Zen and the Art of Being a Receptionist (and Other Under-Appreciated Jobs)

As far as I know there are no colleges or college majors preparing soon-to-be graduates for hot reception jobs. And yet many of us have held that honorable and often under-appreciated title of receptionist. I’ve done it – even after I had my MBA – when I was between jobs and needed extra money. I actually enjoyed it. It’s important work that makes a real difference to almost everyone we come in contact with. And there are many many more similarly important and likewise undervalued jobs.

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, despite the pivotal roles we play in the world of business, all too often “We get no respect!”

I found this wonderful Zen teaching story (Zen kōan) on Build a Better Buddha:


A monk told the Zen master: “I have just entered the monastery.  Please teach me.”

“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” the Zen master asked.

“I’ve eaten it,” the monk replied.

The Zen master said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

And at that moment the monk was enlightened …

So what does that seemingly unrelated Zen kōan have to do with being a receptionist? Do we have to wash bowls to get some respect?

Basically it tells us everything we do is important. There can be much richness in the moment if we perform each task to the best of our ability with openness and joy in our hearts. We can’t control how others perceive us, but we can choose to focus on bringing our full selves to whatever we do and not worrying about the thoughts of people who have their own issues to deal with.

Yeah yeah…I see those raised eyebrows and hear you thinking: “Have you ever been a receptionist?” “Do you know how rude people can be to us or how many demands we’re expected to balance on some days?” Always on display. No privacy. Little pay. Looked down on by many on the fast track. And you want me to feel JOY?

Yup. I know all of that. As I said I’ve done it. Of course, I chose to do it as a temp, after I already had my MBA. Besides enjoying the cash flow, I wanted to see companies from a different perspective. I know it’s not the same thing. But my experience helped me better understand the job and what it entails. And although I suspect no one can feel joy every second of the day (that could be kind of creepy), I remember how different the work felt depending on my own attitude at the time.  Plus, opportunities can arise when you stay alert in the moment and just do the best you can.

The thing that really bugs me, though, is when people look down on receptionists or people in similarly non-fast-track jobs and conclude they aren’t as bright or don’t have lots of valuable talents and skills. As if being in a higher title alone makes you better, smarter or even more interesting.  Hah! Anyone who thinks that might want to take a long hard look in the mirror – and that includes any of us who think that about ourselves.

Again from Build a Better Buddha:

Our highest goal, then, is the true and genuine acceptance of all individuals, despite their diverse and seemingly contrary beliefs, backgrounds and behaviors—a goal which can only be achieved by recognizing, understanding and integrating all aspects of one’s own, ordinary self.

Zen and the Happy Woman

When I lived in San Francisco, I met a lovely man named Alan Sagan, a dear friend who has since passed away. He first introduced me to the idea of Zen Buddhism, not as a religion but more as a way of informing our lives. When I was unemployed and feeling badly about myself because I wasn’t strong enough yet to go back to my old line of work, Alan told me a story about a woman who worked in a supermarket as a checkout clerk.

She was known for her friendliness and gentle, peaceful temperament. The legend goes that the Buddhist Monks came to see her one day and asked her to come to the mountains to spend time with them and teach. “Why me?” she asked. “I’m nobody special.”  They smiled and explained that she found joy in every day and always had a sincere smile for people in the store. No matter what else happened, she was right there being herself, doing the best she could, appreciating the possibility of each moment, and offering her gift of love to others. And that, they told her, is the secret to life.

Now this story may be apocryphal, but the point is, although our society undervalues certain professions, each moment gives us a chance to reach inside and just be who we truly are. Not worrying about “am I good enough” or “what do others think about me” or “am I a failure” (notice that’s all ego-directed – me me me), but instead just being yourself and knowing you’re fine the way you are…no matter what anyone else thinks of you or has ever thought of you or might think of you tomorrow!

We only have now. And now. And of course now. I know it’s corny, but I like to think of it as thousands of potential new beginnings each day. Thousands of chances to choose to be in the now.

The woman in Alan’s story wasn’t in the past thinking of all her failures or all the people she let down or what someone said to her even ten minutes ago. She wasn’t in the future worrying whether her life was going in the right direction or what job she’d have 5 years from now. She was here NOW.  And she just did her best each moment, giving to each person she encountered with a pure heart. And she was also open and present to the gifts around her as they unfolded. The aroma of fresh-baked bread. Shared laughter. A beautiful flower. A song she loves. The smile of a child.  And this is why she was happy.

