“Denise, there’s a call on line 1 for you. He wouldn’t give me his name and said ‘you’d know what he was calling about’.”
“Can’t you see I have my Do Not Disturb light on?” I replied. “Tell whoever it is I’m busy and I’ll call him back later.”
My assistant responded that the caller said he would hold until I was ready. I hated sales people who were that obnoxious and couldn’t hear “No” and I brushed her off impatiently with a “Fine, he can hold until I’m good and ready then!”
I went back to the project I was working on, aggravated at yet another interruption. I was behind the eight ball already on this day, with a to-do list longer than my arm and the end of the month looming ahead of me.
Years ago, my husband had asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Only half-jokingly, I had answered “Eight extra hours a day so I can catch up on what I always have undone at the end of each day!” He bought me an Ipod instead, commenting that if I had more hours I would likely just try to fit more in on my schedule. I remembered that I needed to try to find time to upload some music for relaxation onto my Ipod and wondered if there was a teenager to whom I could outsource that task.
As I was turning out the light to leave the office, late that night, I noticed that the hold light was blinking on my phone. I picked it up and said impatiently, “This is Denise. Who is this?”
The voice on the other end of the line said, “It’s your life. I’ve been waiting for you.” I dropped the phone and started thinking about how long I had been avoiding this call.
For years, everything else came first, that is … everything that felt like an obligation or a distraction. Each time I heard the whisper of this call, I filled my hours with something – another project, another committee obligation, another anything – just so I wouldn’t have to sit with the voice of this caller who wanted me to look at the meaning of my life and why I was here. I avoided this call because I was afraid I would have to do something about what I heard if I listened.
How does the call of your life haunt you? Does it come from inside you on Sunday night when you start dreading your return to the office. Is it the pain in your heart when you hear your six year old daughter cry because you’re leaving on another business trip that will have you away from home more nights instead of tucking her in and reading The Velveteen Rabbit. Maybe your call sings out the familiar phrase “Do Something” when you read about the people who have lost everything in the latest weather disaster and you wish you could get that song out of your head and just get back to enjoying American Idol.
Calls are serious business. Responding to them is how we make something worthwhile out of our lives.
Not every call is a blockbuster, star-making epic. One or two of them may take up most of our time, but other more urgent calls weave their way into our lives from time to time.
Some of them, like being a nurturing, attentive parent or riding out the illness of a friend who needs our extra attention, engage our minds and our hearts and do not earn us accolades or cover photos on national magazines. Others draw us deep beneath the noise of social conventions and impact lives in unimaginable ways. It is neither the duration nor the visibility of the call that matters.
A life-changing call engages your ability to listen to both the subtle and obvious messages that rise within you and to see the nuance of something transcendent in the role before you. You answer the call through your willingness to move beyond merely filling the role or carrying out the duties a task requires by choosing to imbue your intention and your courage into your actions.
Not answering the call doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it often escalates its frequency or intensity to capture your attention. First pebbles, then stones, then boulders raining down on your life if you continue to ignore it. The call of your life is persistent and insistent. Thank goodness, really, that it doesn’t give in to our occasional wish for it to just leave us alone so we can get on with business as usual.
When you get serious about answering your call, mentors and supporters will appear. They will guide you with teachable moments and they will appeal to your innate human longing to be more than what you presently are.
As you move toward answering your call, they will help you draw upon your courage to step into the potential that sounds quietly in your dreams.
You have a choice, to just live your life, work a job, and fulfill a role or to commit to answering a series of worthy calls within this life of yours.
Listen carefully to the whispers and shouts of your calls and answer them with all the passion and cleverness at your disposal.
Use every means of introspection and mentorship available to you to help you find the courage to answer the call to make a difference – both where you find yourself now and in the place where your unique path takes you. After all, there’s a call for you on hold right now, all you have to do is answer it.
INTEGRITY AT WORK … Do Your People Care? No, REALLY, Care?
For two days, I’ve been trying to catch a little stray dog in my neighborhood without success. I’ve enlisted neighbors and tried to engage passing motorists to help as this scraggly little brown dog would dart away from me toward the traffic on a busy main thoroughfare near my home. Most everyone would shrug their shoulders after a little bit of chase when the dog kept running. He was scared and wily and seemed to evade every measure I tried. Several people said, “You’ve done all you can do. It’s not your problem. You tried.”
