This week’s featured guest is Matt Bloom, Ph.D. Matt is emeritus professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. For 20 years he led the Flourishing in Ministry and WorkWell research projects that focused on the wellbeing of helping and caring professions. Matt has worked with a variety of not-for-profit organizations, both in the United States and internationally, helping them learn about and integrate wellbeing research into their programs and initiatives. Matt and his wife Kim live in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, a podcast where we hear the stories of scholars and religious leaders and how they found meaning and purpose in their lives. I am Dr. Patrick Reyes and today we have Matt Bloom. He’s the founder of Ritual and wellbeing at work. He’s a scholar, a practitioner and just an all-around great dude. We get to hear Matt’s story about how he goes from a working-class background to being a scholar in a field who focuses on finding wellbeing at work. And the folks that he works with are frontline workers, those in healthcare and ministry. And he helps us unpack what does it mean to find meaning and purpose at work? I’m so excited for you to hear Matt’s journey.
All right, Dr. Bloom, I know that you have Ritual, you’re a researcher with the Wellbeing, your a professor. You do all the cool things. I cannot imagine that young Matt Bloom was sitting there thinking I want to run Ritual, Wellbeing, I want to be a professor at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Take me back to the beginning. Who are your people? What did you want to do when you grew up? Like, take me back to the beginning.
Matt: Sure. I’m one of the fortunate people I grew up in a very loving household. When I was young, we were, I think my parents would say not poor, but we didn’t have a lot of resources. I didn’t know that. So my parents loved me, which was awesome. I was one of those very shy kids. I was overweight and very self-conscious. And so I think growing up, a lot of the time, I just tried not to be noticed, kind of fading into the background. My dream was to be a professional baseball player. It turns out, I can’t bat, I can’t throw, I can’t run. So there’s no chance for that. But I think what the formative things for me, my mother was Mennonite, my father…my mother is Mennonite, my father’s Methodist, was that they kept emphasizing that we’ve been given the gift of life and that as you go through life, you should be thinking about what you can do that somehow contributes to the lives of other people or to the world in a better way. And that stuck with me throughout the course of my life.
But I really had no idea what I, what I wanted to be. When I went to college, I thought that I, I really wanted to be a pediatric cardiac surgeon. I had an older sister who was born with a congenital heart defect and saw what great work those physicians did, not only the medical side, but just how caring and kind they were to her and our family. Unfortunately I flunked out my first year of college and didn’t do very well my second year of college. So medical school was not didn’t seem like it would be something that would be possible for me. So I had to give up that dream. But that was my first, I think, real sense that there might be something that I could do in the world that would help other people. And I was grateful to at least have that dream.
Patrick: What were some of those early expressions of you have this one life that you could make a difference in the world? As you were growing up, what were the ways that that kind of manifested in the way your family lived your life or, you know, activities that you were involved in, prior to getting to college?
Matt: Yeah, that’s a great question. So this idea that we can give back and that we should give back, and that life is a precious gift that we return, it came up in ways. We were very involved in church and so church outreach activities were something that we participated in.
So I’m a child of the sixties. I can remember early on watching the news with my parents and seeing images of the Vietnam war or seeing images of the civil unrest in American cities. And my parents talking about how important it was that we respected other people. I don’t remember exactly how we talked about it, but I remember feeling like, yes, this is something that was important that we should do.
My mother in particular was somebody who would draw our attention to the people that were the underdogs or that were maligned and would ask us to think about their feelings and what their life was like. And so it could be, you know, coming home from school and complaining about a kid at school. And my mom’s saying, well, you know, what might it be like to be in his shoes and how might you respond to him in a way that was positive?
So I think it was a lot of little ways, which in hindsight was great because I wasn’t asked to do something grandiose, but at the same time was said, look, most days there’s something you could do. So take a look for it. Later on in life there were certain outreach activities for a while. I was a boy scout and that was mainly about how do you do something in the, in the community? I was a failed boy scout, I never became an Eagle. But just seeing then my parents throughout their life, they’re in their mid-eighties now and they’re still involved in a variety of social/volunteer activities that I think shows me that even in, in your later years, you can still be actively involved. So I think I appreciate that it was small things day-to-day with this backdrop of an idea that there could be something more intentional that you do as an adult were things that just became a part of the fabric of our lives, and then a deep part of my life narrative.