How You Can Put These Ideas to Work – Now and Zen

I can assure you, when I went to business school, this philosophy was NEVER touted as a way of getting ahead in business. Can you imagine Goldman Sachs teaching their investment bankers any of that? Although maybe if they had we wouldn’t be in this financial crisis!

While it’s important to both learn from the past and plan ahead, you can do all that and still act in the present without letting your mind get clouded by emotions and habitual thoughts that aren’t helpful in the moment. If these less-than-helpful thoughts do come along (these are habits we can learn to break), just say hello, acknowledging their presence, and then try to let them pass through without giving them power over you.

Something that helped me years ago (and I hope may be useful to you) was realizing that, as real as these thoughts seem and as overwhelmingly powerful as they can feel, they are still only thoughts (trapped, by the way, in some neural pathway that can be rerouted with perseverance). They are NOT more powerful than YOU since you created them and have the power to retrain them! (I sometimes still have to remind them of that when they get too rambunctious.) Be especially alert to thoughts based on old hurts or emotions like anger and jealousy, since these often have their roots in your deep past and easily get mixed in with (and intensify) what you’re feeling in the present.

I guarantee you’ll get farther meeting the new moments head on rather than filling them with past hurts and self-doubts (whose presence have yet to help you, I might add) – or stepping outside the moment with thoughts about what people think about each action you take or thing you say or what any of this might mean to your future. Blah blah blah. Those “outside” moments are lost time and, by the way, get in the way of real communication.

Just handle what you can now the best you know how. Try not to look for hurt or issues where they don’t exist. And please remember to be gentle on yourself, considerate of others, and, as much as possible, compassionate about why any of us is acting the way we are! That’s the best anyone can do. 🙂

Case in point: Your boss calls you to her office at 4pm and asks you to do a rush project before you leave tonight. You respond that you can’t because of another deadline also due tomorrow. She says “OK” but looks unhappy and uses a certain tone that makes you feel you disappointed her. So you walk back to your desk thinking about what just happened and you take it personally. You feel bad that you let her down, but you also have this other assignment that’s due. Then the resentment begins to rise. “I didn’t deserve that!” you think to yourself.

And for the next hour or so, your actions and thoughts are colored by what you think your boss is thinking and the hurt and anger you feel rising, but not by anything you know for sure. You have left the now and are miserable. And then the next day you find out your boss’s mood had nothing to do with you; she was handling a serious personal problem. It was never about you. All that wasted time and energy on your part – as well as an unnecessary trip to the emotional baggage storage place. For no good reason at all.

If something really is going on, then take the initiative to discuss it in the moment. Let the now (or at least the as-soon-as-possible) be your guide. Don’t give the maybe so much weight. Don’t let hurt feelings or anger fester. Don’t spend your days focusing on all that went wrong or all you don’t have – nursing your hurts rather than channeling that energy toward something good for you!

Eat your porridge and wash the bowl. With an open heart. Yes…even at work. Don’t get caught up in all kinds of turbulence and unnecessary drama. Do your job. Be kind. Put your energy toward creating new and joyful things in your life, and not toward wallowing in what is old and decaying, or in feeding old hurts, or in being so caught up in the future that you miss what is happening right before your eyes. Greet each day with a smile and a sense of wonder. And think about what you can do to make it better for yourself and others. Today. Now.

Oh…and what does any of this have to do with being a great receptionist?

Everything. And yet…also nothing in the world of zen. 😉


Note: I am not a practicing Buddhist and barely consider myself knowledgeable about the teachings. But the few things I do know have helped me immensely. Besides the basic principle of being in the “now”, I love the saying “the river flows” – meaning life goes on and whatever is happening today will change in the days to come.

So have patience and learn to flow along also – observing the lessons as they come and changing your course accordingly and as gently as possible. Engaging actively in each moment of your own life and asking questions where necessary, but also learning you have the choice to just let things go and, in any given moment, adjust the attitude and intensity you bring to a situation.

Zen Proverbs, Quotes and Sayings

And finally, here are some Zen sayings I found on OneProverb.net. Quite a few of them offer great career  and work tips!


If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?


There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon.


The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.


When you are deluded and full of doubt, even a thousand books of scripture are not enough. When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much.


Should you desire great tranquility, prepare to sweat white beads.


