Creating Meaning Through Your Life and Work

“You live your life as meaningful as you can make it. You live it and don’t be afraid of who is going to like you or are you being appropriate. You worry about being kind. You worry about being generous. And if it’s not about that what the hell’s it about?” – Spencer Cox, AIDS activist

My mother-in-law, Betty Shadrick, passed away last October. Among the visitors at her wake were the NYPD deputy chief of Staten Island and reams of police officers; a police car led the hearse to the cemetery. My friends who didn’t know her very well asked if she had worked for the police department. She hadn’t. Instead, she had been the nanny to two men who would later grow up to become police officers, one of them who was honored for thwarting an armed robbery in his second year as a cop. The “boys” referred to her as “Grandma Betty” and said she had been a key person in their life. Although she had no direct ties to the NYPD, the NYPD honored her for her contribution in helping to raise these men.

My mother-in-law would have been honored by the recognition, although surprised. If asked – with the exception of her children – she would have said her contribution to this world was small. It’s these “small things” we talked about the days after she passed, like the neighbor who shared that she once slipped him $200 in gas money when he was preparing to drive to Florida to reunite with his father. She would have been shocked how these small things were remembered and cherished; she most likely had never thought twice about them.

As we enter a new year, what are we hoping to create in the world? How would we like to be remembered? Clearly, we have business goals and numbers we need to achieve and people relying on us, but the means to achieve these things are just as important – I would argue, more important – than what is actually achieved. People don’t remember things, they remember people. And what they remember most is how that person made them feel. And the people they remember fondly are the people that somehow inspired them by believing in them or being there for them. This is why so many of us remember our early teachers (and nannies).

I’m not really talking about being a “nice person” (although I don’t think being nice hurts); I’m talking about extending yourself in a way that will make a difference. In order to do this, you need to step into someone else’s shoes, care for them, and make their interests your interests. It’s looking at the small things that can make a big difference and big things that can make a small difference.

Some people believe introducing emotions into the workplace is wrong and possibly even a sign of weakness. That’s fine, as long as you don’t work with people. If you operate a machine all day and have no human interaction, you’re probably right. But for the rest of us who rely on our colleagues, teams, or staff to accomplish a goal, ignoring what that person needs to thrive is like not putting gas in your car. Eventually it’ll stop working.

As we take on the world in 2013 with the next greatest campaign that will win us a Cannes Lion, remember that even if you don’t win the gold, you can still make this a great year by being that difference to someone. And, if someone has been that difference to you, then why not let them know? Eulogies are great for funerals, but they’re even better when the person who deserves it can receive it when they’re alive and well. Have a great new year.

Team image on home page via Shutterstock.

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