I’ve really got to hand it to my colleague and our Director of Customer Success, Ayneka Benjamin, for posing an interesting challenge that woke me up out of lull, a stagnation I’ve been feeling. It’s probably a feeling many of us can say we’ve experienced. That feeling of just going through the motions, wading through task after task whether it be at work or at home, day after day going by, not meaninglessly but also not with a particular sense of meaning either. I’m very grateful for the jolt Ayneka unknowingly inspired in me that’s waking me up from this feeling.
Okay, so what’s this challenge, you ask?
Ayneka sent me a short clip from a Simon Sinek Ted Talk (If you’re not familiar, I recommend having a watch and following Simon; he’s brilliant.) and requested that I answer two questions: 1) What is your “why”? and 2) Why should our company be in a position to serve clients?
At first, this seemed like a pretty inconsequential challenge, maybe a way to inject some enthusiasm into the final quarter of what had otherwise become a somewhat trying year. But as I put this on my “to-do” list, a spark of conviction was lit within me and I decided that I was going to take this challenge very seriously — so seriously in fact, that I wrote my answers out by hand, typed and revised it twice now.
As I sat in the solitude of one of our smaller side-offices, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given much thought to my own personal “why” for quite some time. What did that even mean, your “why”? I guess I’d really need to think about myself, what my own little mission in this life is. Not a daunting exercise at all…
But wouldn’t you know it, once the pen hit the paper, it all started to come to me very naturally. Before I knew it, I had several pages written and a much clearer idea of myself, what’s important to me and why I believe so much in what I spend a lot of my time doing.
You see, I was never one of those people who knew early on what they wanted to do with their life. I was always envious of those people. Being asked the proverbial “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as a child was anxiety inducing. I remember answering once that I wanted to be a veterinarian, which wasn’t true at all, but I knew that I loved animals so it seemed like a legitimate enough response. And while my parents pretty much fell into the aforementioned group of people, (my father following his calling as a teacher in the public school system and my mother being inspired by her nana to become a nurse, which she did for many years caring for infants in neonatal intensive care units), they both set an example for me that they weren’t just working. They were giving their talent to others — they were serving others and making a big difference. So, what talent did I have that I could give? For much of my early life, the answer to this seemed to be artistic talent. (If you’re on this site, you can take a look around and hopefully see my rationale for the previous statement.)
I went to art school, but something in me knew I wasn’t going to be a professional artist either, so I enrolled and graduated from a program for Curatorial Studies. Eighteen year old Jen’s thinking at the time was: “I’ll take my knowledge of art and skills acquired as a lower level manager in retail (thanks, high school and college jobs) and leverage it into a steady and stable career working in galleries or museums.” That became my “why”: Because these were two things I can do well, so I should use them to earn a living.
Funny how life takes you down a much different path than the one you thought you had clearly mapped out, though. I never ended up working for a gallery or museum outside of the intern work I did and the glorified “security guard” position I held at a museum in DC after graduating. At that time of my life, I was incredibly disappointed that nothing seemed to work out the way I thought I wanted it to. I couldn’t understand why I saw others around me land the jobs they wanted while here I was, a graduate of a program specifically designed to prepare me for gallery and museum employment, struggling to break into a field I was beginning to feel didn’t want me at all.
But now that time has passed and I’ve gained perspective, I see that I needed more lessons to guide me toward my “why.”
I spent my initial years out of college working in a Primary Care Physician’s office, first in the front office and then as an insurance and referrals coordinator. If there was anything that period of my career taught me, it was that I could learn to do almost anything and that I was a very effective, friendly problem solver. I learned a lot about what people went through as they battled everything from acute sickness to serious illnesses like cancer. I saw how it affected patients and their families, heard their stories and played my role in advocating for them when their insurance company required authorizations and documentation for case review. These years taught me how to tell stories, how to listen to people who in some cases had exhausted anyone who would to listen to them, and importantly, how it felt to do something good for a person in need of help.
I won’t bore you with too much more history, but I am now certain that the job I took after that, as a traffic/account coordinator and then account manager for a graphic design firm, was what opened the door to landing my current job. Without my experience at the design firm, I never would have had gained the technical qualifications and experience needed for employment with MarketSmart. I am incredibly grateful for the two years I spent at that firm.
Why have I been telling you all of this? Well, partially because you may find this example helpful if you decide to reflect on your own personal “why,” and partially because I want to share my own story. I want people to know me, and what better way than to become a little vulnerable and share some of myself with you.