We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Lao Tzu


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao Tzu


The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Robert M. Pirsig


The quieter you become, the more you can hear.
Baba Ram Dass


We have two eyes to see two sides of things, but there must be a third eye which will see everything at the same time and yet not see anything. That is to understand Zen.
D. T. Suzuki


As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself.
Shunryu Suzuki


In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki


The most important point is to accept yourself and stand on your two feet.
Shunryu Suzuki


Water which is too pure has no fish.
Ts’ai Ken T’an


Ten thousand flowers in spring
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.


All of the significant battles are waged within the self.


If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.


When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.


Do not permit the events of your daily life to bind you, but never withdraw yourself from them.


When we settle into the present moment, we can see beauties and wonders right before our eyes…
Thich Nhat Hanh


Great Faith. Great Doubt. Great Effort. – The three qualities necessary for training.


If you do not get it from yourself, where will you go for it?


Please feel free to comment on any or all of this. Or on nothing (no thing), ironically a foundation of Zen Buddhism!

Ronnie Ann


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Hi everyone!

    This is me, Ronnie Ann. Just want you to know I had an especially HORRIBLE day at the job today and had to put every one of these techniques to work!

    In the moment, while things were happening, sometimes the tips helped a lot and sometimes only a little. But now, at the end of the day, I feel MUCH better and ready to let almost all of it go and start tomorrow fresh. That’s the real beauty of this stuff.

    Why only almost and not ALL? Hey…none of us is perfect. Wouldn’t THAT be an awful standard to ever have to reach! 😉

    Oh…by the way…on my way home tonight, I was thinking of all of you and reminding myself to be extra sensitive when you tell me about your own work stories. So in a way…my horrible day might at least be good for you. 🙂

    Enjoy your day. Namaste.

  2. This is such a rich piece. So much here, I don’t know how to digest this in one sitting. To be frank with you, I want to print it and carry it with me, and absorb a bit more each day.

    Today, I am an attorney by trade. I often pick up the phone myself. One of the reasons is because over the years I realized people spoke differently when they spoke to my “receptionist” instead of to me. To be frank with you – it really annoyed me as anyone I employed was always and is much smarter than I. So I would answer the phone, perhaps with some deception, not identifying myself, just simply giving the standard greeting so I could see what it was and is my staff goes through.

    I shake my head Ms. Ronnie.

    When did anyone truly believe one human, despite career/job paths, is better than another?


    And thank you, we are blessed by your post.

  3. Thank you SOOOO much S.E.! I’m honored by your reaction. And I love that you’ve tried to see how others speak to your receptionist. Eye-opening, isn’t it?

    “When did anyone truly believe one human, despite career/job paths, is better than another?”

    Right on, sister! 🙂

    Ronnie Ann

  4. Sorry to hear about your bad day! This post is definitely something I keep in mind as my coworkers drive me crazy on my way out the door.

    And it’s awesome, S.E., that you do that! The receptionist where I work says it’s harder to deal with most of our callers than with her 17 year old son! Yikes!

  5. my favorite post ever. thanks 🙂

  6. I’m honored, Mr. X! All my posts come from my heart, but this one especially since the techniques have been so helpful to me personally. I’m SOOO glad they speak to you too.

    Nice to see you, TEB. 🙂

    Ronnie Ann

  7. PatienceISaVirtue says:

    You have a great website here.

    And this article did wonders to remind me of my past zen study and how I should re-enter that state of mind, for I have never actually left it. We can be all too forgetful of what it means to just be.

    So I just applied to yet another position I am qualified for, but still have my fingers crossed that karma will land the true position I want in my life.

    There is a good book that relates to this article, and to this website in general:
    “Zen and the Art of Making a Living” by Laurence G. Boldt

    I was re-reading parts of it today to calm my nerves about the dreaded wait period that I am experiencing. It is fitting that on the same day I find this website and this article. The universe is indeed creative organic energy and we are manifestations.

    Thanks for maintaining this site!

  8. Hi PatienceISaVirtue!

    Thanks for the kind words. It makes me feel great to know that this site really helps people. There’s no reason for any of us to go through this stuff alone. 🙂

    “Zen and the Art of Making a Living” is a good book. Thanks for bringing it up so others might give it a look.

    Here’s hoping that dream job comes your way soon!