Truthfully, I felt helpless as neighbors went back to their Sunday activities, no interest in helping to save this hungry lost little dog. He ran down the alley where my car couldn’t go and I lost sight of him, although I patrolled the area for another hour. The more I heard from people, “It’s not your problem”, the more I started to wonder what allows people to look away from something they CAN do and close their hearts. Were their afternoon activities really that important in comparison? I couldn’t bear the thought of finding his body along the side of the road because “it’s not your problem, you tried.” I couldn’t stop thinking about that little dog and how to make sure he was safe.
How did “It’s not your problem” become an acceptable reason to stop caring?
This morning, I caught sight of him again on a side street near a park and slowed my car, trying to lure him toward me. Then from out of nowhere a truck appeared. On the side of it in bold red & black letters were these words “Integrity Roofing”.
The two young guys -Tony & Joe – saw what I was doing and joined in, trying to tempt him with little bites of cinnamon roll. Eventually, our efforts turned into an all-out chase, almost like the kind of caper you’d see in an action film. The dog was on the run, but Tony & Joe were in hot fast pursuit- sometimes on foot, sometimes in either their truck or my car. For more than half an hour, we three gave chase, around neighborhoods, into alleyways, through parks. Their worry was palpable as the dog veered again onto the main road in morning rush hour traffic. I already had my hands up to my mouth as I screamed. At the last possible second, the little dog darted off the road and back into the neighborhood. Both men said, we’re not giving up!
What would it mean for your people to demonstrate in everything they do “We’re not giving up!”
Finally, Tony managed to chase him into a yard and close the gate. Joe lay calmly on the pool deck coaxing the scared little stray toward him, until he could slip a leash I carry in my car around his neck. Eventually, this was the photo I captured of the sweet little dog nestled in their caring arms. His nails were bloody and ragged from all the running, his body was thin but his heart was full, knowing that these two men just wouldn’t give up on him.
This afternoon, they sent me a second photo with the text “Clean bath and he ate two bowls of food so far, he was hungry!” and then later “He’s doing so much better, I’ve introduced him to my dogs and now he’s not so scared.”
It’s so easy to slap a name like Integrity on a company, but when their people live it, in ways that have nothing to do with promoting their business, THAT’S when you know it’s real. Bravo, Integrity Roofing … your men display it in everything they do.
I’d love to know how YOUR people show they care in the world around them and how it reflects on your business. @DoWhatCounts
On a scale of 1 to 10, how was your year? How do you plan to make next year better?
I’m a stickler for completion. Completing tasks, conversations, relationships. Most of us are not taught how to make endings, to finish old business, so it doesn’t follow us into the New Year. We close the books on our businesses, and do year-end reviews with staff, but somehow doing the same work to actively turn the page in our lives and our careers evades us. I have a solution.
For many years, I’ve been following a simple process to gain perspective on the year as it ends and to intentionally choose what I want to pursue in the year ahead. Even more effective than New Years Resolutions (which are soon to be broken anyway and usually made without much reflection or planning), I’m looking for patterns, beliefs and circumstances so I can consciously opt into which I carry forward and which I leave behind as I step into a brand new year.
You know my mantra is Chase What Matters, Do What Counts and this periodic review is the way I hold myself accountable to continuously enhance my life and to winnow out that which doesn’t belong anymore.
It allows me to revisit the pleasures from the year which has passed and begin to make sense of the disappointments and challenges. Even more, it points the way to issues that I need to seek some help on for the year ahead so I can live the life I intend. This simple act of closure and completion has been a key part of refining how I run my business and how I lead my life. It’s a tool I come back to throughout the year, as a blueprint for decision making so I continue to align my choices with what matters.
I have a handy two page list of reflective questions that guides me through a gentle process to close the year with a sense of ease and to outline proactive action steps for the year ahead. It’s been invaluable to me. You can find my version here and adapt it for your own use.
I’m looking forward to spending time with you in the New Year and to being of service as you Chase What Matters to you.
Children dream about their futures, they imagine things they can do to effect change, to have fun. They don’t voluntarily choose tedium and stress. They know that work shouldn’t suck. And, by the way, before you think to yourself that work isn’t supposed to be fun, research has shown that the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.
My client, Mitch, was convinced that if he switched firms and made more money he would feel happy and engaged again. Of course he would, for a little while. But the story would continue to be the same one he’d lived through three prior firms. Mitch’s stress was through the roof, he was sleeping less than 6 hours a night, felt frantic about finances and hadn’t had time for friends, let alone time for himself. He was constantly doing triage and felt like everyone else was driving the direction of his life, not him.
