Fancy titles, a big paycheck, name recognition? None of these convey a person's true dignity.
I assume city ordinances where I live make it illegal to place permanent signs on busy street corners. That's probably why, on most weekends, you'll find people holding signs on those corners.
It seems to be a relatively new phenomenon born at the intersection of the need for short-term, inexpensive advertising and rising unemployment rates. I first saw people holding signs a few years ago, when an office-supply store was closing. Today, signs typically display ads for furniture stores, grand openings and grand closings, and $5 pizzas.
Most of them are held by a person stranded on a corner with no one to talk to and nothing to do but stand. The thrill of watching people drive by surely must fade within, oh, about a minute. That's why texting is popular, headphones are vital, and a camping chair seems like a definite perk.
Often the person holding the sign uses it almost like a shield to maintain some degree of anonymity. For many people, a job title confers status, so being the guy on the corner holding a sign probably doesn't provide much of an ego boost. It's easy to tell when these folks are less than thrilled by the opportunity.
I wouldn't be thrilled, either.
I've driven by and thought, I could never do that. Not because it's beneath me but because I'm too self-conscious: I wouldn't want people to see me standing on the side of a road holding a sign. (OK, maybe that does mean I think it's beneath me.)
At charity car washes, I could never have been one of the people who waved signs and beckoned drivers into the parking lot. (Nor would I have been asked, given that 1. I'm not a cute, young girl and 2. A bikini top and short shorts is definitely not a good look for me.)
A few sign holders clearly see their job differently. They don't sit. They move around. Depending on traffic flow, they spin the sign to maximize the number of people able to view it at any given moment. They draw the maximum amount of attention, however briefly, which of course is the point.
And in the process, they create their own sense of dignity and pride. Work, any work, is honorable. A person holding a sign--just like a doctor or lawyer or CEO or pick your lofty profession--is willing to do whatever it takes to make a living and feed a family.
It's easy to be a supervisor or a manager, at least where self-esteem is concerned. The job may be difficult, but the title is respected.
In terms of perception, it's a lot harder to be the guy or gal standing on the side of the road holding a sign.
One day, I was riding my bike and stopped for a light at an intersection. I asked the young man stationed there about his job.
"It's not bad," he said. "Unless it rains."
I asked him how it worked. "They drop us off in the morning with a sign and a bottle of water," he said. "And we get a bathroom break every two hours." He nodded toward the nearby Walmart. "After eight hours, they pick us up and take us back to our cars."
I asked him how he liked it. "It's not bad," he said. "I've done worse. It only sucks when I forget to bring my lunch or when people holler as they drive by. 'Get a real job' is pretty popular."
He thought for a second. "I wish I could tell them this is a real job," he said. "It may not be a great job, but it's a job, and right now it's the best job I can get."
Sometimes the "worst" job isn't the most difficult or physically challenging. Sometimes the worst job is the job that is inherently dehumanizing--like standing in for a signpost.
And the people holding those jobs are the people who deserve the most consideration and praise from you.
After all, the honor is in the work, not the title--and those who are wiling to do whatever it takes, regardless of the task or the perceived status of that task, have earned it.
JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business. @jeff_haden