They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”

Walking the path

I recently had the chance to have dinner with a small group of amazing nonprofit leaders. Our host gave us all a gift by asking us to start the meal by going around the table and each sharing why we do this work.

Each member of the group was honest and open, and, in listening to story after story, I began to see that they were all essentially the same.

They were stories about role models, whether a mother or a grandfather, a teacher, a social worker, a friend.
Stories of seeing their own relative good fortune – because everybody is more fortunate than somebody.
Stories of the call to serve.
Stories of stubbornness in the face of the impossible.
Stories of discovering that their talents can be used for good.
Stories of getting hooked on the feeling of making meaningful change.
And stories of them fighting each day to keep walking the path and making a difference.

You may think, in hearing this, that these are other people’s stories, that you are still seeking out your purpose and your role, that others have arrived while you are still looking.

I ask that you consider two things:

  1. That you are on the path already. There is no moment of arrival. It is your job to keep walking, to keep listening, to push yourself to go closer to what is real so you can understand it, because understanding is the precursor to being useful. It’s also your job to invest in building the skills and the self-knowledge you will need to make a real difference – including confronting your fears and your self-imposed limitations.
  2. You don’t know it, but you are already inspiring others. The courage to look, to listen, to care, to dream – all of this already sets you apart. Each of the stories I heard started at a very young age, and the path from there to today was never straight.

Keep walking.

The end of the line

One day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll get there.  The end of the line.  The top of your organization.  The top of your field.  Nowhere else to go, because you’ll have arrived.

Most likely, that day won’t be within striking distance of the end of your career.  Far from it.  So there you will be, at the top of your game and the top of the ladder you spent all that time and energy climbing.

And then you’ll have no choice but to make a shift.  They’ll be no sense any more (was there ever?) in the obvious milestones of advancement: title, promotion, compensation.  In all the important ways, those things will be behind you.  At which point your yardstick will cease to be how high you can climb and become, instead, the actual impact you are having on the world, the change you are creating for others.

Imagine not waiting until that future date to let go of striving for the obvious markers of success and progress.  Imagine how letting go now, not five or 10 or 15 years from now, would free up all the energy you’re putting into the climb.  Imagine your confidence and sense of relief in recognizing that someday soon you will get there, which is why there’s no need to (and not much result in) continuing to push the rope.  Imagine your ability to focus on the stuff that really matters: the really important, hard-for-the-right-reasons elements of making a difference.

Isn’t this, in the end, what it means to live a life of service?

Isn’t this why anyone who gets to the “top” discovers that it’s really just a starting line?

Your job, and leverage

If your life is one of service, then the one question to ask yourself when figuring out where you are and where you’re going is:

What role, what organization, what situation allows me to maximize the impact I’m having on others?

Most organizations find good people and ask little of them them.  Some organizations, sadly, even find great people and ask them to do mediocre work.

The best organizations take great people and help them be extraordinary.

It’s possible.

And the best part is that extraordinary feeds on itself.  Extraordinary creates more extraordinary.

The spirit of service

Most people get into nonprofit work because they want – in some way, big or small – to change the world.  This spirit of service defines our missions, which are not vague platitudes about “delighting customers” or delivering “superior results to our stakeholders,” but are real, tangible, and laudable: end malarial deaths in Africa by 2015, feed the hungry in New York City, make the foster care system work for kids, enable every kid in Harlem to go to college.

And yet.

And yet we get busy with “the job,” and it can become more real and more palpable than the mission.  We sit at desks day after day looking at spreadsheets or writing yet another report, and though we hear the echo of why we’re there, this original purpose can morph – not immediately, but eventually – into background noise.

We’re wired, fundamentally, only to experience fully the reality in front of us.  And because our daily interactions, the stresses of life, the honest considerations about our own goals and aspirations, dominate our experience, there’s the risk that this day-to-day reality gets decoupled from the spirit of service we expect to pervade our work.  And so, like at any job, there are high points and low points, successes and disappointments, days when our contributions are recognized and days when someone (peer, boss, donor, board member) is careless in how they speak to us.  We, too, have highs and lows.

Unless.

Unless we take every opportunity to stoke the fire that burns within – for ourselves and for our peers.

Unless we look for chances to keep that flame lit, by giving our employees, our volunteers, our donors a chance to feel, breathe, see and touch the service that is at the core of what we do.

Unless we create space to swap stories, whether close by or far away, of people whose lives have been transformed by our work.

Unless we find moments, hours, days, to pull back from the frenzy that pervades our days (how could it not? The problems are so big, our urgency so great) to reconnect to the original sense of what we’re here to do.

We are blessed to have the privilege to serve others.  And it is a privilege.  There is no higher calling.

From that kernel of truth, I’ve no choice but to wonder: is it naïve to think that we might conceptualize our professional lives differently?  Is it possible that the question “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” should pale in comparison to the question “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

Because I do believe that one has a different orientation when one says, “I’m here to make a change in the world” (goal-oriented, and with it ego) and when one says, “I’m here to serve.”  To be sure, if we, our employees, our volunteers, our donors do not feel nourished, respected, honored, and challenged, then there is no way we can serve others effectively.  But are careers dedicated to service fundamentally different?  What is the right balance here?

Whom do we honor?

Recently I found myself in the elevator at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, the doors closing on the name of yet another mega-Wall Street donor whose name was etched in marble, no doubt honoring a mega gift that built that wing of the hospital.

When I got upstairs I talked to a lovely couple.  The wife was a patient in the hospital who was at risk for giving birth to her twins at 26 weeks – more than 3 months before her due date.  She is a first grade teacher in the Bronx, worried that her students depend so much on her, worried that her sudden departure from the classroom would leave them without the support they needed.  Her husband is a social worker who does work for a number of local organizations in addition to some longer stints in India.

Where were their names on the wall?

Yes, I get it.  If someone chooses to part with tens of millions of dollars – maybe more – of their own money then by all means let’s write their names wherever they want to write them.  And maybe everything is working perfectly: the big name on the wall allows patients in need to get world-class care, so who cares what’s written where in what size font?

But walking through that grandiose hospital lobby, the names of subsequent Wall Street titans vying for all-caps supremacy in their etched legacy, I wished we had the same amount of space to write the names, in boldface, of people living lives of service: the teacher, the nurse, the social worker.

Yesterday’s salad

Traveling on Monday morning, and hoping to avoid on-board food, I picked up a $9 Caesar salad at the Balducci’s in the Delta terminal at JFK. A few hours later, my laptop dead, I popped open the plastic box to dig in.

The salad looked beautiful, but it was very sad indeed.  The first clue was a squishy crouton. The second crouton also didn’t crunch. Then I picked up a piece romaine, and it had turned a little red from spoilage. So had nearly all the lettuce in the salad. Red, wilted lettuce and soggy croutons for lunch? No way.

It turns out that I had paid, at 9 in the morning, $9 for a day-old salad at one of the upperiest of the upscale food chains in New York.

It’s so easy to convince yourself to sell the day-old salad, to give your customer something other than your best because it is cheaper or easier or because you’re just plain lazy. Plus, you convince yourself, they won’t notice.

The thing is, they will notice and so will you.  The only question is which will happen faster: you losing them as a customer, or you quietly begrudging yourself and your organization for delivering such a shoddy experience?

There’s old salad somewhere in your organization – old reports or analysis or ways you treat people that might have been good enough when they were fresh, but they’ve passed their expiration date.

Throw out the old salad. Today is a new day.

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