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Choosing Joy

How many times this semester have you been asked, “What are your plans after you graduate?” Dozens? Thousands? Most of you likely have a plan for your life.

When I was in my early twenties, the plan my husband and I had made for our life changed in an instant when a Mayo Clinic doctor spoke a single sentence to my husband, Les: “You cannot work full-time and treat this disease.”

A cartoon man singing in the rain with spotlight on him while other people stand straight tucked under their umbrellas

Wait a minute—we had a plan! I had planned to raise our future children full-time. I’d also planned to do humanitarian work part-time because I had a nagging desire to do something that mattered in the world. Les had planned and prepared for a career in medicine.

In fact, as we sat in the doctor’s office that day, we had just finished two tough years apart. Les attended school in Ohio while I lived in Chicago, working full-time during the day, finishing school in the evening, and helping my mom, who was dying of cancer. We made the choice to spend those two years apart because it seemed worth it to set up life as we had planned it.

Now, with the doctor’s words ringing in our ears, it was clear that I would need to be the one to support our family. It was a jarring blow. We would both have to adjust our expectations to this new reality.

While I lost my dream of being a full-time mom, Les had to cope both with not being able to do what he loved and had trained to do and also with not being able to support his family in a culture where that is expected. For more than a decade, Les dealt with significant disabilities, including being able to be on his feet for only about an hour a day and needing a cane to get around.

Page BreakThus began our journey of learning to rely on the Lord. We were new converts to the Church at that time, and we were learning that God’s plan for us was different from our plan.

Fast-forward thirty years, and I can now say that many blessings came from this new reality, including the following: (1) As a result of the unplanned role reversal, Les is exceptionally close to our children, because he was the one who packed their lunches, welcomed them home from school, and drove them to many of their activities; (2) I have the blessing of a career that has led me to my current role. For the past four years, my team of about two hundred employees and I have been working to improve the well-being, safety, and dignity of millions of factory and farm workers around the world, many of whom are living in the most difficult of circumstances. It’s the humanitarian work that I wanted to do—on steroids. And I actually get paid to do it.

We have been taught that “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be trials and challenges. In fact, I think that learning to be positive and upbeat during our difficulties is a critical part of a path to happiness.

To instill in our kids this value of positivity, we had a tradition. Each night at dinner, we asked them to share three good things that happened that day. They could also share the bad things, but they had to find the positive too.

We also had one other joyful rule: to earn their allowance, the kids had to do their chores—cheerfully. My philosophy is that if you have to do it anyway, you might as well do it with a smile. There are plenty of things you will have to do in life that you wouldn’t choose to do, but you can learn to choose joy.

Over the years, I have discovered several tips that have helped me choose joy. I’d like to share five things I have learned along the way. By the way, I’m still learning!

Cartoon image of people working

1. Know Who You Are

I started working with a new team several years ago. At one of our first meetings, we were each asked to share one or two things that defined us. People shared titles they had earned—their level of education, for example—that they were proud of. One said that being a marine defined him. By the time it was my turn, only one other person had referenced faith.

That surprised me. As I reflected on the question, I knew that my family and my faith defined me. I could lose everything—my job (it’s what I do, not who I am), my home, my savings, my belongings (only things), even my friends (who greatly enrich my life)—but as long as I had my family and faith, I could rebuild a joyful life.

Knowing who you are and what truly matters in your life is enormously helpful in putting problems into context. We understand that we are part of an eternal plan, and that understanding provides a different perspective. Because of that knowledge, during difficult or challenging times, we can step back and not have to react in the moment.

Over the years, I’ve often been asked how I remain calm when things are in crisis mode at work. The answer is simple: my identity is rooted in being a daughter of God and in trying to be a great wife, mother, and sister. My sense of identity and worth are not tied to how a meeting or a presentation or a day at work goes. People who define themselves by worldly success have a harder time taking career ups and downs in stride.

2. Count Your Blessings

Find gratitude not just on the good days but on the bad days too. It’s easy to be grateful when everything is going well. Who are you when things blow up? How hard is it to be grateful then?