I broke the news to him that if he didn’t dive into what was driving his burnout, it would follow him to his new firm. Probably quicker than he even thought was possible.
“What do you mean ‘what’s driving my burnout”? It’s the crazy people I work with and the fact I’m under appreciated and underpaid doing it. That’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Perhaps,” I replied. “But what will YOU do differently in your new firm?”
“I hear you. But the first six months, I’ve gotta be head-down, really driving it hard to show them what I’ve got. It’s gonna be a lot of ‘in the weeds’ work and then I can settle in and look at the stuff you’re talking about. My family is cool with that.”
Work is where we can make ourselves,
work is also where we can break ourselves.” — David Whyte
I’ve seen it for decades, how a move to a new firm with an increase in compensation actually does make clients happy. Superficially happy. For a short period of time.
Until the voice of their heart rises up again and says, “Are you kidding me? We’re still doing this?” Then they think “If only …” they worked at another place, made more money, (you can fill in the blank) THEN they would be happy. And they are, for another short period of time, until the voice speaks again.
HOW BURNOUT SNEAKS UP ON US
The 12 Phases of the Burnout Process were mapped by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North (and not necessarily in this sequential order):
Compulsion to Prove Oneself (turns into compulsion to work harder)
Working Harder (to prove yourself, irreplaceability, doing it all)
Neglecting Their Needs (no time and energy for anything but work)
Displacement of Conflicts (inability to see yourself as the source – 1st physical symptoms begin to arise)
Revision of Values (your job becomes your new value system, hobbies & friends and needs get sidelined)
Denial of Emerging Problems (intolerance, aggression, sarcasm, talk about time pressure & stress as “status”)
Withdrawal (social contact becomes minimal, isolation, alcohol or drug use increases)
Obvious Behavioral Changes (along with rebuffing anyone who points out these changes)
Depersonalization (self and others lose value, focus only on present time and future success, increasingly blunt)
Inner Emptiness (in an effort to overcome this, an increase in addictive activity & exaggerated importance of work)
Depression (exhausted, hopeless, indifferent & a sense that life is meaningless)
Burnout Syndrome (collapse physically and emotionally, may have suicidal ideation as the only escape from the situation)
IS IT REALLY BURNOUT – OR IS IT SOMETHING ELSE?
One of the questions I’ve been asking clients lately is whether what they are feeling is actually burnout – meaning they are fully depleted – or if it’s really “boreout” – a loss of meaning or purposefulness.
The literature and research on burnout seem to focus on its origin as stress and overwork.
Few of the people I talk to are actually physically exhausted from the actual work they do. These same people would easily tackle in their leisure time much more arduous physical endeavors than those they do in their work lives – that is, if they allowed themselves to HAVE leisure time.
So, if they’re not actually exhausted by the work they do, what is draining the life force energy from these people? It’s the constant effort it takes to ignore the internal questions …What’s the point? How does what I’m doing even matter?
I’m not one to say that our work lives aren’t stressful, but in most instances I encounter, the sense of being overworked and stressed comes from a sense of disengagement with the WHY of their work.
Time and again, I encounter people who ask me “Is THIS all there is?” or who say “I should be happy, I mean, other people would kill to have this job and this life I have.” And, often, they say – “If I’m going to give up this much of my life, then I damned well better make more money to keep doing it.”
The stark absence of meaning from what they are doing rears up and begins to gnaw at them, fueling this sense of unhappiness that may eventually even lead to terminal cynicism – about work, about their industry. In fact, often, about life in general and their cynicism that they even deserve to be happy.
SO, WHAT’S THE ANTIDOTE?
Research shows that the antidote to burnout (or boreout) is engagement.
Burnout manifests itself as symptoms of long term exhaustion and a diminished interest in work, in cynicism and inefficiency. It is that state of melancholy and listlessness known as ennui. The book Diagnose Boreout (by Peter Werder & Philippe Rothlin) calls out the absence of meaningful tasks, not stress, as what saps people. There is little incentive for people to approach their clients or employers or patients and say to them “What’s the point of what you are asking me to do? This is meaningless and it’s doing nothing to fulfill my potential or to improve the situations in life that most pain my heart.“
When a person is left questioning the meaning of their action and feels inhibited to make a change, the characteristics of learned helplessness take over and he or she becomes listless, disengaged, the sense of powerlessness increases and THAT, not the work itself, causes the stress.