Patrick: And so when you went off to college and you’re pursuing medical school and that’s not the place where you’re gonna be making this impact, you know, what comes next and what are your parents saying to you at these moments as you are trying to figure out, how do I, how do I help? How do I do something?
Matt: Yeah. Before my junior year in college, my father had a conversation with me that said, basically, this is your chance. You’re either going to get your life together now and do something, or you’re going to…you’re going to decide that you’re going to wander around aimlessly. And that was really important. It so happened that spring, I met this amazing, beautiful woman. We started dating and fell in love. I’ve been married to her now 40 years. So that was a remarkable story. And at the same time she was saying to me, there are things you can do. You need to make choices to get your life together.
So I started to do quite well in school compared to what I was doing and ended up graduating. And then I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I really worked through a variety of jobs. I worked as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital. I thought I wanted to be a clinical counselor. Then I went to get a master’s degree and became a consultant, which at the time was rather heady.
I was working for a prestigious consulting firm, but realized I was chasing status and that didn’t work. Then I went to work for Lehman Brothers as a financial advisor. And this whole time I was really searching for what was that work that was important to me and what would be meaningful. And I’d always had in the back of my mind this idea that I should be a professor.
I had no idea why. I mean, I’d had professors, but I didn’t know anything about what it was like to be a professor. And so I kept, just really pushing it out of my head saying that’s silly. There’s no reason that you should be a professor. But my mom had told me for years, Matt you’d be a good teacher.
And I thought that was just a nice thing that moms say, you know, you’d be a good teacher. How did she know? And it was really a deep spiritual crisis. I was working at Lehman Brothers, earning a lot of money becoming way too wrapped up in that Lehman Brothers experience, alienating myself from my family. I was making myself and my family miserable. Kim and I were really at odds again, because I was just so consumed with myself and my career. One night I couldn’t sleep. And about three in the morning, I woke Kim up and I said, what if I actually pursued this idea of being a professor? What if I actually try to get into a doctoral program? And she said - she’s always been so marvelous- she said, well sure. Let’s give it a try. So I applied and got into a doctoral program and off I went.
And that has turned out to be that thing that I could invest myself in, where I feel like I can give back to the world. And one of the things Patrick, that this led me to do, it’s now a 22 year research project on how do people find vocation? How do people find deeply meaningful work and what is it like for them to live out that work? And one of the ways people do that is the way I did it. They just experiment. They kind of bounce around asking the whole time, is this it? Is this the right…No, it’s not. And searching for that place. I never had that clear sense of calling that I thought I would. I mean, I had this idea about a professor. And so somehow this idea of finding my place in the world, finding vocation happened and in such a ironic way, a part of finding my way in the world was to study how people find their way in the vocational world. What helped me along the way was people, my parents, a couple of professors, Kim, affirming in specific ways, the skills and abilities and talents they saw in me and helping me imagine how those might take shape in a vocation. What they didn’t say, and I’m glad they didn’t, was you could be anything you want to. I couldn’t be a professional baseball player, so. But they were very clear about helping me…here’s a talent you have, here’s how we see it in you. And then as I would think about something we could talk about well, well, is that right for me? Do I have the right skills, abilities, talents? And the other piece in hindsight, that was very much a part of this that I didn’t see at the time were people that could constantly help me clarify what were the values, the life values that were centrally important to me? And how might they show up in the work that I would do?
And that turned out to be so important because consulting was not a value fit for me. Lehman Brothers was not a value fit for me. And in hindsight, if I’d taken more to heart their questions about, well why is it that you want to work there? And are those why’s, the answers you give, are those ones that resonate with you? I think I would have more quickly either left those jobs or not taken them. The consulting job, the why was so that I could go to my friends and feel cool that I had this job at this great place. That’s a pretty shallow why. And honestly, the pay off of that lasted about 30 seconds, right? I’m working for this company and then they’d say, oh wow. And then the conversation would go somewhere else and I’d be, well that didn’t last very long. So it was that combination of here’s the gifts and talents you have, here’s the ones you don’t have in some ways, and what are the things that really matter to you and how are those going to help you decide what to do next?
