Content To Be A Servant

John Steinbeck's 1952 family epic and not-so-subtle Bible allegory, East Of Eden, is impressive for the sweeping arc of its story and richly drawn characters.

It also includes insight on both the nature of the servant life and the pitfalls of complacency.

At one point, the character of Samuel Hamilton converses with Lee, his Chinese servant, about his vocation. Sam wants to know why Lee is content to be a servant.

Lee surprises Hamilton by turning the question around, marveling at why more intelligent people don't take it as a career - learn to do it well and reap its benefits.

As Lee tells it, the servant life "is the refuge of the philosopher. It is a position of power, even of love. A good servant can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will."

The good servant also "has absolute security," says Lee. A master will defend and protect him.

A poor or complacent servant, though, will eventually negligently do himself in. Lee says many servants rely on a master's habit and indolence. Because it's a hard thing for a man to change his spices or lay out his own socks, a poor servant, one who does not work and does no worrying can still be "fed, clothed and protected.

At least for a time. In Lee's estimation, the field is cluttered with incompetents such as this, taking advantage of their masters' inertia. "Excellence is so rare," Lee says.

The Lee Principles

We all serve someone. And while there are times when a severance or setback in a relationship can come as a genuine surprise, by practicing The Lee Principles retaining the trust and protection of our masters comes much more under our control.

  • Be A Partner - First, position yourself as a partner, not merely an order-taker or task-completer. Humility and deference are important, but so are insight and candor. For example, a seller-buyer relationship focused only on smartly effecting transactions is like a relationship with a bad servant who misses his opportunity to build a broader trust.

    Never assume your master wants you to mind your own business on matters unrelated to the transaction at hand. If you want to become, in the current parlance, a trusted advisor, there is just one path: giving, over time, trustworthy advice.

    Being a nice guy won't cement the relationship either. Service-with-a-smile will be appreciated, but really, anyone can do this and it will not make you a partner.

  • Forces Mount - Next, continuously self-evaluate. Is my master keeping me around out of appreciative trust or inertia? Am I protected or merely tolerated until replacing me can no longer wait? And how can I tell the difference?

    Always avoid the glib presumption of a master's continuing goodwill. In business, clients about whom it's said they'll never leave us have a way of suddenly turning up in the stables of competitors.

    The physics of inertia are not about the immovability of an object, only its resistance to movement. Inertia will be overcome as forces mount. What causes this? Lack of regular contact, laziness in follow-through, only caring about the task at hand or perhaps worse, only caring about the next one. 

    It may be a hard thing for a man to change his spices but eventually he will. Once budged out of place, your master will have a property related to inertia: momentum. That object will tend to remain in motion will be sent in a most unwelcome direction: away.

  • Lasting Reward - Finally, do you see being a servant as a position of love? The meaning of this will obviously vary by circumstance but always includes consideration, putting the other first, giving of self, patience, kindness, commitment.

    The incompetence of a bad servant lies not in his inability to perform required tasks, but in his inability to realize that his lasting reward will not come by taking what he can get, but by inspiring his master to keep giving.