Rebirth of Reason

The Good Life

Lessons from Miss Ives
by Anton Kelly

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is undoubtedly the most significant piece of literature I have had the fortune to read, and it has had a profound effect on the way I think. Although many passages in my copy of this magnificent novel are book-marked for ongoing reference, the page containing this sentence is particularly dog-eared:

She was a girl in her late twenties, whose quietly harmonious, impenetrable face had a quality matching the best-designed office equipment; she was one of his most ruthlessly competent employees; her manner of performing her duties suggested the kind of rational cleanliness that would consider any element of emotion, while at work, as an unpardonable immorality.

Take another look at the wonderful picture Rand paints of Gwen Ives. For me, the description of Hank Rearden's secretary not only conjures up an image of a well-dressed, motivated young secretary, but it sums up perfectly the philosophy I try to take to work each day. While there's not much I can do about trying to imitate the "girl in her late twenties" part, I have adopted the rest as my personal work ethic.

Miss Ives has a "quietly harmonious, impenetrable face." This means she peacefully cooperates with her boss and his instructions. No matter how busy she is, she drops everything when her boss speaks to her, and gives him her undivided attention. She understands what her boss is trying to achieve when he gives her a new task, and she takes on new and difficult tasks without complaint. She will allow nothing or no one to change her attitude of cooperation.

The comparison with "the best-designed office equipment" is a good one. She is efficient and tidy, and she does not waste her boss's money, time or resources. She is punctual. She does not help herself to the office stationery cupboard.

Miss Ives is one of Hank Rearden's "most ruthlessly efficient employees." What a great way to be! She lets nothing sway her from the task at hand. She insists on doing the best job she can, every time. If she encounters an incompetent colleague (although one gets the clear impression that Hank Rearden would not suffer an incompetent employee), she simply will not allow him to take any more of her time than is absolutely necessary, and she will have nothing to do with him outside of work time. Because his incompetence is so insidious, she will treat him courteously, but in such a manner that he will be in no doubt how she feels about him. Miss Ives has the skill, knowledge and confidence to do her job well, and she has no time for incompetence.

Her "rational cleanliness" means she knows that she doesn't work just to pay her bills, but to enable her to live in the fullest sense of the word. She goes to work to perform the tasks expected of her, to achieve things, and nothing else. She does not care for workplace gossip. She knows the reason for her employment, and thus her purpose.

She "would consider any element of emotion, while at work, as an unpardonable immorality." Miss Ives does not let her home life or her love life affect her work habits. She does not take it personally when things seem to go badly. She interacts with her boss, colleagues and customers without letting her feelings get in the way, and her demeanour towards them is constant, day in and day out. She is the consummate professional.

Like Miss Ives, I see the exchange of skills and labour for money as a moral act, because by choosing to work I have chosen to control my existence. I try to do my job as Miss Ives would do hers. I try to be at my desk five minutes before the start of the workday so that I'm ready to go at 8 am on the dot, while most of my colleagues are still climbing the stairs or going to the cafeteria for coffee. I don't waste my employer's time by doing non-work related tasks during my work time. I don't waste my employer's money by stealing pens and paper for my home office. I try to be consistently cheerful and efficient at work, and I try to be as cooperative as possible with my boss, even when I think he's going about something the wrong way (he may not always agree with me, but he always likes to hear my opinion). And when my core duties momentarily ease off, I use any spare time to try to come up with ways to do my job better or faster.

Some people see work as a chore, but I see it as a vital part of a happy life. It doesn't matter whether you are an engineer, a pilot or a forecourt attendant at the local service station: all work is creative if the person doing it is using his mind. When entering into paid employment, it is important to give value for money, to give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, and to know that by choosing to work you are choosing to live. I don't aspire to be like Hank Rearden's secretary just so I can go home each day knowing I've done the best job I can, but because if I were an employer, I'd want employees like Gwen Ives.

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