    Ronnie Ann

  9. Hi & thank you so much for your writing. I had such a terrible day at work 2 days ago that it cause me to have physical pain in my back. I love what you wrote & will copy it & have it on hand for those days when I feel underappreciated. I will read more of your writings & I’m sure it’ll be inspirational. Have a great day!!

  10. Hi JoJo!

    Awwww. I can so relate. Glad this article was of some comfort. Here’s a big healing hug back at ya!


    By the way, one of my favorite books is The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain by Dr. John Sarno. As someone who has had many years of neck and back pain, I found this to be a real eye-opener. Worth checking out, even if it’s only to reaffirm for yourself that the pain is most likely being generated to deal with intense emotions – such as we feel toward a sucky job or boss! 😉

    Peace out and in,

    Ronnie Ann

  11. Thank you Ronnie Ann, I am checking out that book right now.

  12. Hope the book speaks to you. I actually keep it on the nightstand next to my bed for quick reminders on days when my body is talking to me.

    Best of luck, JoJo!

    Ronnie Ann

  13. I did order the book & the symptoms sound like me. I will check it out & see what I can do about it. I’ve had back pain for most of my adult life & it would be good to finally figure it out.

    Thank you very much Ronnie Ann.


  14. Oh wow! Please let me know how it goes. It makes me feel great when I learn that something I wrote helped someone. And maybe if it does, you’d even consider helping me share your story to help others?

    So many people suffer from stress-related back and neck pain – as well as other symptoms. I have very recent personal experience that showed me just how powerful these emotional triggers can be. And it took a wise doctor – an MD in fact, and not an alternative practitioner – to clue me in to what was going on.

    Look forward to hearing from you again. Good luck, JoJo!

    Ronnie Ann

  15. While I do think there is a certain art to being a Receptionist, I fine this Zen approach to be sort of a glossy cover at best. A person is either cut out for reception work or not. While the Zen approach may help a person who does not like recption work get through the day easier, it does little else. For the individual who has chosen this career, no Zen philosophy is needed. I take pride in my job and truly see it as one of the most important positions at my firm.

  16. Hi Ella!

    Thanks for your comment. Personally, I find the zen approach (or at least my modified version) useful every day, whatever I’m doing. Even if it’s something I’m cut out for, there are those moments and those days…

    I agree that reception work is incredibly important to the flow and tone of an office. A good receptionist can make all the difference – and vice versa.

    Congratulations on finding a job you love and are great at. (My guess is that you may use some of these techniques naturally, btw.)

    Best of luck in your work!

  17. Hi Ronnie Ann,

    What a beautiful post! I don’t think I have anything else to add, other than to thank you for writing it! The lovely quotes and closing it with Namaste enrich it even further.


  18. Thanks Shahrzad. This is one of my favorites. Something told me it would speak to you. 😉

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  19. Hello: Just a quick note to say how much I appreciated your article. I work as a receptionist in spite of the fact I have earned two BA degrees and have had more “glamorous” jobs. Why? Because like you the job suits me, my personality and my values. Fortunately most people treat me right, but from time to time I get the snobs, the people who look down their nose. Thing is, their attitudes say more about them than it says about me and my job. As a Christian, I developed a philosophy about career. I don’t the job for me or my peers. I do it for the glory of God and that for me has made all the difference in the world.

  20. Although her comment is from a few years ago, I think Ella’s comment was quite insightful. Choosing to make a career out of “lower level” work – whether it be receptionist work, or clerical, retail, food-service, or custodial work – is very different from temping or taking a job just to pay the bills between “real” jobs. Taking pride in our work and feeling important inherently entails many of these techniques and attitudes — but it can also be incredibly helpful for others who dip their toe in, so to speak.

  21. I’m so grateful to have found this. I’m temping for a receptionist roll I wish to have full time. I’m showing in my potential rivals and it’s been a really really stressful seven weeks of this process. I’ve was starting to feel really down and used and just plan negative. I saw this article while I was Googling for some emotional relief and I’m so happy to have found it here. I really needed to be reminded about why I want this roll in the first place. I want to make people happy and while most people will only talk about those things that are wrong, and with hold their appreciation, for every one that says “Thank you” I think there are ten others who think that but for one reason or another don’t say it. This article reminded me of that. He re-aligned me and focused me again. Thank you very very much for writing this. 🙂

    P.S. You asked for my website, but since I’ve been working I haven’t had a chance to update it. It has some old content on in and I apologize for that.

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