My New Years Resolution (Or, How To Do Something By Doing Nothing)
By Dave Isbell
[Here is a #FlashbackFriday post for you. Originally posted on 01/11/11. As I read it, the basic point still rang true, even if my job title and the way I do my work at MSU has changed. In fact, we live in interesting times so it maybe even more relevant, to me at least, than when I originally wrote it. So instead of editing it I left it just as it was originally written. Enjoy!]
Here we are in a brand new year. It is the year just before the one that the Mayan calendar says will be our last, or spells out that it will be the beginning of the end, or something like that. Frankly, I suspect the Mayan’s predictions to be just a clever marketing scheme to get us to buy calendars. Yet, despite my skepticism about the apocalyptic timetable, there is something to the idea that there will be an end one day. Even if the Earth does not burn up in a cataclysmic fire during 2012, “I” will eventually end. I could get all worried about that, and wonder if I’ve ever done anything that mattered. Instead, what I’m wondering right now, is how might I spend 2011 in a way that actually matters while I am still here.
Every weekday, I sit in my office talking with Spartans who have been dealt crushing defeats. You know the struggles I’m talking about. They are the ones that feel like you were just massacred in a New Year’s Day Bowl game after ending an historic and amazing football season full of wins. So many of the people who visit my office come to me after being beaten by bigger and stronger opponents than they ever thought possible to face. Some of them are still broken, bruised, and hemorrhaging because the most recent battle is still waging when they crawl over to the sidelines to talk with me. My natural inclination is to want to pick them up off the ground, “fix” them, and get out there and play the game for them. However, I’ve been around long enough to know better.
The first seven years of my twelve years as a Career Coach, I worked in an agency in the poorest neighborhood in town, where I saw the depths of human misery that most of us in the middle class and above cannot even imagine. I understand what it is like out there, in the real world, where the stakes are much higher than the disappointment over your favorite team being spanked on the football field. Yet, despite my training and years of experience, each time a suffering person tells me his or her story, my heart still gets a little bit broken. To be completely honest, there are times when I have no answers and feel completely powerless to do anything to help despite my best intentions and desire to do so. Usually that feeling is followed by doubts about my own inadequacies, the crushing idea that if I can’t give these people a job, (which is what many people assume someone with the job title “Career Service Coordinator” does) then what is the point of my work? However, it does not take long for me to remember the majority of people who do get jobs after working with me, despite the fact that I did not get them one. So, why do I bother to continue to show up, day after day, still excited about what I am doing even though I cannot do for people what they usually want when they first call me? Often, the results I get simply comes down more to what I did not do, than what I actually did. Allow me to explain. As I write this, I remember a woman I worked with during my earliest days as a coach.
Joan (her name, and some of the details in this story, have been changed to protect confidentiality) had conceived her first child as a teenager, and never finished high school, but married and stayed home with the children. While in her forties, she gave birth to her last child. Then, in quick succession, her chronic health conditions kicked in, her husband left her, and her adult children refused to help her. She lost everything she had when she could no longer hold down a job because employers would not accommodate her health issues. In a last ditch effort to survive, Joan swallowed her pride, applied for welfare benefits and then was sent to my office. By the time I met her, she was a shell of her former self. I can still remember how, every time we met during those first few appointments, she made no eye contact, mumbled under her breath (the extent of her words were similar to the sarcastic and angry, “whatever”) to every one of my questions about her career interests. I’ll be the first to admit that I prejudged her as a hopeless case, and was beside myself with frustration, to say the least. Yet, one day something unexpected happened.
Joan often brought in a notebook and doodled while I attempted to get her to talk. On this particular occasion, I happened to notice the Chinese calligraphy that she had pre-drawn on the page she was currently doodling on. I mentioned how beautiful I thought it was and asked her where she learned this. For the first time, she looked me in the eyes. Then she told me she had taken a watercolor painting class years ago and always loved art. We had a nice discussion about art, and I mentioned to her that I felt she had some natural talent. During the next few appointments, I learned more about the strong, confident, loving mother and spouse that she had once been. She was proud of her family, and in particular, how they had, in her words, “beat the statistics about teenage parents.” Then, I learned about how “everything went to Hell” when she suffered all of the above-mentioned loss. Each subsequent appointment, she revealed a bit more about herself and every single one of our conversations would start, or end, by talking about art. At one point, she came in and brought in some of the watercolors she had painted in the past and she told me about the things that inspired her during that time-period. Once she softened up, and we made that connection, I genuinely liked her. Yet, it did little to ease my frustrations about meeting my work goals, and how I could have been doing something more “productive.” After several weeks, I had made no headway into doing anything that I was remotely being paid for (helping her to get a job, and off from welfare.) Eventually, she stopped showing up to appointments and I had to drop her from the program.
