The Work of Self-Discovery


Work. For many, this word conjures up the image of a place they have to go everyday in order to pay the bills. For others, it might mean practicing a skill in order to perform at one's best. We each attach meaning and emotion to the word, but can we shift our mindset about work if our current one doesn't serve us?

I grew up in a small, rural town that my family moved to after IBM built several plants in the area. My dad, a computer/math guy, could operate a lawn mower, but that was the extent of his agricultural skills. Many of my classmates, however, came from farming families and showed animals at the county fair. One day, a good friend said energetically, "do you want to help us move hay?"

To this day, I'm still not sure what I thought sounded fun about the task, but I agreed. We spent hours moving bales of hay from the tractor to the barn loft. My back, hands, hamstrings, and pretty much every part of my body hurt in ways I hadn't felt before. But at the end of the day, looking at the full loft and knowing that I just helped my friend's family prep for the winter gave me an amazing sense of satisfaction.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of work and found "an activity involving mental or physical effort in order to achieve a purpose or result." I get it because whether the big pile of hay in the loft, the pile of cash at the end of a waitressing shift, or the applauding audience at the end of one of our keynotes, positive end results provide immense satisfaction.

Financial reports, student test scores, or a team's win/loss record all provide goals to shoot for and benchmarks for measuring success. But if we focus only on the result, we might miss out on the self-discovery element that Joseph Conrad points to in this quote. What if we focused on "work" as the process or the practice toward a goal? It's not always easy because it means spending time in the uncomfortable, messy middle - the part we often want to forget or just get through as quickly as possible.

In my own experience, I improve not by reflecting only on the successes/results, but more so on the steps and variables that influenced them: Do I have a fixed or growth mindset right now? How does increased intensity influence my reaction and how does stress impact my team? When am I feeling resistance and where is it coming from?

Paying attention to these and other elements of "the work" encourages mindfulness, engagement, and a growth-focused culture. To get you started, ask yourself and members of your team, "What's one thing you've learned about yourself in the process of working on a recent project?"

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