My grandfather instilled in me a principle that guides my career and life. He said, “When you feel sorry for yourself, do something nice for someone else.”
This simple, sage advice gives me a results-based, systematic process useful for identifying performance problems. I was applying performance improvement principles before I knew it. With analysis, he helped me realize the root problem of my discontent. I was lost in myself. I was not positively contributing to my outside environment or to my fellow humans. Once I could experiment with getting outside of my own complacency, I became attuned to the concerns of others and the fulfillment of a better world around me. I could be a servant to improve my life and environment. I did not have to blame others or outside forces.
There will be times in your career that you will feel less fulfilled. You may feel stuck and dissatisfied. Conditions may not be ideal. Leadership may have more opportunity than prosperity. Managing all aspects of life, personally and professionally, can be overwhelming. There is a mindset of helpfulness you can shift into, and it can make a difference in all aspects of your life.
When you make a concerted effort to serve another person, you are simply affirming their value. You are making a meaningful connection. And once that connection is made, something beyond the act of service itself can happen. Helping can trickle into the consciousness of another person. It will change the way they talk, the look on their face, and the way they react to other people. One service, one kindness, or one offer to help becomes an open channel on a two-way street.
Volunteering, or serving another without pay, for altruistic intents builds and sustains a society. These small acts have strong repercussions explored by academic Freda Donoghue in her November 2001 submission for Our Society in the New Millennium, Ceifin Conference. Donoghue notes, “We attribute our humanity and our difference from other animals to our having free will. Volunteering is one expression of that.” Achieving success in performance is typically most satisfying to individuals when they can achieve on their own free will and choice. Learners want to be autonomous. Making autonomous choices that positively influence others appears to be deeply satisfying. Donoghue observes in Ireland that those who do not volunteer are not benefitting from the “ties that bind.”
Many years ago, I found myself re-entering the workforce when I did not expect to. I loved learning but had not been exposed to the learning industry. My family dynamic shifted and keeping my family afloat became a priority. I got a job at a call center. It was not my ideal. I felt sorry for myself then remembered my grandfather’s service approach, which redirected my energy, and I began to internalize each call as a gift. I was given an opportunity, over and over, to improve someone’s day. I felt at peace when I began to engage with my customers with genuine care.
Maybe it’s karma, maybe it’s the circle of life, or maybe it’s a higher power, but good things happen when you give without needing to receive. My stress levels decreased every day. I felt happier. I felt empowered in my ability to find solutions for other people’s problems. My heart had more to give when I went home to my family. Right at that time, a corporate trainer opportunity surfaced. I applied. Ryan Rhoads was the hiring manager. He took a chance on me. I was barely qualified and had limited experience. I received the opportunity. As I unwrapped this present, this corporate trainer job, I was supported, coached, and inspired by my boss. He saw potential in me, and this made me see magnificence in the learners in my classroom.
The benefits of helping others when they need it can make a positive difference in a myriad of ways. Academic—affiliated with the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich, Switzerland—Alois Stutzer studied whether volunteering was reward in itself (March 2004). He affirms Adam Smith, the father of modern economics’ view that helping others is a fulfilling way of promoting higher well-being. His research supports the concept that finding those who volunteer indicate they experience greater contentment. His evidence was based on people self-reporting their personal levels of contentment.
Stutzer juxtaposed this ideal with those who pursue their narrow self-interest and become happy. He evaluated East Germany upon its collapse as a point of exploration. The culture of East Germany, before the collapse, possessed a strong infrastructure of volunteering, so naturally when change occurred, this service mentality was already in place in society. Due to the shock of infrastructure, failing organizations that hosted volunteer opportunities became defeated in many situations. Rates of volunteerism still remained high and people still reported positive well-being.
Stutzer determines this benefit has an extrinsic and intrinsic reward for those who volunteer. To tie this idea to the new Talent Development Capability Model, the domain Building Personal Capability can be heightened by serving others. Emotional intelligence is heightened, awareness of others improves, and one’s ability to consider diverse perspectives is a natural by-product. The before-crisis environment in East Germany cultivated an environment where serving others was normalized. When dramatic change occurred, East Germans delivered resilience in the time of stress and still maintained similar levels of contentment. Additional findings, while not conclusive, in Stutzer’s studies, indicated volunteers are less prone to depression and collectively have a lower risk for early mortality.
I remember the uplift in mood that serving others can give. When I begin to feel disconnected from my work, unhappy with my projects, frustrated by solutions that do not resolve easily, I remember to take my grandfather’s advice. I find a person I can help.
For ideas on how to apply this to your own work and career journey, be sure to check out the session, Boost Your Career Through Volunteering: Success Stories From ATD Leaders, at the ATD 2020 International Conference & EXPO.