So, after learning a bit about my history (and for me, reflecting on the roots of where my “why” may have come from), here it is: A large part of my “why” is the act of making connections — connections between people, between ideas, between occurrences, between experiences just like I have presented to you in this post the connections between experiences in my past and my present. In my college courses about curating, I was taught to find, critically think about and display connections to tell a story or educate an audience. In my experience as an artist, I have witnessed the connection a person can feel with a piece — a song, a play, an exhibit, a performance filled with the human spirit. I’ve always wanted and liked to connect, especially with the human spirit, which is such a beautiful thing.
And that “why” is highlighted by two other concepts that guide my conduct in this life: The Golden Rule and Love. It’s important to me that all of us are loved, feel loved and give love by treating others the way we would hope they would treat ourselves. It’s also my firm belief that we are here to help one another and the result of helping is that it can bring happiness. And I also believe that helping is an act of love. As part of my faith, it is very important to me to be loving and the best way I know how to do that is to be helpful. If you ever get the response from me that it’s been my pleasure to do something that helped you, I really mean it.
What a cathartic experience to really think about what the driving forces are for how I conduct myself! But, that was only the first part of the challenge. I still had another question to answer, and truthfully, one that didn’t seem to have a clear relation to the first.
So, I again took pen to paper and wrote out a few thoughts which, you guessed it, I’ll share here with you.
For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, I work for a company called MarketSmart, and though there are many facets to what we do, in a nutshell we help fundraisers for nonprofits connect with passionate individuals who want to make a difference for a cause they care about in a major way.
As the company’s name suggests, we’re a marketing firm, but I hesitate to use that term because while it’s true, it almost doesn’t do justice to what we really do. We don’t just market, we help make connections. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
Without getting into our history and why our CEO founded the company, which — talk about making yourself vulnerable so others can understand your “why” — you can read here, the long and short of it is that we exist to connect people who want to help, who want to exercise the passion and desire they have to make a difference for others that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do without the help of the individuals working hard on their behalf at these nonprofits.
In the 4 years I’ve been in my role at MarketSmart, I’ve been so fortunate to see real reasons we need, not should, need to be here to serve clients. We help facilitate connections faster than anything out there has been able to do, and just as no man is an island, these connections are absolutely essential to helping others in need. (Lots of the same words appearing here that were in my own personal “why”, no?)
Sure, each of my colleagues and I have a specific role we play within the company, but when it comes down to it as a collective unit, we come to work every day to help make the connections between people that will make this world better.
We do it for the little sister of a sponsored child abroad who can’t afford a lifesaving surgery she needs, but that her brother’s sponsor can and wants to fund, and wants to make sure more children like them can lead healthy lives.
We do it for the student whose life will be enriched by a meaningful college education, an investment in this person who will go on to affect their community, their nation, perhaps the world, that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible without the scholarship a fundraiser helped a generous alum establish.
We do it for the patient whose mission in life is now just to survive the cancer they’re battling, and because of the research a donor funded, they have hope that they indeed can and will overcome it. Because of the research that saved the life of a person like them, they have a support group and a champion for advancing research that will find a cure.
We do it for the person who has fallen on hard times, lost their job, lost their home, lost their sense of purpose and desperately needs help, but has found their way to an organization that has the means to help build them back up, the means to provide the love and compassion that will change the course of their life.
We do it for the 5-day old kittens abandoned and found in a bag by the side of the highway who, because of generous donors, can receive the tender care they need to survive and grow in the absence of their mother — and who will soon make a few families very happy to have them in their life.
We do it for the animals and organisms in a delicate ecosystem that can not and should not be disrupted by the carelessness of others who may not even realize the devastation they cause when they discard their trash on the beach.
We do it for the person who daily feels the pain and loneliness of being rejected by their family, peers and others close to them, but now is able to find a welcoming community that adores them for being their authentic self — all because a few loving donors helped fund programs they wished they could have had to help them navigate the same pain others are feeling.
We do it for the person who has just found meaning in their own life through religion and yearns to learn more about their newfound calling, and can because others who found meaning in their life established funds to create programs that are far-reaching in their ministry.
We do it for the service member who saw combat on behalf of our country and now has a hard time finding employment back home, but can take comfort knowing they have the support of an organization who will help them, all because a generous veteran remembered how hard it was for them and wanted to make sure they could help others in the same predicament.
We do it for the woman whose home was just destroyed in a hurricane and without the help of fundraisers who coordinated giving with compassionate donors, would have no place to go and no way to rebuild.
But first and foremost, we do it for the Fundraiser who wants to heal the world, who wants to feel good knowing that they’re satisfying their own “why” by making connections, solving problems, with other individuals who want the same thing — We do it for the Fundraiser who finds pure joy and meaning in working with donors to make a difference in this world.
