When we were children, the adults asked us, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We gave answers like, "A fireman!" "An astronaut!" or "A professional baseball player!" No one said, "I want to be compassionate!" or "I want to be a good member of my community!" Well, there was that one kid who was already planning to be the youngest senator in the history of the United States, but even he was already defining himself in terms of his occupation.
As we grew older, we went to college and tried to find a major that would lead to a career, or at least to a good graduate school that delayed that career for a few more years. In our sophomore years, we questioned whether we really wanted to spend our lives in advertising, or chemistry, or teaching history, and our parents said we were having an identity crisis. Apparently, we weren't just questioning our field of study, but our very identity itself. We learned in that moment that we aren't what we eat after all, but where we work.
Now we're settled in our offices, spending our days in meetings, jockeying for resources, establishing agendas, and generally trying to "get ahead," wherever that is. The innocent party question, "What do you do?" resonates with echoes of "Who are you?" and the answer had better be good. We pin our worth to our work, measuring our value by the titles we accrue, the speed with which we accrue them, and the number of people who sit beneath us on the company org chart. We are what we do.
Where does this leave us? Unsettled, for one thing. If my self-image is bound up in my position, then what do I do when someone threatens it, when they don’t show me the proper respect? I lash out, undermining them in turn and looking for opportunities to assert my dominance and restore my self-esteem. I forget about the problem at hand and look at the situation instead, seeking ways to turn it to my advantage. I measure my interactions in terms of influence rather than outcome. I stop learning and I start leveraging, and somewhere along the way I stop producing. My work, which we assume was meant to provide some benefit to the world, instead becomes a byproduct of my ever-growing ego.
What if there were a better way? What if I could take pride in the fruit of my labors instead of my position in the pecking order? What if I could let go of my ego and lose myself in the creative process? What if, instead of building my own little kingdom, I focused on producing something of value?
There’s a place for pride in the workplace, but it requires a different focus to be beneficial. When we focus on ourselves, we quickly lose sight of the outcomes we were supposed to produce and turn our eyes to all of the people who are standing in our way. When we focus instead on our work and its outcomes, we can lose ourselves in the effort, submerging our identities into the team and joining together to create something that’s bigger than ourselves. We lose the ego and replace it with the humble pride of a craftsman admiring his handiwork.
This is why companies write mission statements: they want to inspire their employees to see their daily work as something more than a struggle for position or an opportunity to log time toward the next paycheck. They want to create something lasting and valuable, something to which their employees can attach themselves. Unfortunately, in trying to cover all of the things that they think they do, most companies water down their mission statements to an unintelligible list of platitudes (“Hooli: making the world a better place through minimal message-oriented transport layers”). It’s a valiant effort, but if you find a company whose mission statement inspires you to get out of bed every morning, never leave.
So where can we find inspiration that overrides our egos and drives us from positional maneuvering to productive work? It has to happen locally: at the team and individual level, what do you do that makes the world a better place? What are you creating every day you can be proud of? What problems are you solving, which lives are you improving, what work are you doing that would make you proud to say, “Yeah, I did that.” Better yet, what are you creating that could make someone else say, “Wow, I wish I’d done that”?
My father is a realtor, and one day I asked him why he enjoyed selling houses, because, frankly, I didn’t see the appeal in spending a perfectly good Sunday sitting in someone else’s empty house instead of spending it in my own house watching football.
He told me, “I’m helping people find a home: a place to start a life together, to raise their kids, and to grow old together. I’m an integral part of their life story and I want to give them the best I have to offer.”
Now that’s a mission statement.
So what’s yours? What are you doing to make the world better every day? What’s your real job: not your title or position on the org chart, but the thing you’re supposed to do every day at the building where they pay you to show up? Maybe it’s revolutionizing the way people communicate, or solving really complex problems that no one else can solve. Maybe it’s helping young couples start a life together or helping large companies make better decisions about how they treat their employees. Maybe it’s taking care of a whole department of people and giving them the tools they need to be successful with their own missions.
Whatever it is, find it. Focus on it like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble that will eventually be David. Forget about positions, authority, and social status, and just work. Find that place of humble pride as you go about your daily mission.
Be egoless, but full of pride.