Patrick: I mean, it sounds like as you made that transition into your doctoral program, started doing your research, that you were finding a little more meaning, maybe more balance? A large listenership will be in the academy where the academy can feel overwhelming. There is no balance. You know, there’s a lot of questions of why? More like, why did I do this? So tell me a little bit about those moments. Cause you’re also, you know, raising a family at that time as well. Right? I mean, this this isn’t just like you said, okay, I’m out of the corporate world. Thank you academy, this is so wonderful.
Matt: No. And Patrick, thank you for asking that question. The academy is, it can be as brutal as a lot of other careers. The demands are high. I think they’re getting higher. Particularly for new professors. If you want to make tenure, the hurdles are hard to get across. And so early on, I really struggled with how am I going to do the kind of research that feels like it’s important and that might make a difference in the world and still somehow make tenure? Quite frankly, I struggled with that for a long time. I still felt the pull to have all the prestigious publications and to have a CV that had lots of things on it and to get the kinds of promotions that people saw as you know, this is the real…this is the star here. These are the kinds of promotions the stars get. I had times that I invested way more in my work and not as much in my family. And this is where having a partner that was willing to speak the truth in love was really important. Hey, we need you and you’re gone. We need you and you’re working 14 hours.
It was really difficult, but there was a pivotal moment, and I’ll say this was after tenure, so that’s important again, it was a kind of an epiphany similar to the epiphany of I should try to get a doctorate. Just over a couple of days, I realized I’m successful in getting publications, but I’m studying something that I don’t really care about. I was studying compensation systems. I didn’t care about that. What I really cared about was what made work a life enriching experience instead of a life depleting experience? People are spending so many hours at work. It’s certainly having an impact on them and likely the people that they’re close to. So I really wanted to learn more about that.
And I want to say this in a way that doesn’t make me sound like I was so courageous, because it wasn’t courage. I finally said, I can’t keep doing this research that I don’t care about. I’m going to do this other kind of research. And it was more a deep sense that that’s what I should do and a growing realization that I was making myself and others miserable again, like I did at Lehman Brothers chasing this prestige. So it was just after tenure, I had an opportunity to go and teach in, Australia, which was a very easy teaching job. And it was kind of like a sabbatical and a chance to just reorient my work around what now I’d call wellbeing, wellbeing among helping and healing professions. And that has proven to be so important because I love my research. It’s so important and valuable to me. It did truncate my trajectory in the academy. I didn’t achieve some of the prestigious positions that I think I had originally wanted.
And again, I want to be candid -that was difficult for many years. What am I giving up? That part of me that wanted to be singled out as somehow, you know, the really amazing researcher, was crying out many, many times kicking and screaming for attention. And I had some pretty dark times where I was paying attention to that part of me and feeling mistreated and overlooked and, you know, things that were just in hindsight, silly but at that time mattered. But somehow there would be times, you know dear friends and Kim and my parents who would remind me that the work I was doing, when I talk about it, I would light up and I would be passionate. And they would remind me like that’s, for you, the payoff. The payoff is that you feel this is where you’re supposed to be. But it was hard because of that part of me that’s so badly wanted the individual rewards. And yet I was grateful that people could keep reminding me. Yeah, but you’ve done that and it didn’t work out for you, you know? You made yourself miserable and you made us miserable.
I have constantly needed people who knew me well, who cared about me and would be willing to, as that wonderful christian and biblical saying goes, would speak the truth in love to me and say, if you keep doing that, it’s not going to be good for you. You’re not going to be doing what you should do with your life. But gosh, Patrick, there are some times I was, I was caught up in myself… really caught up in myself.
Now that I’m done with my academic career, really, for the most part. And moving on to, some work that feels deeply valuable. I’m so grateful that people help you stay the course. I have two really good friends who in my field would be among the most highly respected professors the most have the most publications have all of the prestigious appointments and positions. And this is going to sound like an old story, but it’s a true story - they’re very miserable and they’re on a hamster wheel where they’re only as good as their last publication and they’re waiting for the next, you know, young professor who’s doing very well to knock them out of the top position.
And so what I’ve been able to see is the truth in practice, the truth that we all know. That chasing after those things it’s a hollow pursuit chasing after status and prestige is a hollow pursuit. And for these two people who are my age over 60, They don’t think there’s enough life left to go back and do things differently.
