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The surprising career lesson I learned while watching my kids “rake” leaves

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Work and play shouldn't be so disconnected.

This past Saturday, it was leaf-raking time at the Schroeders’. It was a mild, dry morning and most of the leaves had fallen. Although the kids weren’t initially jazzed about the job, they gradually joined me in the raking and mulching. Given the size of our yard and the number of old, large trees, it isn’t a speedy job. But as noon approached, all the leaves were in piles, and they just needed to be transported to the wooded area below the garage.

As I had a solid “to-do” list that day, I left our oldest four to finish the job, and headed up to the roof to clean leaves out of the gutters. I instructed the kids that once they were done, they could go in and have lunch and get some hot chocolate, in hopes that it might provide a little extra motivation.

But in my perch atop the roof, I began to witness a scene that would have made a lean officer cringe. For starters, it looked more like a gathering at the “water cooler” as brief periods of raking onto the tarp was followed by extended stints of standing around and talking, and rolling on the ground and disappearing into the leaves. At times, well-intentioned motivational statements were met with indifference or disgust; the team Schroeder seemed disjointed at best, and ineffective at worst.  Eventually, a pile of leaves was dragged to a lower area, only again to be followed by disappearing acts and long, drawn-out idleness.

Overlooking the whole scene, I must admit that my Type A self was struggling with it all. Not only did I feel I had done the preponderance of the raking work, but my gutter cleaning was soon to be followed by lock repair and shelving reconstruction (well, rehanging) before I could finally take a break and enjoy the “day off.” Meanwhile, my kids’ work efficiency looked like that of a sloth cleaning up the forest.

But just as I felt the urge to yell down and try to rally the troops into some semblance of productivity, a different awareness began to emerge. It began with an awareness that although there were times that our kids needed to get chores done immediately (e.g., due to competing commitments, sleep needs, etc.), this was not one of them. It was a late morning on a Saturday, and if ever there was a time of the week to enjoy just taking it a little easier, and not be on a tight schedule, this was the time. It’s just that I was still scheduling myself in.

Still, this building awareness wasn’t just about self-imposed deadlines. It was also about my perspective regarding work and fun. Where I perceived a dichotomy, my kids did not. As I watched their activity closer, I realized that what I interpreted as inefficiency, they were perceiving as fun and social. Hiding under the tarp in the leaf pile making random jokes, throwing leaves into the air and letting them rain down on all around, their work was much play. Jaded by my busy life and infinite demands, I had let go of the fun that a leaf pile can bring, and the ways in which this and other jobs can serve to connect us, not confine us, and provide for spontaneity, not drudgery.

The leaves eventually got done, and so did the lock and the — well, the shelf still needs a little work. Frankly, with seven young kids in the house, the home task list is always long, and if I am not careful, it is going to annoy and burden me until my kids all leave the house. And although I could blame the annoyance on everyone else, the reality is that the blame falls on me. Trees are always going to bring leaves, and kids are always going to bring repairs. But it is due time that I take a lesson from my brood, and find ways to turn what might seem like a drag into what might be the social event of the day. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the work just needs to be completed in good time. But sometimes, I need to quiet the inner task masker, and start acting like a kid raking in the fun who trusts the work will eventually get done.

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