lessons and reap the greatest rewards, 
    3) to be thankful for everyone who enters my life and provides a service for me, regardless of what it is. 
    So thank you, Jeff Goins, for writing this blog! It has been inspirational to me. 

  20. I needed this today. The job of mom is not often boring and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but can be grueling at times. Thank you. Favorite line: anything can be remarkable, if you have eyes to see. 

  21. I haven’t always worked in a job I love, but I’ve always made the most out of every job I had.   Until you can get, or better yet – create the job you want, you have to find a way to make where you’re at interesting or enjoyable.  I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible.   If it’s not possible – quit!  It’s just not worth it. 

  22.  I needed that.  I work a mundane job, but it’s the attitude that counts
    and hopefully leads to change later.  I’ve worked on songs, came up
    with ideas, learned various things from podcasts, and exercised during the boring hours at the warehouse.

    As for flight attendants, that doesn’t seem a boring job travelling the countryside.  Southwest attendants seem to be a bit more “creative” in their routines.

    Thanks again, Josh 

  23. Creative way to remind us that we choose whether our work is meaningful or not. No one can do that for us. 

    I am sure the rude flight attendant had good reasons for her mood, but no good reason to share that with the clients. I imagine since she gave “guff” she got that back. So it made her day that much more miserable. 

  24. Dear Jeff,  if you intended to make a difference with your writing……you sure do!   Thank you.  You also unknowingly help me make a difference with mine and I am sure many others.  Appreciate your talent and attitude!!

  25. Good writing is about confrontation. No one wants to read how good your day was but you become a best seller if you tell how shit things can get before you make them better.

  26. This article is shit… ! Everyone know this stuff… ! Seems its written by a 6 grade child using internet. 

  27. Hi Jeff. I agree with you one hundred percent. And I know there are people out there just waiting to hear that it’s okay not to spend the rest of their lives miserable. Great post!

  28. I know tons of people who don’t seem to be happy with their jobs. I’m only starting to work so I’m not sure yet if I’ll end up hating it too. But so far, I’m doing my best to be optimistic about work, learning new things and experiencing things I’ve never done before. Learning to love what I’m currently doing, no matter how tiring it may be.

  29. Great one, Jeff. I’m willing to bet we’ve all had jobs like the flight attendant. There’s not doubt that life is a series of choices, and it’s up to us what we make of it.

  30. One of my favorite quotes: 

    “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to
    accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved
    along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of
    the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Helen Keller.

    Everybody’s work, creativity and intellect matter, no matter what the task….

  31. There are many personality types that work in this position, but the “gold standard” for measuring flight attendants tend to be an offspring of one of these two traits.

    A. Miserable and bored, completely entwined and wrapped up in the folly of the job unable to see beyond the very horizon in which they sail.

    B. The awake and alert type. I tend to be this type. I see each trip as an opportunity to learn something new and see something I haven’t seen before. I’m not some “new kid” either, I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years.

    You can watch the person I just worked with and come off thinking, “wow this must be horrible, mundane and unmeaning, then watch me and think, wow, it must really be cool to be a flight attendant, it’s really all in the way an individual approaches it. I once told a new hire, being a professional does not necessarily have anything to do with your title, it’s all in how you handle the task at hand, I’ve seen extremely professional people in the medical field, and taking my order at a restaurant, as well as completely inept folks in those same positions.

    The truth is, a person…even without knowing it, will always portray how they feel about themselves, in how they approach others.

  32. Excellent points we ALL can practice! Creativity makes any job fun.. spoken as a former onion picker, dish washer, waitress, personal assistant, secretary, warehouse manager, Trust Officers, Wife, Mom, and currently an Executive Director and Licensed Marriage Family Therapist!

  33. Thank you for such wonderful insights. Yes you’re right loving what you do and being faithful to the process is one of the ways to success. Patience and perseverance keeps us on track. 🙂

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