Although I say, come on, you still can. If I tried to be more concise, I had people who consistently said, Matt, this is what matters to you. This is why it matters to you. This is why you want to keep going. And they’d hear me out, you know, complain and whine about the other things, but then help me get back on track.
And I think seeing people who were chasing status and prestige and how it really affected them in a deep and profound way was also a corrective. I think I needed that. I needed somehow to see it. I experienced it myself, I needed to see it in others. I’m a doubting Thomas, maybe.
Patrick: Matt, I want to tie two things here. Cause this is, you know, the sound of the genuine. Like you’re listening to what’s bringing you alive internally as you go through your own sort of discernment. But I also want to go back to the very beginning of your story where you talk about your mom and your dad, and you know, watching the Vietnam war on TV.
I think our young adults that we’re working with at FTE, a lot of them are overwhelmed by the problems of the world: climate change, racism, social unrest, and they feel a deep compulsion to make a difference, to make a change, to help, to find some way. And the way that they’re expressing that is through multi vocational pursuits where there’s a never endless task list or achievement list. Cause they gotta, they gotta make the difference. Tell me about how you work between those two things, both the internal and then addressing these large, really big questions that our folks, they’re trying to make a difference, but I mean, you’re the expert on wellbeing. How do you maintain that balance so that way you’re not caught up under all of the weight and the stress of life?
Matt: The question of how do you find a calling or vocation, this deep sense of connection and meaning in your work and in another life pursuits, but then maintain your wellbeing has been a concern of mine and my team, my research team for many years, because it’s true. A portion of those people who have that deeply meaningful work end up burning themselves out. And we wanted to understand what’s different with those people who somehow have a longer arc in their vocation? They can do this really difficult work for years.
I’ll just give a couple of examples of what I mean. One of the women who worked for an international aid and relief organization, had been in this field for 25 years when we worked with her actively. And her role had always been to rescue and care for young children who had been co-opted in the sex trade industry. So it’s, you know, not, not as simple…a very, very difficult job or others who had been working in difficult… south Sudan is a context where it’s dangerous. Or clergy who are working at small rural churches where there’s no glamour. These sorts of people, so they’re working in difficult contexts and ones that lack the sorts of resources, yet they just flourished for years. And they would talk about, you know, periods of languishing and difficult and dark periods, but then they seem to be able to emerge from that.
And then even looking at myself, when were the periods that I was languishing and when were those periods when I, even with the challenges I might’ve faced, felt alive in my work and felt like I was able to give myself fully to it? And there seems to be some common patterns. And I think at least some of these people will say, well, yeah, I guess I thought about that. I just, it seems hard or I didn’t know it was most important.
And one of them is this grounding in your values and your beliefs, to remind yourself regularly, why does this work matter, and why am I giving myself to this work? Not in a trivial way, but sometimes deep ways. Maybe you want to write your own life story again, or you want to be in places where you can say yes, yes, yes! This is why this work matters and this is why I’m doing it. And these people seem to have opportunities where they could reconnect with that deep call. This is why this work matters and this is why I feel called to this work - that seemed to then allow them to do a second thing, which again is going to sound on the surface kind of trivial, but they, they were somehow able to do it.
And they usually had some shorthand way of describing this. And it was something along the lines of, I do today what I can. I recognize the bigness of the problem, but I do today, what I can. There was some way of recognizing the hugeness of the problem and perhaps even grieving the hugeness of the problem, but then saying, but this is what I can do today.
This is as much as I can do today. And they seem to then find a way of being able to say - and I don’t know that they could think it as much as feel it - today I have done enough now I can care for myself and my loved ones. And so they didn’t talk about balance, in fact, many of them said don’t use that word balance. You know, I don’t know what that looks like. I have no idea what balance looks like. And they developed this over time. It was a spiritual practice, I think, of each day saying, can I stop here? I’ll stop here. I’ll go and take care of myself and my family. I may feel drawn back to work, but I’m going to do that. And over time they develop this deep spiritual intuition that allowed them to say, this is what I can do: I’ll grieve the hugeness of the problem. This is what I can do today.