Interestingly, “boreout” got almost no attention from the media. Burnout became the buzzword that has taken over. Entire approaches to reducing stress have focused for decades on attempting to alleviate the escalating burnout that is cascading across industries, generations and swaths of our workforce. Urging us to work more efficiently, to acquire things or experiences to counteract the stress. Entire industries are built upon servicing our burnout, instead of asking what’s really driving it and how to fix it.
The remedy for burnout is not changing firms, earning more money or taking a luxurious vacation somewhere. It’s wholeheartedness. Reigniting the embers of meaning and purposefulness in your work and in your life.
Burnout is actually a form of depression – anger turned inward – because there is no available outlet for it to be externalized, for the person to say – “What you’re asking me to do is mindless, nonsensical and the talents and treasures I have are going to waste and I feel angry about that!“
Enhancing the engagement of people in the work they do, really evaluating the meaning and utility of the work they are asked to do is what cures burnout. Working on engaging the potential of each person in the company and affording them official recognition for their efforts. The sense of belonging, an ability to recognize that what they contribute is giving something back and that their risks to make things better are recognized. These are the values that, if left unmet or violated in one’s work leads to the frustration and sense of disillusionment that sets in and has been wrongly diagnosed as burnout.
The generally articulated worry is that attending to a sense of purposefulness will mean workers will stop doing what needs to be done. Bullshit! In his book Why We Work, Barry Schwartz reminds us that people are uniformly willing to do difficult, even boring, repetitive tasks if they see a benefit from their work. Over time, we have been lulled to sleep in thinking that doing mindless, endless, meaningless work is justified because the sole benefit is that we get paid. Not if we get paid and that only allows us to survive in monotony for another 10, 20, 30 years … all in the hopes that we will finally earn enough money and be able to do something meaningful when we retire.
It breaks my heart to hear someone say, “Well, I only have to do it for 7 1/2 more years and then I can retire and do what makes me happy.” Are you kidding me? That kind of life force tyranny wears away people’s souls and their hearts and traumatizes our children as they watch us and think that’s what their future holds.
REKINDLING THE EMBERS OF LOVE FOR YOUR WORK IS THE CURE
Gail Sheehan, in her book New Passages, coined the phrase Middlescence, as a period of second adulthood. A time when we ponder the questions we faced first in adolescence … Who am I? Where am I going? Where do I belong?
We look again for the meaning of our life and ask the questions Where am I and what has it cost me to get here? And, was it worth it?
The reason these questions arise is because there is a breeze that stirs the embers lying under this seemingly burned out core. It’s not that we are burned out, used up, left as ashes. It’s that we keep dumping ashes on top of our inner fire, smothering the embers, instead of feeding them good dry seasoned heartwood.
When a fire has used up all its fuel, what is left is simply ash, the burnt up remains – what was unable to be used.
That’s not where someone is who is asking the questions you are. Or where Mitch is. No, you are beginning to uncover the glowing embers that reside under the blanket of ash. The embers are the partially burnt pieces of fuel and still contain usable energy. Energy that is so deep in the center that the air and oxygen hasn’t yet reached it and caused combustion.
That’s why these questions are “burning” in you, nagging you day and night … Is THIS all there is?Your heart cannot believe that is true. In fact, it will NOT believe it is true. Even as you shovel another layer of ash upon it to quiet it. No, there is a gust of wind that picks up a single ember, or maybe even a shower of embers and floats it to something new that will catch the flame.
THAT is where you need to put your attention. On that single spark, the ember that is floating, for now, waiting to find dry tinder upon which to land. Your spark is not gone – and it will not be put out. Right now, it’s fueling your disillusionment and your inner anger that you haven’t yet vented. The anger that’s turning itself inward into a form of depression we call burnout. It may be that you don’t even HAVE to vent it; it will gain its flight somehow.
Embers remain for a long time even after it appears that a fire has died out. They are the more constant and enduring form of heat. Different forms of fuel catch fire and burn at different rates and different temperatures depending upon the amount of energy expended, upon the surface area exposed, upon the shape and size of the fuel. The combustible heartwood of your life is ALWAYS around you, it just doesn’t burst into flame because they haven’t been exposed to the spark.
What can we do to heat you up? To expose you to the things that will energize you. I promise that when you are energized, that spark will reignite those embers lying dormant within you.
And then, with your heart on fire, you will be a mighty force to be reckoned with.
“I want to leave my mark on this world – something that really shows I was here!” Gary tells me.