When Les and I were living in Chicago, we decided to spend a long weekend waterskiing in Houston. Our son was nine years old, and our daughter was one. I had to spend a couple days in Los Angeles for work, so Les and the two kids flew down to Houston, where I was going to meet them when I was done.

Now keep in mind that this was twenty years ago, before cell phones. If you weren’t talking on a landline, you were not communicating. I got to my hotel that night and called their hotel in Houston to check in. Joe, my nine-year-old, answered the phone.

Page Break“How are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m doing well,” replied Joe.

“What are you up to?”

“Jackie and I are watching cartoons.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“He’s in the hospital.”

I was kind of surprised that hadn’t come up earlier in the conversation! “Why is he in the hospital?”

“Oh, he has a really bad kidney stone.”

“What hospital is he in?”

“I don’t know. He called a cab and had to leave.”

Oh, this was just getting better and better! I was in Los Angeles, my children were alone in a Houston hotel, and my husband was in a Houston hospital. By the way, there are twenty-four hospitals in Houston proper.

I thought, Let’s start addressing what we can. “Have you had dinner yet?” I asked.

“Oh, no. I looked at the room service menu, and a hamburger is eight dollars!”

“This isn’t the time to worry about that. Call room service, and order what you want. I’ll call the front desk and make sure that you can sign the room service bill. I’ll also get a mini refrigerator and some milk for Jackie. Do you feel like you can get her to bed okay?” As I was talking to Joe, I was flipping through my flight guide finding the next flight to Houston.

“Yeah, we’ll be okay.”

“I’ll be there before you wake up,” I promised him. Then I hung up and went into action.

I took a cab to the LA airport to talk myself onto a flight I didn’t have a ticket for. On the way—with everything out of control—I found myself being grateful. I was so grateful I was in a city that had an overnight flight to Houston. How many cities have that? If I’d been in Fargo, there would be no way to be in Houston before my kids woke up. I was enormously grateful that we knew people in Houston whom I could call from the airport and ask to find out which hospital Les was in while I was in flight.

Even during our biggest trials, we can find things to be grateful for. Count those blessings.

3. Be a Source of Positive Energy

Avoid cynicism. Negativity sucks the energy out of a room, out of relationships, and out of life. An attitude of optimism can help you overcome issues and lead others.

People are drawn to optimists. My favorite quote of all time is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and states, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

Be that candle.

4. Love People More Than Things

Develop and nurture real friendships. In this time when people often measure friends, likes, and followers by clicks on a social media page, invest in authentic friendships. Show up when your friends need you. Sending texts or emojis does little for someone who needs an actual hug or to be listened to and understood.

Decades ago, when my mom was in her last days, I didn’t want to leave her side. No texted words or symbols—had they existed—could have comforted or strengthened me as I watched my mother die. But a friend showed up at the hospital and sent me home to shower and rest, promising that she would not leave my mom’s side until I got back. Thirty years later, I remember that act of authentic friendship.

5. Bring Joy to the Workplace

As BYU Marriott graduates entering the workplace and going forth to serve, how do you cultivate joy at work? BYU can be competitive, and so can many workplaces. You may find that getting ahead at someone else’s expense is a common approach. I’ve found success by following a different philosophy.

Rather than seeing someone else’s accomplishment as something to compete with or gloss over, try shining a light on the successes of others. Share their victories. Celebrate them. It’s been enormously satisfying to see this approach become part of how my group operates. Members of my team send me notes or stop in to be sure I know of an accomplishment of one of their peers or someone else in the department. Such an environment breeds trust. It creates a team that the best people want to be on. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets credit.

Many of you have a plan for your future mapped out in your mind. However, there may be times when things just don’t follow that plan. Fortunately, while you can’t always control life, you can control how you respond to life. My experience has taught me that we can all adapt—and thrive—when we decide ahead of time to choose joy. So my advice for you and others traveling life’s pathways is not to just endure to the end but to choose to enjoy to the end.


About the Speaker
Jan Saumweber is a senior vice president of responsible sourcing at Walmart and a former senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corporation. Saumweber is also a NAC member. This text is adapted from her convocation remarks given 17 August 2017.

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