Making an Impact Without Making Yourself Crazy
I am the kind of person that wants to do big things, make a big impact. Right now I volunteer with an amazing international non-profit (our latest work is a scholarship program for kids in rural Cambodia) and I work at an amazing local housing
and homelessness services non-profit. I know that what I do makes a big impact, yet I frequently feel that I could do more. There is a feeling I get if I’m not in go-go-go mode that I am not doing everything I can. That I’m failing. I’ve already decided that there will be no more crash & burn, so the question bouncing around my head now is, what do I do? How do I live day to day so that I continue to feel fulfilled by my life and am able to make an impact for the rest of my life?
This issue is particularly critical for me to be self aware of because of what I do both professionally and as a volunteer. It is the work that is ripe with burnout. Perhaps because the type of people drawn to it are like me, driven from deep inside to do something important. People who, without the right insight, martyr their sanity for the cause they believe in. Two of my professors at Antioch bought this idea to my attention, Mark Wicks & Dan Dodd. Mark had an exercise on self-care in a course on counseling; Dan built a unit on burnout into a course for future humans services workers. In the book Trauma Stewardship, Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky writes about the balance of making a difference without making yourself crazy:
Somewhere between internalizing an ethic of martyrdom and ignoring ongoing crises lies the balance that we must find in order to sustain our work…Our goal is to reach the places where we can conduct our own lives with ethics and integrity – day after day, and in situation after situation.
So that’s what I’m puzzling out. How to live, in a day-to-day way, by the belief that we can be effective agents of change & have a life. It’s not like there are tons of well known examples of this either. As a helping community the role models we aspire to be like are often unhealthy or at the least unsustainable for most people. We hold up the people who leave their families behind to raise orphans in Africa or work 12 hour days 7 days a week running a school for disadvantaged kids. Perhaps this is great for them, but it is not going to work for most people, and it is not going to work for me. I need to find a better way.
So to this end I have been practicing being mindful. Just the other day when I was carrying groceries back from the car (of all places!) I had a moment of mindfulness and realized that I was rushing. I was walking fast, carrying bags of groceries, balancing keys and a coffee mug in the other hand all while caring on three different trains of thought. Fortunately one of those was the mindfulness train. I recognized what was going on, slowed down my gait, and stopped the other two thought trains. Mindfulness got the track to itself. What flashed into my head next was something I haven’t thought about in a long time – Steven Covey‘s Urgent/Important quadrants.
If you haven’t heard of this pop on over to AwakeBlogger (that I poached the below image from) and read up. It’s a fascinating way to think about what you do with your time.What I realized in that walk from the car to the house was that I was taking a quadrant II activity, buying groceries on my weekend, into a quadrant I activity; still important, but now hurried, given a false sense of urgency.
My professional work is frequently urgent and usually important. I frequently respond to fights, call 911 several times, kick people out for drug use, serve dinner, give out medications and try to find a few moments to just talk to people. When my job is not urgent in the moment it still keeps me on the edge of my seat. Being in the urgent column can be draining but it also gives an adrenalin rush; it makes you feel important, even if you are not doing something important.
The addictiveness of the urgent column, like all addictive things, causes problems. When I reflect back on things that didn’t go so well I’m always frustrated when I realize that I had plenty of time to accomplish what needed to get done, but that my procrastination lead to it being late or rushed. That rush is at least half of why procrastination is so rewarding. Not only do you not have to do something right now, but when it comes down to the last minute you get to run around, rushed and urgent, feeling important. This is obviously no good, but it feeds a dangerous pattern because the rush rewards the behavior.
KUOW (my awesome local NPR station) had a discussion the other day about using your smart brain to correct your dumb brain – something I recall my dad telling me to do, “Use your human brain, not your lizard brain!” The idea is that so much of what we end up doing is driven by instincts and learned behavioral patters ruled by the brain stem. Fortunately we’ve evolved a cortex, so we can have some higher level thinking if we slow down. (Figuratively and literally – the biological processes of the cortex are slower than that brain stem, if you want to let them rule you need to slow down and wait for your brain’s second thought stream).
So back to the original question: How do I live day to day so that I continue to feel fulfilled by my life and am able to make an impact for the rest of my life? How do I take all these thoughts and turn them into day-to-day actions that keep me sane and fulfilled?
I strive to practice being mindful in my work life and my home life. Set aside the time to reflect on & take fulfillment from the non-hectic parts of my work. Create meaningfulness in my home life through delicious nourishing meals, setting aside for time for enjoyment, and by building relationships with friends and family. When I do these things and spend the time to reflect on them I recognize that my sense of fulfillment can and does come from more that just my profesional work or my volunteer work, but also from my home life. That taking care of myself keeps me sane and capable of the profesional and volunteer work that is draining, but rewarding. With these actions and reflections I am able to continue.