The desire to impact and influence our world in lasting and meaningful ways is one of the most important maturations of adulthood.
Erik Erikson, the first developmental psychologist to propose a developmental model covering the entire lifespan from birth to death, called this drive for greater influence generativity. He contrasted this immensely generative, service-oriented stage of life with what he called stagnation. Instead of devoting life to serving the mosaic of humanity, when we are caught in stagnation we remain largely self-centered. Instead of focusing on the broader community, organizational and institutional well-being, we remain fixated on what’s good for “me,” “myself” and of course what’s “mine.”
Yet longitudinal developmental research conducted at Harvard University and spanning over 80 years reveals an interesting fact: If we do not remain selfish enough to take care of ourselves, we cannot be the generative human beings we are supposed to be as we mature into adulthood. The individuals who just give again and again burn out. Because they are not resourcing themselves in the essential ways, they often detract from the larger well-being of their communities, organizations and institutions. Instead of being a brighter exemplar of how to live, those who don’t take care of themselves become reminders of what not to do.
So what this seeming contradiction shows us is that we can’t merely be 100% self-sacrificing beings who are always giving ourselves to a larger purpose. And yet, we must also be wise enough not to remain entrenched in our own personal needs most of the time. We need optimized practices that resource and support us to give our greatest gifts and impact our world in the most essential ways possible.
As you tailor your life to your unique personal needs, interests and desires while also devoting yourself to what your heart most sincerely yearns to give, I have come across one strategy you are wise to avoid at all costs.
This is it: Do not, under any circumstances, couch your personal needs, interests and desires inside of your aspirations to change our world for the better. It isn’t that much different than signing up for a college course because you’re sexually attracted to someone who’s also taking the class. When asked about why you’re taking ancient Middle Eastern art, you espouse the significance of studying history and art as a means of understanding yourself and today’s market trends.
In other words, do not allow your more complex and considerate navigation of our world and your professional life to be circumvented by your hidden—or perhaps not so hidden—personal needs, interests and desires. When this happens, the noble and dignified drive to positively influence our world becomes hijacked by your self-centered preferences.
Here’s an example. A driven professional catalyzes a community around bringing together start-up companies together to learn, collaborate and support one another as they overcome obstacles to get their new offerings to market efficiently. This professional’s “big idea” is that new innovations by small nimble companies are big players in changing our world for the better. The start-up community loves the messaging, loves being a part of the community, and loves its offerings. Yet underneath these motions there may be a more basic drive and agenda fueling and guiding our highly driven professional. He or she wants the attention, the social power, the economic windfall and political position of being the center of attention. If we take away the notoriety, they no longer care about this community of start-ups. The altruistic aim has been infected by a corrosive drive to serve oneself at the expense of others.
Self-serving drives all too often stunt people’s well-being and influence.
Statistically, there are a lot of adults who’ve been infected by this maladaptive strategy. There are millions of them out there roaming around focusing on themselves at the expense of others. Some of them cloak these drives inside of service-oriented aims to change the world for the better.
While you might see promising initiatives, big inspiring visions and powerful ideas for the future on the outside, if less complex selfishness is running the show, you’ll be able to see and feel how narcissistic agendas are fueling these drives to change the world.
In these situations, changing the world is actually camouflage for “the world should give me what I want.” So be nuanced in your discernments. Get centered on your own needs, but do this in your private life, not your public life. Self-centered agendas—no matter how great they may appear—are corrosive agents to the larger fabric of our societies.
A Few Guidelines for Working with Yourself:
1. Notice when you begin to press your own needs, interests and desires outward onto the people and cultures around you.
Let’s start with ourselves. If we can’t find these parts of ourselves then we aren’t likely to be successful at identifying them in others. Be honest with yourself, assess your root motivations. ask yourself, Am I doing this for me? Or, am I really doing this to serve my broader communities and world?
Please note, if you don’t see where you do this, or at least where you are at risk for doing this, do NOT assume you’ve developed beyond these selfish drives. It probably means you have not developed sufficient distance from your self-centered drives. They are too close to you for you to see them as objects in your attention. Not seeing them might mean you’re behind, not ahead. Honest self-reflection and sincere feedback from others around you will support you to get a hold of these self-centered parts of yourself.
2. Make a confession.
When you catch yourself consumed by your own self-centered drives, tell the people around you and apologize. After your confession, there is always one question that serves you and the people around you. Ask, “What can I do for you?” Listen and discern how best to contribute your unique value to the larger community.
3. Recalibrate yourself to the mission, purposes and intentions that more sincerely and genuinely serve our world. You only have one life with quite limited opportunities to serve our world. Peer into your heart and align yourself with offering what matters most.
The litmus test I often give my clients is to use death as a measuring stick. The influence you are commanding into the world around you—does its good will persist after your death? Are people left with a greater exemplar of how to live? Are your impacts meaningful and helpful to our larger world even after you’ve died?
4. Serve the larger mission. George Vaillant, a professor at Harvard University and a pioneering figure in adult development and former director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development for 35 years, suggests in his book Aging Well that the adults who are thriving are those who align themselves with generativity most of the time—yet also make time to resource themselves when they need it. They set limits to what they can give so that they can continue to be of tremendous value to the people around them.
5. Finally, when clarifying your influence, invest more time in learning from the people you are interested in influencing. Harvard’s developmental research—the longest longitudinal study to date—tells us that the adults who had the greatest impact on future generations were also the ones that learned the most from the younger generations.
Before you sweep in presuming you know what the world needs, listen carefully to the world. Ask questions. Be curious. Look for novelties you did not expect. Be surprised by the world and the many people within it. After you’ve learned deeply from the people, contexts, cultures and environments you’re immersed in you will be able to share your experience, expertise and unique gifts in tailored ways that you couldn’t have done if you hadn’t learned from others first.
Don’t just share your gifts. Cocreate them together with the people and organizations around you. There is always a creative tension between you and the world around you. Listen, learn and attune to your surroundings and discover the creative tensions between this world and your ever refining gifts you have in some ways been born to share.
Learn, serve, and attend to your noble intentions as if it is your last gesture of life before you die.
Oh, and don’t forget…take care of yourself along the way.
Creator of Commanding Influence: Your Development for Greater Mastery at Work
Harvard University Teaching Fellow, Leadership Coach, Author of The Elegant Self
Ten Directions, Integral Facilitator Faculty