Early in my career, someone gave me the idea to start a smile file. I graduated college in 1990 so this is going way back. Way back to the days when it wasn’t unusual to find people that still smoked at their desk and computers needed you to type the word run after a blinking c: prompt to bring it to life. Those early days were a fountain of knowledge and experience I didn’t pick up in college and full of opportunities to learn about the variety of human behavior to be experienced in an office setting when you are the first line of defense over the phone and in person (aka the receptionist).
After one particularly bad run-in with a customer, an older co-worker counseled me to start a file that I could turn to when times got tough at work. Times when tears would roll down my face over some mean insult spoken in haste by a customer over the phone. Unfortunately, bad manners are always going to be part of any job where you directly interact with customers. What goes into this folder, I asked?
Notes from happy customers. Notes from bosses. Good performance reviews. Funny sayings. Quirky pictures. Inspiration. I started my file right away when someone wrote me a hand-written note that they liked how I dealt with a particular situation. Over the years, I added pictures of some of the fun things we did in the office (like the time I dressed in a jockey costume for a sales kickoff), notes of gratitude, cool sayings I found in magazines and a copy of the Rules for Being Human (much of this was pre-internet).
It was great to be able to lift my spirits by looking in this folder when times were hard. When I made a colossal mistake I was sure was going to get me fired. When I was blue over a fight I had with a co-worker. When I didn’t get the promotion I wanted. The smile file was evidence I could do worthwhile things and I could inspire to do better next time.
When I left the company just shy of 20 years, I wasn’t leaving on the happiest of terms. I had been shuffled to a job that wasn’t fulfilling and with the company downsizing through buyouts, I had applied and been rejected (my first buyout rejection letter from several years earlier was in my smile file because it affirmed I was needed at my job). No amount of kind words or proclamations of my work could keep me this time and after much soul-searching, I knew it was time to go.
I gave my two weeks notice and shoved all my personal items in a box that I brought home on my last day. In there was my smile file. This was the most emotionally unstable period of my life that I’d encountered in many years and it took a lot to get through it (including medication for anxiety and a therapist). At the time, I wasn’t leaving for another job so I had nowhere to channel my woe-is-me emotions and I had plenty of those. The box of stuff I’d collected and carried through the years sat dormant in a corner until on a cleaning jag, I decided to toss it all out, as though excising past demons.
While I wish I’d kept the smile file, I also know the value of looking forward. I did not start another smile file when I began a new job several months later. Instead, for inspiration, I keep books of poetry, prayers and humor within arms reach. The company has a nice way of acknowledging good work by colleagues with post-it sized notes and cards given to and by co-workers to each other – little pats on the back – and I have a stack of those in my drawer.
Do you have a smile file? What keeps you going when you need inspiration at work?