There is no neutral

clarity personal growth self reflection Jul 02, 2021
The contribution and impact of each drop

For the majority of my career I taught theatre to undergraduate college students. And as I’ve discussed before, this turned out to be an excellent training ground for the next chapter of my career as an administrator and coach. Theatre is a team sport, and if everybody isn’t rowing in the same direction, it’s the audience who suffers. The same can be said of a university, or any other complex organization—when departments care about their piece of the pie more than they care about the whole pie, it’s the students (or customer) who is the first to feel the effects of an education (or product) that doesn’t deliver on its promises.

In the first post in my series on Why and How to Self-Reflect, I talked about how I reflect on my own growth and learning. Looking at how my activities each quarter have impacted my own trajectory is a vital first step. But then it’s time to flip the coin over and ask myself what all of that activity has contributed to the people, groups, and causes to which I am committed. And while it is easy to think about my contribution in terms of the work products I created or the hours I donated, those measurements say almost nothing about the impact that all of that effort might have had. What I am most interested in reflecting on is how my activities are bringing forth the change I seek to create in the world.

With this idea in mind, we can craft a set of questions that help us consider both our contribution AND the impact it had:

  • What did I create this quarter and who was it for? Did my work reach my intended audience? How did they respond?
  • Who am I trying to serve? Who am I leaving out? Am I okay with that?
  • What other contributions did I make this quarter? What is different now because of the contributions I made?
  • What did I contribute to the systemic problems that I say I care about?What was the impact of that contribution?
  • Whose lives were changed, and in what ways?

But I want to take this one step further. Getting back to my theatre roots, I used to teach my students that there is no such thing as a non-contribution in terms of the energy they bring onto the stage, or into the classroom, or into any kind of interpersonal interaction. That is, the minute your body is physically present in the space, you are contributing an energy, and that energy is either helping the project move forward or inhibiting it. You might think that sitting quietly in the corner is neither adding nor subtracting, but if it isn’t adding, it’s subtracting. You don’t have to be rowing backwards in order to be making a negative contribution; sitting quietly while everyone else is rowing is impeding the progress of the boat.

So in addition to asking the questions above, I also reflect on this set of prompts:

  • Where did I inadvertently contribute something that had a negative impact on others?
  • Where did I withhold when I could have shared?
  • Where did my unresolved issues with another person hold us all back?
  • Where did my biases shape an interaction or a learning space that did not honor the full humanity of the person/people?
  • Where did my own unmet needs (emotional, physical, or spiritual) prevent me from being my highest and best self in my work and in my relationships?

Those questions require a touch more vulnerability, which will quickly get me armoring up, defending myself against my own invisible army. So it is also important to note, that of course we don’t have full control of our lives, and human animals are sensitive creatures who respond to a ton of energetic stimuli during a day. What was happening the minute (or hour, or morning, or lifetime) before you stepped on to the stage (or into the classroom, or boardroom, or through the front door of you home at the end of a long day) is real time life, and being your highest and best self (i.e. always making a positive energetic contribution) is a journey not the destination. But we do have quite a bit of agency in how we choose to use those unexpected experiences to shape who we become and the energetic contributions we make. We can pay attention to and try to get choosier about the narrative we write in our minds about our hardships, about how we assign blame, and about talk to ourselves about what we are worth and what we deserve. And, equally as important, when we discover that we've contributed something less ideal than we would hope, the best response we can have is one of self-compassion tinged with a bit of playfulness. Examining the contribution you make should never be an exercise in self-loathing.

Finally, and perhaps even as an antidote for the self-loathing that might crop up, the last question I ask myself as part of my own self-reflection on contribution and impact is this—who contributed something in these last few months that made a positive impact in my life, and how can I thank them for that? As it turns out, it’s hard to be hard on yourself when you are full of gratitude.

What about you, dear reader? How do you reflect on the contribution and impact that your one wild and beautiful life is making in this world? What have I left out? Hit me up; I’d love to hear about it.

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