I’ve been trying to develop that same inner sense. And there are days that I feel like I just need to work another hour or, I look at the news and then I get in my car and I feel like, oh my gosh, I’m contributing to global warming. Or I sit down with a glass of wine and then I read the news about, you know, the war in Ukraine and I am not adept as these people are and I want to be more adept at being able to say, yes, the world is broken and I grieve the hugeness of the problem, but I can think about what I can do today. So when I think about that, today was something they kept talking about. It’s not that they don’t plan for the future, but if they thought about what would happen over the long-term, they became overwhelmed with the hugeness of the problem and how can I ever make a difference?
You know, there’s a, at least in the way I was raised, there was this old adage, we plant the seeds and God nourishes the plants. You know, sometimes they use something like that. That might be a way they said it, or there are different shorthand ways that they could give voice to this. This is what I can do today. And it’s going to matter.
Another one that came up a lot was, you know, caring for one person is like caring for the world. So these can sound like trite little sayings, like, oh yeah, you put it on a bumper sticker and it means nothing. But for these people, it did! So it was that sense of why is this work important to me? Why do I think it’s important in the world? I don’t care what other people think. I can’t care what other people think I should say, because somebody who’s going to tell me it’s not worth it. Why do I think this work is important? Why do I feel like I’m called to this work? So that was remaining deeply connected to that feeling and sense of vocation. And then gaining this, I’ll call it spiritual intuition to say, this is what I can do today, I grieve the problem, but this is what I can do today. Even saying, it sounds like, oh, what is that like two easy steps to lifelong…[laughter]. They’re not easy, but there’s a wisdom in that, that has worked for me in the rare moments I’ve been able to practice.
Patrick: As you think about your vocation today, as you think about the way that you live your life today, you know I ask every guest who’s come on here some version of this question. You know, how much of it comes from your own sense of vocation? Come from your community, from your parents, from that upbringing, from all the trials tribulations you’ve been through, these jobs, from your research, the people that you know, you just gave us the wisdom of your research and how much comes from inner Matt? The conversation you have with yourself, I imagine, out on a run or a walk in the forest or with the divine. How much of it is the community? How much of it is this conversation with the divine, the sound of the genuine in you?
Matt: Boy, Patrick, that’s such a lovely question. 10 years ago, I would have told you it’s primarily my own inner work, but I was deceiving myself. Because my inner work is profoundly shaped by a community. Some of that community is no longer present with me now, but they still inform me in deep ways. I love poetry and so I’m informed and shaped by poetry. I read often some of Howard Thurman’s poetry or William Stafford’s poetry or Jane Hirshfield’s poetry. I don’t know these people, some of them are no longer physically with us, but they’re part of my community.
Hearing inspiring stories of people who are living a true and genuine life and really paying attention to those stories reminds me of the beautiful gift of life and the wonderful opportunity we have to give back. And then some of it is people who are very close to me, who I can be in regular dialogue with. And so I think for me, the sound of the genuine, the sound of the divine comes a lot from those voices, from those external inputs. But then I need to integrate them internally. I need to take them in, contemplate, pay attention to them, discipline myself to listening and following them.
So the inner monologues that were destructive of me are the ones when I would stomp around, like, I’m not getting the attention I deserve, I should get this blah, blah, blah, blah. You know? And then I’m very much insular, inner Matt, you know, who’s going to take his ball and go home. He’s not going to play anymore because you’re not being fair to him.
But when I let other people help shape that inner dialogue, then I can deepen myself by saying there, that’s the sound of the genuine. And then I hear it in myself. You know, it’s there, it’s present. I have always needed other people certainly when I pay attention just to being out in nature, I’ve needed external - if you will inputs - to say, here it is, this is what it sounds like. Now you can hear it coming inside of you, that’s been fundamentally important. So I think it’s much more for me community that then shapes the way I can think about myself and what I can pay attention to.
So part of my morning ritual, brew a fresh cup of coffee. Sit down, read a poem and sit with a poem, read something, some sort of I’ll call it spiritual writing. It’s not always, you know, overtly Christian. I just finished a book called Thinking Indigenous by an author Doug Good Feather, beautiful book. I’m going to read that book again and again. So I’d read a part of that and just let it soak in because there’s some gift in that book for me. And then going into the day with those voices, that wisdom resonating in me.
