The Question That Changes Everything

This article is reposted with permission from Emily Bennington.

As you know, year-end is a time of reflection and – typically – we focus on two questions:

1. Did I achieve my goals?

2. Am I where I want to be?

notes

For most of my adult life, I have used this time between Christmas and New Years to think deeply on these questions and – to be perfectly honest with you – I haven’t always been happy with the answers. Under a surface level of genuine gratitude and excitement regarding the accomplishments and checked boxes, there has always been a layer of melancholy when it came to dreams unmet and boxes unchecked.

But something happened this year that forever changed the way I look at “success” and – as breakthroughs often do – it started with a bit of a breakdown. In searching for a way to evaluate my worth that involved more than just a P&L statement, a title, or a “brand”, I was asked the most profound question of my career:

How do you serve?

Oddly enough, I’d never been asked this before. I’ve always been asked the first-cousin question. The one we’ve all been asked a million times. The one that goes like this:

What do you do?

You probably have a fairly straightforward answer to this one. Me too.

I’m a career author.

And maybe, like I did, you see yourself through the lens of this response.

You’re a development director.

You’re an internship coordinator.

You’re a political consultant.

But when you keep the focus on what you do, you set yourself up for measurements based on job duties.

Did you sell enough books?

Did you meet your fundraising goals?

Did you recruit the right grads?

Did your candidate win?

And while there’s certainly a place for this kind of evaluation, it’s probably not what gets you out of bed in the morning. Worse, if you fall short of these benchmarks, it tends to swipe at your self-esteem.

Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.

What if you approached 2013 in a radical new way? What if the lens through which you judge your work isn’t “what do I do” but “how do I serve?” As I’ve learned to become mindful of my own thought processes, I’ve discovered that our deepest sources of frustration come from what we think we deserve and aren’t getting. But here’s the rub: The things you’re not getting are the very things you’re not giving.

For example, the underlying melancholy of my career stemmed from not feeling properly valued for the work I was doing. However when I took a brutally honest look in the mirror, I had no idea what value I was adding to the lives of others that they couldn’t find elsewhere. A-ha. How would I ever reap the rewards of value if I wasn’t offering it in the first place?

Of course, then the question becomes, “How am I serving?” which ultimately leads to the realization that everything else is just bubble wrap. In other words, I can evaluate my success on books sales and click glasses on New Year’s Eve if I hit the mark, but when the hangover fades, if I’m not legitimately helping people excel in their careers those sales won’t last. Likewise, you can meet your fundraising goal for the first quarter, but if donors don’t understand the return – they won’t be back in the second and they’ll tell their friends. You can find new grads but if they’re not the right grads, you lose again, etc. etc.

It’s been said that in business if you’re going to climb the ladder, you better make sure it’s up against the right wall. And for far too long I let this time of year irk me because I didn’t realize evaluating success based on “what I do” or whether I hit some arbitrary target was totally the wrong wall. If this post helps you avoid that fate, well, consider yourself served.

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