A few months ago, I attended the Net Impact annual conference in Philadelphia. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to meet great people, hear inspiring talks, and participate in many learning workshops. During one, led by the Authentic Leadership Institute, we had the opportunity to look back on our lives and think about what our leadership purpose was. With some rapid brainstorming and thinking about many moments throughout my life, I distilled my leadership purpose down into eight words, that together represent a process I have been thinking a lot about since then. It is a process that I believe can lead towards a life of impact and bliss.
Self-awareness is a term that is used a lot in terms of leadership development (I personally use it quite a bit). While this term is used often, the journey towards knowing oneself is never-ending. Why? Because we are constantly changing. I prefer to think of the phrase ‘continuous self-understanding’ which means that the process towards becoming aware of your whole self is not only continuous, but it goes beyond awareness. Understanding brings it to a whole new level. Awareness is typically more passive, while understanding implies an active process of learning the ‘why’ of why you do what you do. When I think of my own journey towards impact, the process of getting to know myself and how and why I constantly change is the first step. There are many different ways to better understand yourself. A few that I find particularly helpful are: meditation (I use the Calm app to help guide me), using a Passion Planner for goal-setting (my goals are an indicator of what is most important to me at a given time), and a gratitude practice (what I’m thankful for is also an indicator of what/who is influencing me at a given point in time). Beyond that, I am a voracious reader of leadership books/articles, I write nearly daily to understand my own thought process, and I seek feedback from others on my strengths and weaknesses.
We are each just one person, and none of us know what we don’t know. If you think you know everything about a certain issue, you are most definitely wrong. We are each the master of one subject, which is our own history and story. We see everything through our own lens, which has been influenced by everything and everyone in our life. Therefore, the second step towards making a deep impact on the world is to ask others. When was the last time you sat down with your group of friends and asked them what they thought about mass incarceration? How about climate change? Or economic development in rural America? While these might not be frequent topics of conversation, they could be – and our friend groups are a good and safe starting place. However, they are not the end point. It is important to gain an understanding of everyone touched by a given issue, and equally important to understand the points of view of those who are not touched by an issue. Only then can we begin to understand any problem more fully. So if we’re going to talk about mass incarceration, it’s important to talk to returning citizens (individuals who have been in prison or jail), their families, those that work in the justice system, and especially those that don’t think that mass incarceration is an issue. Asking others means getting out of our own echo chambers, truly listening to points of view that we completely disagree with, and then starting to form an understanding and opinion.
Making an impact requires a lot of influence, and influence is not something that necessarily just happens. You can’t measure influence by looking just at numbers or just at stories – it’s a mix of both. Influence, in my opinion, is about how you change minds, or at least open individuals up to the possibility of something they hadn’t thought of, or cared about, before. According to Google, influence means ‘the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something.’ Influence can be done positively or negatively – we know that our family influences us deeply, as do our teachers, our friends, our colleagues, the media, and others we encounter daily or have just read about or seen on TV. So how can we influence others? After the first two steps in this process, it will have become easier to know what and why you want to influence others. From there, it can take a lifetime of work. However, it is important to not forget the impact that influencing just one person can have. It starts small, but every word we write, call we make, question we ask, can all be used to influence others. As an example, tomorrow is a day in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I deeply admire. I added one of my favorite quotes of his to my out of office email. My influence ‘win’ could be as small as one person taking a moment to think about MLK when they might not have. MLK’s influence was one of the greatest of all time, and from studying individuals like Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, and even Donald Trump, we can better understand how individuals exert influence, in either a positive or negative way.
As we begin to influence others, we must start to think about building “it”. Everyone’s “it” is different. The influence that I hope to have is in creating a movement where individuals are not just pursuing a happy life full of bliss, but a movement in which every person realizes that they can find deep happiness and make a positive impact on the world at the same time. My hope is that every person I reach will show up to their lives in a better, more mindful, purposeful, impact-driven way. For others, they are building a world where mass incarceration doesn’t exist, or where students have access to quality education, no matter their zip code. I fundamentally believe that everyone has their “it”. I also believe that you don’t need to work on your ‘it’ every minute of every day and it doesn’t need to be your job – but as each of us strive towards playing a part in something bigger than ourselves, we will be able to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to fulfill their full potential.