Recently, at a retreat for work, we were asked to write down what motivates us and what our dreams are. Intended to be an exercise that would facilitate our functionality as an administrative team, laying it all out there proved to be clarifying for me in a much more significant way. My three dreams were:
Surely not what my colleagues – much less my boss – wanted to hear. Raise money, strengthen school, and be an inspiring leader might have been better cards to play. Oh well, it’s my truth.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to achieve and to deliver at work and take doing so very seriously. It’s just not my dream; it’s really more of a given. I remember all too well, though, the days, weeks, months, and years when all I wanted was to deliver and to be a “sure thing” for my bosses and colleagues. It was affirming and, in turn, self-defining. Particularly since my primary motivator has been to be reliable and to be relied upon, my work as a fundraiser has been the perfect career for me. The constant evolution of education and ever-changing teams of colleagues hits my motivator right in the sweet spot and has done so constantly since day 1.
So, there I was, surrounded by skilled and inspiring colleagues, contemplating the fact that above all else I am dreaming about a) not working, b) not wanting to have to prove anything anymore, and c) hoping to find pleasure in things just the way they are. Eek. I really am the least ideal employee and colleague you could hope for.
Or am I?
When I got my first real job in educational fundraising, it was as the assistant to the development director at Lawrenceville. Charlie Brown (answering the phone for him is among the great joys of my life: “Charlie Brown’s office, this is Lucy.”) was the man, and hitching my professional wagon to his was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not that I knew it from the get-go, but I quickly became awed by his work ethic, his determination, his skill with the written word, and his grace. But it was during my interview that he said something that would forever shape who I would become: “I don’t need someone to do my work; I need someone who wants my job.”
And thus launched what has become decades of work that focused on and was inspired by what it takes to do everyone’s job and to do everything in my power to lend a hand. Needless to say, not everyone appreciates – much less looks for – this “help,” since it can feel like overstepping or, perhaps even, intrusion. But a real motivator for me has been to know enough, think enough, and familiarize myself enough to be a valuable and reliable contributor to their efforts, whatever they may be or have been. For those who welcomed the intention of my modus operandi – and I’d say the majority have, even if it took some time to build the trust – work became collaborative and productive, and I’ve been happy as a lark.
What I am trying to figure out now is what’s happening to my reliability motivator if I am dreaming of not working. There likely are some folks who are relying on me to get lost, so at least I’ll have accomplished something with them. But for the others, will I have to quash my interest in and energy for finding ways to contribute to their work? Or will that happen naturally? I don’t think I’m feeling any diminished interest, but does fulfilling my dreams mean that I should be teaching myself to care less? Do I have to become that person?
As I consider the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of getting from point A (reliability) to point B (retired), I see a couple of options:
- Begin the process of becoming unreliable. Show up late. Miss deadlines. Neglect the big picture. And above all, never deliver on anything someone asks of you, much less offer an idea that they’re not looking for; or
- Aspire to and be as reliable as ever, maintaining deep focus on the details that are at the core of forward motion, and then jump off the freight train on my 65th birthday. Best of luck, everyone.
But when I think in earnest about what needs to shift, a third possibility comes into focus. In fact, I think I’m already approaching work differently these days…as I am, for that matter, my life. At some unknown time in the recent past my focus seemed to turn away from what I could do and toward to what others can do. Not because I developed a heightened judgment about who should be doing what; rather, it seems to be about having a greater sense of balance with regard to my significance in life. Does that mean, then, that my perspective on reliability is evolving, too?
I’ve been known to reference on regular occasion what I call “The Hero Complex.” It’s a state of mind that makes us believe that what we have to contribute in an given situation – thought, action, or combination thereof – is essential to real progress. Sure, others can dick around in the hypothetical, but what I see and what I can do are the real deal. Jobs often feed that Hero Beast by rewarding those who appear to find seemingly invisible solutions and make them happen. Even in the insecurity of a new position, we get to throw out little nuggets that make people say, “Thank god you’re here.” I admit it: being a hero has been my reliability lifeline.
As I enter into the second half of my life, though, I find myself increasingly comfortable with my relative lack of importance. In fact, it feels like a relief. My “step aside, I got this” attitude has morphed into more of a “wait a sec, I want to absorb this” perspective. Fleeting are the feelings of threat from not knowing something, and satisfying is my growing sense of curiosity. Clearly the solid knowledge-to-reliability correlation is no longer a motivator or satisfier for me.
Looking ahead, as I strive to be a successful contributor at work in the context of my dream to not have to do so, a more rewarding and motivating equation will be sum of observation and supportiveness. My reliability role now is to make sure the heroes are topped up with fuel and that they are always equipped with weaponry and decorated with blue ribbons. After all, its their passion for possibility and a heightened sense of self that inspires them to fight the good fight in order to preserve the past and bring about change. So what if it is no longer in lockstep with what might have been my definition of progress? I say, go for it! More power to you! Changing and evolving – what’s around you and what’s in you – is what life is all about. Live life, baby. Live life.