And then it’s my opportunity and my duty to pay attention to the way those things are resonating in me. So I hope finally at almost 61, I’m getting better at that. I’m getting better at listening and letting things resonate, but golly, it’s taken me a while. So community…hugely important.
Patrick: Matt, I’m so grateful for the conversation, for you walking us through this. If people want to learn more about you and the research, especially around wellbeing, where would they go? Where would they go to find more information?
Matt: We still have a website it’s workwellresearch.org. We called our project work well - how do we help people work well in terms of doing good work, and work well, in terms of wellbeing? Another place to go is, gosh, I hate saying this stuff but I’m a part of a startup that has an app called Ritual that is offering evidence-based wellbeing practices, but delivered by compelling individuals.
And part of what we’re trying to offer there is a way, I’ll say easy, but that people can access really great wellbeing practices delivered by some of the most compelling people and find a practice that works for them. We have a new practice that’s coming online soon by Simone Manuel. She was the first black Olympic gold medalist in swimming. She already has a practice on there about resilience in the face of prejudice. It’s a beautiful practice. She’s got a new one coming on self-affirmation. Barbara Brown Taylor has some practices on grounding yourself in darkness, Parker Palmer, a fabulous person Stephen Lewis has a great practice on discernment. And so the goal is to take these really compelling experts, help develop wellbeing practices that are rooted in science and then offering them. So that would be another place.
And then, because I’m a retired academic, and this seems to be just something we all feel compelled to do, I am trying to put together a couple of books, one on the science of wise wellbeing, because there are so many great things out there that people can access. You don’t have to make these huge life changes, there are these little things. So kind of the book version of Ritual, if you will. And then I’m working on a book on the things we’ve been talking about today, what does it mean to find deeply meaningful work, whether that’s paid work or not, and how can you live into that work in a way that you flourish?
And so it will be taking these twenty-some years of research and trying to put it in a form that can be helpful to people. Whether those get published or not, I’ll make whatever comes out of this available to people. I don’t know the world needs another book, certainly another book by Matt Bloom, but I hope to help.
Patrick: Well I disagree with that. The world does need another book or two or three from Matt Bloom, but not, I don’t want to trigger the achiever in you to try to go out and get that done. But you know Matt just deeply grateful for this conversation. I mean, the fact that you shared as much as you did and the stories and your work is so powerful and just the reminder of the day to day-ness of this work. I mean, it takes me back to my research in my doctoral program.
I went back and worked in the fields and asked people what in their lives gave them meaning and purpose as they worked - family, friends, community members. And like it boiled down to Saturday when they were in the soccer fields watching kids. Like it was one day, like we just want to provide a little bit of joy for the next generation. I was not expecting that in the research should come up time and time again, like it’s boiling down to just daily happiness.
Matt: Yeah. And you know, Patrick, so that’s remarkable that they could do that. But second of all, no one should have to have work that doesn’t provide that daily sense of dignity, that daily sense that what I’m giving myself to matters. And so how brilliant of them and how strong of them to say here’s something that matters. But golly darn day to day, that’s a life that we shouldn’t subject people to where it is toil. It’s inhuman toil. So I…that’s a beautiful story of strength in those people.
You know there is something I want to say, but I’m afraid you’ll edit it out. Getting to know you has been a real privilege and to see your vocation coming alive in your life and to see the way you have found a vocation and stayed true to it, I think is inspiring to me. And it certainly shows up in the way that you create this environment on the podcast.
I have been interviewed quite a few times - I only say that to set up this compliment, where you have a way of drawing out of people their stories and that’s a remarkable gift. So thank you for your model of living out a vocation and thank you for the way you show up in these conversations because it’s quite compelling and I’m grateful for that.
Hey, you, let me talk about myself. What could be better [laughter]?
Patrick: I want to thank you for listening to Matt’s story and tuning into the Sound of the Genuine. This show doesn’t exist without you so please do us a favor, hit that subscribe button so we can get more of these stories to you. And I want to thank my executive producer, Elsie Barnhart, and our team, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks, who help put the show into the world. And as always @siryalibeats for his music.
For more episodes and resources, head on over to our website fteleaders.org and we’ll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.