I realize now that this request for reflection was something I needed. It’s reaffirmed just why I spend as much time as I do making progress with my colleagues and with our clients, and God if it doesn’t make me feel good to realize that I have been put in a position to do something I’m good at that can have real effects in this world. I so hope that you feel the same about the role that you’re in, no matter what it is.
If you’ve put the work in and made it this far reading my dissertation, which I’ll admit has been very self-serving, then maybe you’ll be interested in stretching your muscles just a little bit further so that it can serve you well, too:
I challenge you to take some time to really think through the answers to these two questions: 1) What is your “why”? 2) Why should your [company, organization, nonprofit, business, etc.] exist to do what it does? And if you want, share it. I’d love to hear about other people’s motivations for what they do, and I bet others would love to hear it from you, too.
It may be more revealing and reinvigorating than you expect.
Today was an interesting one, and a long one at that. To finish up my day, I celebrated being able to relax by popping in a DVD copy of the 1999 cult classic “Office Space.” (If you haven’t seen it and want to, beware, it contains some adult themes and you should probably have a pretty good sense of humor to appreciate it.)
Anyway, the plot involves a young guy, Peter, working for a tech firm where he’s just another number, an inconsequential body to fulfill the tasks necessary for assisting banks with the dreaded “Year 2000” switch. (Y2K flashbacks, anyone?) Peter, thoroughly disenchanted with his job and to a degree, life, joins his girlfriend in a therapy session and inadvertently gets hypnotized. The result? He hasn’t a care in the world — including holding onto his job.
When his alarm clock sounds at 8am the next morning, Peter nonchalantly decides to shut it off and keep sleeping. His home phone goes off several times as Peter passes the day away resting contently in bed. When he finally gets up in the afternoon, he checks his messages — 17 of them, all from his boss wondering where he is — and right then his girlfriend calls to find out why he’s not at work.
Do know what occurred to me while watching that scene?
Not once did either of them ask Peter, “Are you okay?”
There was no concern for him whatsoever, just badgering about why he wasn’t at his job plugging away at work. His boss’ goofy messages, “Just calling to make sure you knew we started the day with our usual business hours…it’s not a half day or anything like that,” all left in condescension, as though there couldn’t possibly be a good reason for missing work. Okay, so in Peter’s case, there wasn’t one, but allow me to come to the point of this post.
Today was a long one simply because I started it at 5am and it felt almost non-stop from there with the exception of a nice lunch our company put on to celebrate June birthdays in the office. It was right before a call with a client around 4pm that it started though, this ache in the pit of my stomach. Now, nausea is anything but enjoyable, but it really is far less than that when you’re at work. I kept telling myself it would pass, that maybe I just shouldn’t have had that cup of coffee a little bit ago…yeah, that’s it. That’s what’s upsetting my stomach. But in my gut (pun intended?) I knew better. Something was not right.
After cancelling a 4:30pm meeting with my boss, I made a frantic beeline out of the office to head home; in this attempt to leave so I could let this nausea pass in the comfort of my own home, I only managed to tell one of my colleagues I was going and even left my cell phone behind at my desk (eek!).
I’ll spare you the details since they’re not important anyway, but let’s just say I ended up going back for my phone later and didn’t finish cleaning the interior of my car until sometime after 8pm. What’s really important to this story is this: four people checked in on me. Four different people texted me, and each one asked “Are you okay?” in one way or another. And I hadn’t even mentioned feeling sick to anyone outside of work.
But wait, I told you I only mentioned leaving to one of my colleagues and my boss. So, who are these people showing concern? As a matter of fact, they were all colleagues. Ayneka, (you should see her, driven as ever), was who I told that I wasn’t feeling well and leaving, and she very sweetly checked in on me later to see if I was feeling better. Cheryl (what a saint she is) was more than willing to drive my cell phone out to me after I Slack messaged her when I got home to see if I had, in fact, left my phone on my desk. But I couldn’t let her do that, my mistake wasn’t her responsibility to fix (spoiler, I’m not good at letting people take care of me or go out of their way for me, hence my going back to the office to retrieve my phone). Shari, self-proclaimed (and everyone agrees) “Mom” of the office had apparently been talking with my boss and reached out to see how I was doing. And then there’s my boss, our CEO, Greg. He texted to tell me that he hoped I was feeling okay and make sure that I was doing alright. I mean, who gets a text from their CEO just to check in?
Wow. Just wow.
The only people who knew I wasn’t feeling well, and every single one of them reached out to me to see how I was doing. 4/4. I can’t tell you how humbling and good that feels knowing they cared.
So, what’s the rub?