That’s not uncommon. The desire to leave our mark, to show we were here – that we mattered – is nearly universal. So, I ask him, “What would be a meaningful marker to you?” For some people, it’s having their name on a building, for others it’s a foundation or a scholarship. “It’s really different for everyone, ” I tell him. “What REALLY matters to you?”
Gary dithers around a little bit, telling me about other people’s legacies – people he admires – their legacies are all quite grand, but none of them sound like his heart is really in it. I’ve learned over the years to listen for the catch in someone’s throat, the sign that we’re tapping into meaningful territory, not just egocentric competition, so I keep nudging him along, digging for that buried treasure.
Legacy is a topic I talk a lot about, so I engaged Gary in a little journey about what it means to him to “leave his mark.”
Over the past year, I’ve been hosting small dinner parties in each city I visit, bringing together people I know in each city who may not yet know each other. (Message me if you’d like to be included in my next one where you live.) I typically pick a topic and suggest it to each of the people coming, an opening question so we begin to know each other on a level deeper than our professional masks. Together we go on a bit of a treasure hunt for meaning.
This year, one of my favorite topics has been: What constitutes a lasting legacy?
I ask each of my guests to come prepared to answer this opening question: If you could take on anyone else’s life (living, deceased or imaginary), who would it be and why?
The answers are varied and often surprising. Frequently, their answers are famous people – Einstein, da Vinci, Warren Buffet, Gandhi, Churchill. Sometimes their choices and the reasons behind them are surprising. One guest told me that she would take on Princess Diana’s life and make different choices so it didn’t have such a tragic ending. These conversations open the door to glimpse what matters to each of them.
I never know exactly how the conversation is going to play out over the evening, but sometimes I like to make the next question – Do you think their private legacy was different than their public legacy and, if so, what do you think it was? Would you accept the public legacy if it also meant living their private one? Or, is their public legacy more important than their private one?
Throughout these fascinating dinners, we talk about many aspects of our lives and how to find more meaning in our daily existence as well as what will outlive each of us.
I sometimes ask, “Who had an important impact on your life and may not know just how important their simple act was?”
I have a story I sometimes share to prime the pump for stories from their own lives. When it was time to go to college, my parents had saved no money for me. Neither of them had graduated from high school and college just wasn’t something they were promoting. I had worked and saved and luckily earned a scholarship, but I was still $2500 short. My parents were unwilling to cosign for a student loan and I was sixteen years old. It looked like college was out of the question and disappointment is simply too small a word for what I felt. Honestly, college was my escape from a bleak and violent home life.
A local banker, Mr. Finn, made an unsecured $2500 student loan to me and off I went. Looking back, i have no idea if he know the gravity of my situation or the impact his action would have or the many ripples it would send out into the world. It was a seemingly small act, with a big result in my life. Perhaps it was a risk on his part, perhaps it was something he did offhandedly, without realizing how much my survival depended upon it. I graduated from college, and then law school, and repaid all of my loans – with gratitude more than obligation. He’s gone. Sadly, it came to me late in life to seek him out and thank him for that act of grace. I wish I had thought to do it when he was still alive.
I suggest to Gary that he write a letter to that person in his life. But, more than simply mailing a letter, I urge Gary to call his Mr. Finn, ask if he can stop by to say hello and read the letter to him face-to-face. He is reluctant, telling me he doesn’t think he has the courage to do it face-to-face. Oddly, it would be easier for him to confront someone in person who had hurt him or doubted him, just to prove the other person wrong and show how he had succeeded despite them. I gently suggest that THIS is the more important letter and meeting for him to commit to. Sharing with someone the truth of how their action changed the course of your life is a moment of gratitude that is unequaled for the giver and the recipient.
I had an unexpected instance like this happen to me a couple of years ago. I was a guest speaker at an event. After I spoke, I noticed a woman looking at me intently during the rest of the afternoon. Frankly, it became uncomfortable after a while. Finally, she approached me and said, “Do you remember me?” “Uh-oh,” I thought, “this is going to get awkward.” I did not, in fact, remember her and was rapidly scanning every possible scenario where she might have come from. She promptly announced that I had changed her life. I was stunned.
Apparently, more than a dozen years earlier, I had consulted for a law firm where she was a paralegal. According to her, I had said something like “You have tremendous potential. Don’t waste it. Find a way to get yourself to law school, get out there, seize your future and use it to change the world.” She had, indeed, gone on to law school and was now general counsel to the organization where I was the guest speaker, something close to her heart and mine. There were tears in our eyes as she hugged me, thanking me for believing in her and how often she thought of me when times were rough and she had wanted to quit. I had no idea. Sadly, I didn’t even remember spending time with her at that firm. But she did.
