Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
— Theodore Roosevelt

(Just a heads up – if you haven’t seen the series finale of Parks & Recreation, there may or may not be spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. If you’ve never watched Parks & Recreation at all, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.)

How often do you turn to television shows to learn something? Certainly there are shows aimed at teaching you a wide variety of things, whether it’s how to install a hardwood floor in your kitchen, what the life cycle of a penguin looks like, or what that crop circle in the middle of Kansas means. But these are all fact-based shows, more like documentaries than anything else. How often do you turn to television to learn something from a fictional show? 

Your initial reaction might be, well, never. And that’s ok. Most of us probably don’t tune in to (or binge watch, like the kids are doing these days) our favorite shows for a morality lesson. But if you take a minute to think about it, you’ll likely realize that you are in fact learning something, probably a wide variety of somethings, from the shows you watch. 

Now, whether it’s stuff worth learning is for you to decide. However, the fact remains that we learn from the entertainment we consume (so be careful). Whether it’s a TV show, a movie, or the new novel from your favorite writer, there rarely exists such a thing as pure entertainment, something with absolutely nothing deeper than popcorn to take from it. Good stories, and great art, are always ripe with lessons about the nature of good and evil, about the way people think and act, about what consumes us and drives us. Good stories make you think, and if they’re doing their job right, you learn and grow.

Which brings us to Parks & Recreation.

Parks & Rec was a show about many things, but at its heart it was a show about the value of good work. If you’ve never seen it, the show follows a local government employee named Leslie Knope as she (quite enthusiastically) tries, along with her (somewhat less than enthusiastic) co-workers, to make the town of Pawnee, Indiana a better place to live.  Over the show’s run there were laughs and tears, people fell in love, pits were filled and parks were built. But what never changed about the show over the course of seven seasons was its focus on the importance of doing good work. 

Leslie Knope is a tenacious, ambitious, incredibly dedicated public servant. Unlike her boss, Ron Swanson, and most of her fellow Parks & Rec Department employees, Leslie unequivocally loves her job, and what’s more, she actually believes in the work they do – she loves parks and she loves people, and she loves making people’s lives better by making sure Pawnee’s parks are the absolute best they can be. Leslie never met a project she didn’t want to take on at a full run, conquer in totality, and then make a scrapbook about. She loved the work in every aspect – the reason it needed to be done, the doing itself, and the enjoyment of a job well done. 

This would be an admirable thing in anyone, whether they’re real or just a character in a TV show, but what makes Leslie Knope special is that she loved doing her work even though she rarely received thanks for it – in fact, she was usually ridiculed or ignored by the people she worked for. If you’ve seen the show, you know what we’re talking about – the people of Pawnee could be kind and considerate, but like many real people, they were also very self-centered and impossible to please, and they had a problem saying “thank you.” Just look at the series finale. After they’ve all moved on to different careers and are preparing to move on to different cities, Leslie gets the gang back together to complete one final project – fixing a swing that’s broken in one of the parks. They do all the necessary paperwork, get the requisite signatures, and Ron Swanson fixes the swing himself. When the project is finished, Leslie goes to the man who requested the repair in the first place.

Watch the clip below.

What’s remarkable about this is that Leslie is no less passionate about her work for the lack of thanks she receives for it. The reason for this is that Leslie realizes that her work is worth doing because she’s not doing it for herself. Nothing about her job is glamorous or necessarily exciting – she does, after all, work for the parks & recreation department of a small city in Indiana. But in everything Leslie does, she puts forth all her effort plus a good bit more because the work is good. Her work is honest and is being done in the interest of making better the lives of those around her. She is doing, as the Teddy Roosevelt quote says, “work worth doing.” 

Many of us might feel like our work actually isn’t worth doing, which is something we explored a little bit in our previous post (read our last post “It’s Okay to Be Ordinary”). Even worse, we might not even think about whether it’s worth doing – maybe it’s just a job, and whether you love it or hate it, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. And by an end we mean, of course, money. Dough. Moolah. But if that’s all our work is, just a means to a paycheck, then we’re doing it wrong.

In a toast to her former co-workers at the parks department, Leslie says, “When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about – small, incremental change every day.” 

Later, in an address to the University of Indiana as the governor of Indiana (we told you there would be spoilers), Leslie goes on to say, “I’ve had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor, and soon a new, unknown challenge awaits me, which to me, even now, is thrilling because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn’t sexy, because it definitely is, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing, alongside a team of people we love.” 

Are we saying that everyone should quit their job and go work in local government? No. But in the end there are two things we can learn from the life of Leslie Knope, the fictional deputy director of the Pawnee Parks & Recreation department and future governor of Indiana. The first is that one of the greatest things we can do in life is to work hard at work worth doing. And the second is that it is okay to love our job, even if it isn’t sexy or glamorous – in fact, if your job is work worth doing, there will always be something to love about it. 

Now, what makes work worth doing is ultimately somewhat subjective, but we can probably agree that the one thing that must be true is that it should be in the interest of bettering people’s lives – and this can be done in almost anything, whether you’re a garbage man or a restaurant server, a receiving manager or a lawyer or a CEO. Good work moves outward, from the worker to the beneficiary. You may have to think a bit to figure out how what you’re doing is helping people, but chances are it’s there – it may not be direct or obvious, but it’s there, and when you find it you should cleave to it. When you realize that your work is not about yourself, it can completely change your perspective about what you do. 

We should also remember that work started with God during the Creation, and continued when he made Adam and appointed him as caretaker of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Though things didn’t quite go as God had planned, it doesn’t change the fact that work, like everything else, comes from him. When we do good work without complaint, we honor God and give something back to him – a content spirit, one that is full and honorable. As The Teacher concludes, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25). 

Is your job sometimes going to be boring? Yes. Will you sometimes wish you were doing absolutely anything else? Of course. And it’s okay to pursue a new path if you’re not really feeling the one you’re on. But we should all make an effort to make peace with our jobs, whether we love them or not, and to find what it is that makes our work worth doing. Work is a good thing, and working hard at it is even better. Just remember, your favorite park doesn’t take care of itself.