Leadership. It’s been a big topic of discussion at work recently. “What does it mean to be a leader?”, “What does leadership look like?” and so on. I’m not going to pontificate on the answers to those questions, but I will tell you what I know to be true and was so brilliantly illustrated to me today.
Leaders stand by their team, they’re right there with them to guide as much as to seek advice. Some people will tell you that leaders stand out among the rest, but the very best leaders stand with the rest. They don’t always know the answer, they don’t dictate, they don’t order. Sure, they delegate, but even in that, they are right beside their team members because they know each person has a role to play toward the mission they all share. And on top of that, leaders understand that they’re not special — everyone is capable of being a leader. (I hope I didn’t burst anyone’s bubble!) And that’s simply because no man is an island. No one can do everything alone. We all need each other to lead in our own specialties, to contribute by sharing the talents and skills we have.
While I know that the four people who checked on my well-being today did so because they’re truly wonderful human beings, I also know it’s because they know how to lead. They’re right there with their team member, making sure she’s taken care of and not standing alone. They know that leadership means supporting their team members, even with something as simple as asking “Are you okay?“
Want to be a leader? The first step is to look outside of yourself, because it’s all about supporting others.
(Thank you, guys!!)
I originally wrote this in a notebook for myself just to put some self-reflection and gratitude down on paper. But with some trepidation, I’m going to share it because who knows, there might be someone out there who could use it.
Here it is:
I guess when you get to a point in your life (your 30’s), you’ve had enough time to experience a lot and gain perspective, even clarity. You can identify turning points or individuals who shaped the person you’ve become.
And you start to think about that (or maybe you don’t). Anyway, I am. From time to time I think about where I’ve acquired the traits that culminate in my personality.
Without a doubt, there are a lot of strong women who taught me by example how to be myself in a world where, often, women are taught to be someone else’s idea of what they should be. What’s fascinating to me is that none of these women read a guide or had a handbook on becoming the influences that they’ve been to me and likely scores of other women, and they weren’t even trying. Probably, they too knew men and women who inspired the many facets of their character, their personality, their values, and how they carried themselves. It’s an amazing thing to think that we are the sum of so many influences plus the traits specific to only ourselves — the notion of nature and nurture.
What’s got me thinking about all of this is that one of my colleagues, who I admire very much as a strong woman herself, described me as both strong and elegant. What a funny combination, yet so very much what I’ve secretly set out to be. I wonder, does my colleague know that she is one of the very women who’s given me strength? Does she know that the strength I seem to display has only ever been a tiny fraction my own and the majority was imbued by others I have been lucky enough to learn it from?
I’ve never been one to enjoy conflict or being met with disappointment, but she was the first person in my professional career to advise me to meet it head on, to stay true and honest, and not to hesitate. It’s a skill I use much more comfortably now because she showed me how to do it.
I wonder if she knows that.
Lately, I’ve been reading about particularly inspirational leaders and watching documentaries studying people who’ve had successful careers. Many of these people are women (applause!). In one interview I watched, the male interviewer asked of the very successful female thespian seated across from him, “I have three daughters, and I often think ‘How can I make sure they grow up in a world where they have every possibility open to them knowing that there’s still such a struggle for women to be seen as equals?'” or something along those lines.
In my experience, the answer is simple — don’t tell them that they can’t. Don’t even bat an eye at the fact that they are girls who’ll become women and may be subject to disappointing and incorrect perceptions, and even injustices, as a result. Don’t even let on that such an inequality exists. As far as you’re concerned, it doesn’t.
There will be plenty of people out there who subscribe to outdated ideas about women and will be vocal about it. There will be many opportunities to learn this sad reality. But until she’s met with them, your girl can do — and hopefully does — everything anyone else does without even realizing someone out there thinks she can’t or shouldn’t.
For a half a second, watching that interview I thought, “Well, gee, I think it’s gotten a lot better,” and “Do people really still slight women just because they’re women?” as though it’s so passé. …And then that half second was over and I remembered the fight still being waged for equal pay, the expressions of the elder men in the room who don’t expect that a woman may be direct or taken seriously at a meeting, the fact that women artists are still woefully underrepresented in leading cultural institutions, the way even many women out there said we can never have a female president because she’d be too emotional, the way we teach our very young women to cake on make-up — to do what? Get a man? Feel pretty? Fit in? Mind you, I’ve got nothing against wearing make-up, but it doesn’t hurt to teach our young ones that they sure don’t need it for any of those things.
You might say, “Why, even for half a second, would you think the playing field was level?” Here’s why: I have been extremely fortunate all throughout my development as a person to have never had anyone even mention or imply to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something just because of my gender.
