Exchanging Competition for Contribution at Work
A new job meant a chance to focus not on how I could shine, but on how I could help others to.
I’m starting a new job tomorrow. I’m not nervous; I’m curious. For the first time ever, I’m not walking into a new job hoping to prove they had made a good choice in hiring me. Trying to prove myself has always led to an over-indexing towards ego and selfishness and I just don’t feel like doing that anymore.
This isn’t to say that I don’t care. I care a lot. I care about contribution. I’m very interested in supporting the people on my new team, my new boss, and the mission of the organization. I just don’t think I need to DO anything to prove that. I think they’ll feel it, because I feel it. As Roald Dahl wrote in The Twits, “. . . if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams . . .” Or this from Conan O’Brien, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” I trust in these amazing things because I know I will work hard. I know I am kind. But I had to build this understanding over time, and I wasn’t a quick learner.
I remember the first day of a job I held many years ago. No doubt I looked eager when I asked my boss, “What can I do to be successful right now?” He said something like, “Just do things. I’ll tell you when you’re wrong.” My stomach dropped into my shoes. I’d have to wait for him to tell me I was wrong? But I NEVER wanted to be wrong! Being wrong is bad. If he had to tell me I was wrong then I would have already failed! What followed from those first moments was a several-year tightrope walk.
For example, I worried at every second I would fail; that I’d be fired, shamed, or demoted. (All of which had happened to others.) Though the culture of that company bears some blame for my fear of failure, I’m accountable too. My blatant need to shine brighter than others would assert itself at odd times. I cared about helping people, but I cared more about status. I wanted an office with a door. I wanted a title. I wanted power, responsibility, acclaim, praise — always praise.
Only when I realized this job was eating me alive, did I begin to understand not only what was wrong with the organization, but what was wrong with me as well. Yes, the culture had run amok, but I’d gone right along with it. I thought I needed them to tell me, through words, awards, or promotions what I was worth. And when the praise came, it was never enough. Not only did my external environment need to change, but I needed to change too. I needed to do, what Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander, authors of The Art of Possibility, suggest: Name myself a contribution.
Contribution not competition
Naming myself a contribution meant that instead of competing in a world of scarcity, where praise, promotions, and fancy titles were the rewards, I could throw myself, as Ben Zander puts it, “into life as someone who makes a difference.” Success then is defined not as an “arena for my own success” but as an opportunity to contribute and create a fertile playground for the contributions of others to flourish. It wasn’t an overnight realization. I had to unpack years of competing. I had to stop comparing myself to others and assigning value to things that didn’t matter. Things like status.
You see, I have a number of very successful friends, people who make far more money than I do. I can look at them and feel ashamed. I can focus all my energy on making more money; or buy a fancy car to assuage my ego. But, what if I just asked myself a simple question instead: Am I enough? Do I have enough? When I redefined my success not in terms of competing with others, but in terms of whether or not I had what I needed, I started to change.
What do any of us really need, anyway? Tufawon (Rafael Gonzalez), whose rapper name intentionally evokes “two for one” to depict his mixed Puerto Rican and Dakota roots, said very clearly in a session on NPR’s Summer Music Series, that he grew up in poverty but was “privileged on many levels.” He had enough. I, too, was privileged on many levels. Failing to acknowledge, with gratitude and humility, all that I did have because I always wanted more felt like the worst kind of hypocrisy. “Comparison,” Theodore Roosevelt said, “is the thief of joy.”
People are awesome
Over a period of years, I explored what it meant to be a contribution. One of the greatest gifts of this shift in mindset was the discovery that people are awesome. I know that sounds trite, maybe even dumb. But to me, it was a revelation. I’d spent many years worried about what others thought of me, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I thought about others. Too often, because I spent so much time comparing myself to them, people were divided into two groups: those I was better than, and those that were better than me. (Ugh. I hate writing that down. I wish it wasn’t true.) When I stopped comparing myself to others, I found a wealth of beauty before me. Because I didn’t need to assess the “better than/less than” question, I could pay attention. I met poets, yogis, mothers, fathers, painters, leaders, writers, bicyclists, nerds, entrepreneurs, volunteers, librarians, and teachers. I met thinkers, and feelers, runners, wine-enthusiasts, and computer whizzes. People, amazing people with passions for all kinds of interesting pursuits emerged. They had always been there; I just couldn’t see them before.
I am enough
So, while I prepare to start a new job, I have a few butterflies about where to park. I’m a little worried about the traffic and that whatever I wear will somehow turn out to be see-through or on backwards. But, I am not starting this new job with fear. I’m going to meet amazing people. I’m going to do good work. No doubt, I’ll also be wrong a lot. I’ll make mistakes. But, that’s okay. The future has yet to be written. But whatever tomorrow brings, I know one thing; I’ll contribute, and that’s enough.
Originally published at teachfearlessly.blogspot.com on March 3, 2019.