Her courage in approaching me, unexpectedly at a random event, profoundly affected me. It affected the way I use my words. If my offhand comment could have that kind of positive impact, I was certain that my words could easily have the other impact, too, if carelessly used to criticize. I started to look for ways to leave my mark, to show that I was here – whether or not I ever heard of it again.
My client, Gary, has a vacation home in Florida. Our conversation last week, as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the coast, was a tense one. He was, understandably, anxious about how the storm would impact his vacation home. I quietly held space while he aired his worries about what might be lost and whether they would rebuild if it came to that. I used our time together to continue our conversation about his legacy.
I asked Gary what he would take from the house if he had just a half hour to gather his most prized possessions. We both knew that people all over Florida were trying to do just that at the very moment – deciding what they would take and what they would leave – truly sorting out what mattered on a tangible, physical level. And, two weeks earlier, people in Houston had faced that same dilemma. People in the Caribbean hadn’t had that option as entire islands were devastated and millions of people lost everything and were struggling without food, water or power, likely for weeks to come, and feeling forgotten and hopeless.
When he answered my question about what mattered most in the home, it was his family and his pets. Everything else was just stuff and, fortunately for him, he and his family and his two dogs were safely ensconced in their primary residence a thousand miles away from the storm. Perspective. Not that his worries and fears are unwarranted, but they were now in perspective – and we would deal together with the grief and loss of beloved possessions, if it came to that.
I usually ask clients to tell me a story they most hope someone will tell about them at their funeral. A story that would inform other people gathered what their life was most about. This begins to get at the heart of our legacy, because if the stories that are told at your funeral are about your biggest deal or the way you squeezed the last concession from an opponent or how you looked away as you closed the door to your private jet sweeping your family and possessions from the path of a hurricane while leaving others behind begging for you to take their child with you because they weren’t as fortunate as you, you may question whether the mark you left behind is the one you intended. But, have no doubt, we always leave a mark.
This morning, I have been checking in with clients and friends who live in Florida or who have homes there. Hearing their relief or their pain. Holding space for them as they process their intense gratitude or shattering grief. Each of them i have asked to tell me three stories – one about who they helped leading up to the storm, one about who helped them, and another about who they have reached out to help now. You see, the treasure really isn’t buried, we just have to mark the spots.
In the end, we make our marks choice by choice, day by day, not just dollar by dollar. Those are the key aspects of our enduring legacies. What is the story that will be told from your choices today? You’re not dead yet.
The callous use of a common phrase in someone else’s blog on Tuesday shocked me.
The writer used the common acronym “ROI”. But he couched it as “Relief on Investment” in describing how to choose a charity to support victims of Tropical Storm Harvey, which has just devastated south Texas. My anger flared.
How the hell did we just equate relief of people’s suffering with an investment philosophy? Yes, money matters. But is it what matters most?
Let me invite you into a discussion about how you invest when tragedy strikes, and how my client Dave is learning something from it that’s transforming his job search.
Watching the news and social media feeds coming out of Houston, many of us are alternating between pangs of grief, guilt and gratitude. Gratitude that we are watching from a distance, safely ensconced in our dry homes with our children and belongings surrounding us. Grief as we witness the suffering of those being plucked from the still roiling waters, their faces contorted with pain and loss and confusion. And guilt as we try to discern how we can help.
The good news is this – we WANT to help. Our hearts break as we watch others suffer. We feel helpless and wonder how we can best help. Should we send money? Dry socks? Food items?
The urge to help arises spontaneously. Thank goodness. We are wired for empathy. What’s more, it actually benefits us when we help. Recent studies in epigenetics indicate that helping behaviors actually improve immunity and that we can pass on that enhanced immunity to our descendants. What? How great is that? Helping someone can help you AND your as-yet-unborn-grandkids? Looks like it.
Read on to see how the metrics you select affect your returns as you invest.
My client, Dave, told me during a recent call that he’s exhausted from his months-long job search. He admitted he is losing hope and is becoming dispirited by how often people “forget” the promises they’ve made to him. The person who told him “I’ll call you back later” and never does. The acquaintance who promised to make an introduction to a connection, and never seems to respond to his email nudges. He’s growing increasingly angry and feels invisible and forgotten as the days and weeks march past, without an offer, and a sense that people are beginning to avoid his calls. He told me, “I’m someone who’s used to getting shit done, and I’m fed up with having nothing to show for my effort day after day!”
