The worst job David Horning ever had was as a waiter at a comedy club in New York. “The people running the place probably shouldn’t be running a comedy club,” he says. One day a waiter dropped a tray in the kitchen and everyone broke out laughing. A manager came storming in to scold the workers: “This is not the time or place to laugh!”
“It’s a comedy club,” Horning says. “Nobody was really crazy about management. It seemed like they would go out of their way to inconvenience people from doing their jobs correctly.”
Then, something changed about the job that changed it from the worst job ever into one of the best, but the change had nothing to do with management. Horning says he deliberately changed his perspective.
“I would imagine that I was on the set of a sitcom,” he recalls. “I would think, ‘Oh no, here comes the general manager. What kind of crazy antics will he get up to this week?’” This outlook changed everything about their relationship. Horning went from dreading work to looking forward to it. He even befriended the manager, who put him in contact with someone from the New York Comedy Festival so he could perform in a show.
A 2017 study by the Mental Health America Foundation found that 71 percent of all employees were unhappy with their jobs and looking for new ones. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 85 percent of workers worldwide hated their jobs and their bosses.
This phenomenon is not new. Economic thinkers going back centuries have pondered the question of why people hate the very thing they spend most of their lives doing. In the early industrial age, Marx observed the unhappiness of the toiling working class and theorized that capitalism causes workers to become alienated — that they are forced to organize their lives to suit the needs of the inhuman labor market rather than their own goals or interests, and therefore lose their self determination and along with it the motivation to work.
A comedy club, or for that matter a typical office building, is a very different working environment from the kind of factory that Marx observed in the 1840s, but different problems emerge from what could be the same sources. In modern white-collar jobs, workers face stresses such as student loan debt, stagnating wages, and bosses (or underlings) contacting them after hours via smartphones that tether them to their jobs 24 hours a day, not to mention high pressure to meet company goals.
For the most part non-unionized workers have little recourse to change these working conditions. But Horning says that they can change their own outlooks and make the best of their situations just like he did at the comedy club.
Horning, a motivational comedian, will give a presentation titled “Discover Your Motivation: Why We Work, How We Work, and How to do it Better” to the Princeton HRMA on Monday, April 9, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. Tickets are $55, $45 for members. For more information, visit hrma-hj.shrm.org.
“It’s absurd that we would do something 40, 50, or 60 hours a week that we are not fully engaged in,” Horning says. “I study positive psychology, and thinkers agree that most of our happiness is created from within. Perspective plays a big part in that.”
Horning uses humor to convey his message about perspective. In fact, humor has shaped Horning’s career. Born in Akron, Ohio, Horning watched his parents both work a series of odd jobs to keep the family afloat before his father eventually founded a successful home nursing care company. “They kind of had to adapt and evolve,” he says. “That was a big influence on me to get my degree, but also to work hard and go after what I wanted. Put myself in the right place and the right time and things would fall into place.”
Horning has always had a knack for comedy and a love of making people laugh. He earned a political science degree at the University of Akron hoping to enter politics, but became disillusioned with the political process, believing that it prioritized the needs of political parties over those of the people. He moved to New York City in hopes of becoming an actor, which is how he ended up working at comedy clubs.
He took sketch comedy writing workshops, performed around the city, and ended up producing a sketch comedy show for Caroline’s, a venue known for stand-up comedy performances. In 2014 he participated in the New York Comedy Festival.
Horning began thinking of ways to combine his comedy experience and talent with the psychology he had studied since college and decided to launch a new career as a comedian/motivational speaker. He has been doing that for four years.
“I’m taking a step back and using humor to convey this message,” he says. “It’s about using perspective as a tool to create happiness.”
Horning says that it’s important never to forget why we work — every job, in some way or another, is supposed to add value to the lives of others. To simply work for a paycheck is to lose touch with the deeply human instinct to work cooperatively with others for a common goal, and humans are happier when they are helping each other. “Every job we have, no matter what its purpose is, is to serve other people,” Horning says. “That’s how we got to where we are. By building communities and companies.”
Horning’s improvisational comedy training has also given him insights into how people can work better together. The cardinal rule of improv sketches is that the actor can never deny something that another actor has said while building a scene. That can kill the sketch. Rather, they have to say “yes and …” to build the scene up. The same goes for managers. Horning says that when employees suggest an idea, managers who shoot them down outright are killing their enthusiasm.
“The last thing you want that leader to do is to shoot down that idea because it will stop that person from taking risks in the future and they won’t be as open to sharing their ideas. It might not end up being a good idea, but the fact that you listened to it and accepted it as a potentially viable idea is huge. Maybe there is something in there but it’s not defined yet. Giving it a chance, I believe, will inspire the team.”
Horning says he is out to do nothing less than change workplace culture to make it a more friendly place to be. “I wasn’t sure how I wanted to make the world a better place growing up,” he says. He grew up in a conservative house, but he learned more liberal ideas when he went to college. Horning says he has taken good ideas from both world views and tries to bring them together to get people to see eye to eye. “The idea of people coming together is something that has always interested me and I always want to be a part of.”