Months later, she returned and apologetically explained she had disappeared because she had been sick, and then she handed me a drawing she had made for me. She told me it was the first piece she had created in years, other than her doodling. I expressed to her that I was honored that she would think to give it to me. Shortly after, she disappeared again. Joan would enter and disappear from my program for the next few years, usually for the same health care issues. Occasionally, Joan would land a job, and she would try to start up GED classes, but then she would get fired and quit school shortly after. However, each time when I saw her, after her head hung low with apologies for disappearing, her eyes would light up when we would talk about art, or she would be despondent about the subject because she was “not good enough” and could “never make a living doing it, so it is a wasted talent to have.” All the while, though I appreciated her openness and our discussions, I kept thinking to myself “I have a job to do, and placement goals to meet (I had those back then), how in the heck can I possibly help this person to get a job and stabilize her situation?” Everything I attempted to help her with seemed to be fraught with hopeless failure!
Eventually, I left that agency for another job. However, a few years after I had been gone, I bumped into Joan. Her countenance had totally changed from what I had known and I commented on how happy she seemed to be. She told me that her health was still declining (she had a “mini-stroke”), and she still can’t hold down a job, however she had finished her GED and was in the middle of her first semester in college. She then told me something that I will never forget. She said, “I know you must have been frustrated with me, because I was pretty hard to deal with back then. But I don’t ever want you to think that you did not help me.” To which I responded, “I never really did anything!” Joan looked me in the eyes, and with a glint of sunshine radiating from her pupils, told me, “Oh yes you did! You gave me back my dignity! You were the first person for a very long time that treated me like a human being! I think you believed I could do something for myself, more than I believed it. I know I don’t have everything together yet, but if it weren’t for you, I don’t know where I would be!” Then she hugged me and told me that she hopes I’ll be at her graduation when she gets her art degree in the near future. I haven’t seen her since then, but I’m keeping my eyes open for that invitation. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of a person who is doing something meaningful with her life, despite the bumps and bruises she’s received from opponents that are bigger, meaner, and uglier than she could have ever have imagined! In regards to the objectives laid out for me in my job, I was a total failure with Joan’s case. I never was able to get Joan into a job, and I definitely could not get her to do anything that she did not already want to do, and she certainly was not released from the welfare roles. Yet, that is exactly the point! The real success came from when I stopped trying to get her to do something I thought she needed to do, in the way that I thought she needed to do it, and started caring about the person sitting across from me. In the end, it helped us both to get what we wanted from the transaction, even if it did not fit my employer’s (or my) timetable.
Joan taught me so many things, and because of her, I gave up trying to get people to do anything a long time ago. Instead, I’ve been trying to help them to give themselves permission to do what they want to do. Yet, my 2011 New Year’s resolution is embodied in Joan’s story. I know that I am still far too often passionate about the causes I care about instead of empathetic toward those who think differently or care about different things. I’m also far too quick to dive in with answers before I leap into being compassionate. So this year, I want to learn to be more compassionate, especially when I’m not trying to be; especially when the person across from me has different ideas than mine; particularly when that person seems “undeserving.” In addition, I want to take the time to notice and to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of the “regular” people all around me who are living meaningfully and are intentionally doing what they can with what they have. If I can learn to organize compassion before compulsion, then I know that what the work I am doing, will have made the difference for the individual that I was doing (or not doing it) for. If the world erupts in flames at the end of this year, I’ll go out knowing that I got better at doing something meaningful in my last year of life, and that I got to really enjoy doing it! If the planet survives another New Year’s Day, well then, I’ll buy a 2012 calendar from the Mayans and resolve to fill it with even more meaningful things than I did in 2011!
Dave Isbell is a Licensed Master Social Worker (Clinical w/ Macro Endorsement), Certified Career Development Facilitator & Job/Career Transition Coach, and Certified Online Instructor. Most of all he is a lifelong learner. In his role at Michigan State University, he brings all of that background to work with him to collaborate with other Spartans in order to develop and curate content that supports alumni in their own efforts toward personal and professional enrichment.