I’ve suggested to Dave several times that he commit to an act of service each day. A way to connect with others to offset the sense of invisibility, disconnection and purposelessness – both his and theirs. He’s an investor by profession, I suggested he revisit the question of what capital he is investing right now. A way to reset the metrics by which he evaluates his returns and whether he achieved something each day.
Repeatedly, he tells me he’s too busy, too focused on what he needs to do to help himself, too something.
In a recent call, I asked him if he was aware of the irony of his situation.
“What do you mean?” he responded.
I told him I thought it was ironic that he was so frustrated that no one would lend a hand to him, that they all seemed so busy, self-absorbed and unwilling to extend themselves to him while he was in need. That no one was investing any energy or attention in him. Yet, he was directly refusing to look for ways to be helpful (to invest himself) in simple, easy ways to anyone else – insisting that he only had time to do things that he was certain would result in a direct personal benefit for himself. I suspect that Dave stopped investing in his friendships, his community, his health and his spouse long ago – using his bank account as the primary (perhaps sole) portfolio in which he tracked his investments or returns.
He accused me of “not getting it” – reminding me that he had to focus all of his energy and effort on his own job search. He reiterated that he couldn’t afford to put anyone else’s needs before his own.
I remained silent on the line. He said, indignantly, “You must think I’m a jerk.” Then a little softer, “Really, I’m not, I just have to stay focused here.”
I gently reminded him that the simple acts of service I had suggested to him, over our many calls, were things that would not impact his ability to look for a job. Things like:
1. Making eye contact with a stranger on his commute – allowing someone else who felt “invisible” to feel seen.
2. Offering a smile of understanding and encouragement to a father dealing with a child in the midst of a tantrum at the grocery store – that moment of “Hey Buddy, hang in there, it gets better.”
3. Asking the name of the man who refills his water glass at dinner, making eye contact, and thanking him by name – an act of acknowledgement of someone else’s act of service which benefited him in the moment.
Still he resisted my suggestions. I nudged him a little harder.
“Dave, you tell me that every day your sense of disappointment grows, that you see nothing to prove that all your effort that day mattered. Don’t you think other people experience the SAME sense of disappointment, frustration, invisibility – that SAME sense that they worked hard all day at something while feeling that no one else appreciated their efforts? Why are you so adamant in your refusal to offer to someone else the very proof of their humanity, presence and worth?”
He had no answer for me. I chose not to remind him of the fact that I had been doing these calls with him for free since the beginning of the year. Me, reaching out to him every couple of weeks, just to see how his search was coming along, offering encouragement, listening to his experience and pain, offering alternately what I thought he needed most (my ear, my shoulder or my mouth), never asking him for anything in return. At the end of every call, he sounded calmer, more able to endure the often-long-and-frustrating process of finding a job. He usually told me, “Denise, I feel so much better after our calls. Thank you for doing this for me. It helps.”
The truth is this. I learned a long time ago that, on my own worst days, the investment I make in helping someone else is what can lighten my own load and lead to greater returns than simply those I log in Quicken. Together, through simple acts of kindness, we shine light on the path for each other.
We’ll come back to Dave’s story in a minute.
Last night, I overheard two women sitting behind me in a restaurant here in Scottsdale discussing what they could do to temporarily foster animals who were separated from their owners in the Houston flooding. The couple at the next table joined in and said they would help and also had an extra bedroom they could offer to a family who had been displaced. In twenty minutes, ten tables joined together to create a small symphony of open-hearted goodness directed toward people they didn’t know, but could tell were suffering.
When I joined the chorus of voices, I suggested we consider doing all of that for the people we saw hurting in Texas AND here in our own community. There was a pause as people uneasily looked into each other’s faces. I could tell they wondered whether offering to help in one instance obligated them to help in other instances, too. There was a moment of fear. Would we be asked to do too much if we actually started helping here – where the people had faces we couldn’t as easily turn away from later? It, oddly, seemed easier to simply be moved in the moment by the nameless faces we saw in anguish on the media. We all knew that once the nameless/faceless in our own communities had names and faces, it would be harder to ignore their needs. To pretend we didn’t see them. Seeing people and then ignoring their needs challenges our sense that we are good and caring people.
I told the other diners, the truth is that we have resources enough to do both – help the people of Houston and help our own neighbors. And so do you.