Oh, believe me, those people and opportunities I mentioned earlier, to learn that others felt I couldn’t or shouldn’t, did arise. But no one who mattered to me ever said otherwise. Prior to the aforementioned people and situations, I was just like every other kid. Growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I watched He-Man on Saturday mornings, played with Barbie and Ken dolls, built race tracks and other structures with my uncle using K’Nex sets, was the architect of many a furniture fort my brothers and I would build, kicked the soccer ball around with my cousin (who was a girl playing on the boys team because they recognized her talent), etc. I was no good at soccer, but my Dad signed me up for karate. I wish I could remember how that came to be. All I know is that I really enjoyed it. In that arena though, was the first place I was met with the idea of gender roles and capabilities, and that my gender was supposed to be inferior.
I’ll never forget it.
It was my first tournament, held at the old armory in Frederick. I was sparring a boy ranked as an orange belt. I was still fairly new at the sport, so I might have been at least a yellow belt. In our rounds of fighting, I managed to get three points on him before he got them on me. We were roughly the same size, being 9 or 10 year olds, but I was faster. After the fight was over and we bowed in respect of each other, I saw that kid, red-faced and disappointed, be lead away by his father who was also red-faced and demeaning his boy for being “beaten by a girl.”
I remember standing there, pondering it. I even asked my dad, who had watched the match, about it and though I don’t remember his explanation, what I do know is that was the moment that I recognized I had an edge. I was quite capable of doing things that, apparently, people weren’t expecting of me — and that was powerful.
My dad likes to tell another similar story to that one; it was the second time I heard an adult male chastise his son for doing something sub-par…”like a girl.” Our neighbor and his son were in their back yard, which was fenced in and had a little less running room than ours because they’d done some landscaping. His kid played baseball the same year I played softball, and I guess we were about 11 or 12 years old. They were outside, just like my dad and I were in our yard, practicing throwing the ball. “Come on, Matt. You’re throwing like a girl,” his father yelled, upset that his boy wasn’t throwing maybe fast or far enough. Just 50 feet away was me — a girl — very visibly throwing the ball around with my dad.
I can see it clear as day, my dad lowering his mitt to his side, turning around to watch this spectacle in the other yard, and then turning back to me unfazed, perhaps pitying the boy, but never missing an opportunity to turn the other cheek. “Come on, Jenny. Let’s show them what a girl throws like.” We moved a few feet further apart from each other and I lobbed that softball right to his mitt. We kept doing just that until well after the neighbors went inside. Maybe they didn’t learn a lesson that day, but my dad and I had fun, and I was instilled with a sense of power that all girls and women should have — You can.
From those days on, I was going to do anything anyone else could do, and just as well if not better, without giving a second thought to anyone else’s opinion about it.
I was going adventuring in the woods and wading through creeks and climbing trees. I was going to learn karate and compete. I was going to work on my first car with my best guy friend and learn how to take things apart and fix them. I was going to lift heavy boxes at my first job and ride pallet jacks and reconfigure store sets. I was going to study fine art even if the overwhelming majority of recognized artists throughout the canon of art history are men. I was going to explore ideas, write, think critically, come to informed conclusions and present all of this without bothering to think about whether I could or should. I was going to argue my worth and negotiate a fair salary for myself at my first career job. I was going to make my way in this world because I have as much right to it as anyone else does.
So, I guess what brings me to thinking about all of this is that I’m at a place where I can reflect and be grateful. I’m very grateful to the people in my life, especially the men, who never once lead me to believe I wasn’t capable. Sure, there are those who thrive from being told they can’t do something; they see it as a challenge. But I truly believe that I’m in part the product of the support of people who never told me otherwise, who never compared me to the boys, but just let me do my thing.
Thank you for letting me explore the same possibilities, perhaps without even realizing that there are people out there who don’t think you should.
Mothers and fathers, role models and mentors: If you want your daughters and sons, and other kids needing you, to have every opportunity out there as human beings, if you want them to come into their own without being limited by socially accepted gender roles, then don’t bring it up.
Let them try everything, let them explore all of the possibilities that this rich and vastly rewarding world and life have to offer. Give them your support, not because you want to wage a war on gender role conformity, but because you love them and they should be able to experience it all. And when they’re presented with the challenge of overcoming hurdles concerning their gender, they’ll have the edge because they’ll be too strong to be bothered with it and keep moving forward.
As far as your concerned, the conversation around gender role limitations and capabilities is illegitimate, and as far as kids who are supported are concerned, it doesn’t exist. If we do this, then, maybe one day, it truly won’t exist.