We were people of unusual privilege at that moment – eating dinner in an upscale Scottsdale restaurant on a weekday evening. Before you get all defensive and guarded up, thinking you’ll have to take in a homeless man off the streets just because you feel compelled to send money to Harvey’s victims, take a breath and keep reading – that’s not what I’m suggesting (although you may end up there on your own).
The returns from helping others happen both in the moment and long term.
We experienced it following 9/11. Do you remember how the common impact of tragedy shocked us out of our self-centeredness and brought us to the support and relief of our neighbors and strangers on the street?
Small, gentle acts that eased our own sense of panic that the world was suddenly out of control and which restored our common humanity. Knowing we weren’t alone helped to restore the sense of resilience, to ease the immediate strain. These small (and great) acts were happening in the midst of crusty, gritty Manhattan and in communities across our country and around the world. Several years ago, in The Netherlands, my European peers at a conference each told me precisely where they were the moment they heard about the terror attacks in New York, more than a decade earlier. Their faces shone with a humble beauty as they told stories of helping neighbors or displaced American travelers, just so they could feel like they were doing something. Each of them said it made them fell less helpless and more hopeful. The reward was tangible, even years later.
Many of us experience that same sense of helplessness and have reached out to the people closest to us in acts of localized kindness as we’ve witnessed tragedies across the globe – the tsunamis, earthquakes, terror bombings. We change our Facebook profile pictures to show our solidarity with victims of distant tragedies, we open our wallets to aid organizations. We even travel across the country to cheer for Batman as he transforms an ordinary city into Gotham City to fulfill a final wish for a cancer-stricken child.
We can transform that same care into regular acts of humanity and kindness to the strangers right around us – those who have recently lost a job, or have a parent with dementia, a difficult child throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, or trying to hide tears from a great disappointment in their marriage. Opportunities to invest small bits of ourselves abound and offer returns that far exceed the monetary ones we train our professional eyes upon – all doable without compromising our abilities to excel at our work.
Evidence shows that giving and receiving support brings down the cortisol response – the one that is triggered in the wake of trauma – both that which happens to you directly and that which you witness vicariously (er, by seeing it blasted on the news and through social media). It’s the same cortisol response that you experience when you’re stressed about money or the deadline at work or whether you’re going to be late picking your kid up from daycare. But, it turns out that simple acts of kindness – both given and received – can also help lower that cortisol response and restore your sense of ease and safety in the world, allowing you to return to your regular rhythm and productivity. It also is transforming your genes and those of your descendants. Guess what? It’s actually good for you, your family and your business for you to be kind.
Ever notice how you feel better when you have helped someone? It’s called the Helper’s High, an endorphin boost. Guess what else? That benefit extends in both directions – both the helper and the recipient get the boost of endorphins and the drop in cortisol.
While making a donation gives you a little blip of it, actually engaging in the act of helping another living being gives you and them more of it. We needn’t wait until there is a disaster to help. That small action, smiling at the parent of a mid-tantrum toddler, keeps YOU from getting more stressed out and improves the likelihood the parent will be able to make a good decision in that moment and later on at work.
Finally, back to Dave… He’s actually a good guy, he just got caught up in using the wrong benchmarks of success. Of course, money matters and it’s important. But, as Harvey helps us see, when tragedy strikes, the metrics that matter are the ones that reflect where we regularly invest ourselves.
I think Dave’s getting it. Helping others helps his self-esteem and that improves his interactions with potential employers and networking partners, enhancing their likelihood to help him. It’s a feedback loop. But, like many of us, when we’ve been knocked down, Dave could use a little help restoring his belief in the goodness of the world, just like the people in Houston right now.
So, I’m asking you – my readers – would you be willing to help Dave? Or, perhaps, you’ll turn your abundant spirit of kindness toward your own local version of Dave and drop me a little note about it.
It’s inspiring to see the stories unfold before us on the television and social media … the owner of a furniture store who opened his doors so those who had been displaced by flood waters could sleep on the mattresses and couches; the restaurant owners who started cooking and serving the food they had on hand, without worrying about getting paid; the man who wept when he was given a pair of ill-fitting but dry socks; one stranger hugging another, perhaps whispering “You’re not alone, I’m with you”, as they silently rock each other amid the rubble.
Kindness is what matters and it’s always there, ready to be shared.
Small investment, big return. When you benchmark your ROI against it every day, you’ll find it heralds a success greater than any other you might have thought you were chasing.