Personal Growth or Unmitigated Disaster?

photo credit: photofarmer

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you probably know I launched a thing last week and made other site tweaks to make it clearer that this blog is part of a larger business model dedicated to helping nonprofits be heard.

There were definitely parts of this process where “crawling into a hole” seemed like a viable career move, but in the end, I’m happy with where I am.

This is especially gratifying for me because “selling” has not always been such a positive experience.

In the past, it went more like this:  After spending a semester hanging out with the Campus Crusade for Christ people in college, they encouraged me to start actively witnessing to people.  I resisted for awhile but, eventually, I ignored the giant knot in the pit of my stomach. Believing the “don’t do it” feeling in my gut was fear, or weakness, or something else that needed to be overcome, I went upstairs to my best friend’s dorm room and made my first (and last) attempt at cold calling for Christ.

In other words, it did not go well.  I would like to avoid that kind of embarrassment from happening again.

Here’s the dilemma.  It’s really hard to tell at the beginning if you are headed for “successful launch” or “dorm room drama.”  While it’s character building to experience a few crash-and-burn moments in our lives,  most of us don’t have the stamina to do all of our learning by picking ourselves up off the ground.  On the other hand, if you back off every time your stomach gets a little queasy, growth will be impossible.

You Need a Compass

The main difference between “growth opportunities” and “disasters waiting to happen” is disasters usually involve doing what you think you are supposed to do instead of achieving your goals in a way that honors your personal values*.  Luckily, when you find yourself headed toward disaster, it’s often possible to change course.

The key is to notice where you are headed as early as possible.  To that end, use your emotional response to the “newness” of what you are doing as a reminder “to take time to reflect.” I highly recommend journaling as part of this process, but you know what works best for you.  I use this series of questions to help ensure I’m headed in the right direction.

What’s going on?

This is just a “brain and heart” dump of the situation.  Write down all of the the emotions you are experiencing and to what you attribute them.  Capture your initial reactions to those emotions and allow space to write out everything you are afraid of.  You know you are nearly done with this step when you get to the “and then I’ll have to live in a van down by the river” part.

What are my fears trying to tell me?

Havi Brooks literally wrote the (coloring) book on this one, but even if your fears don’t manifest themselves as mythical creatures, they do have something to tell you.  This is the part where you look for the seed of truth inside the giant dramatic production your mind and heart have concocted to keep you safe.

Is there a way to honor my fears without letting them take over?

Ignoring fears does not make them go away.  They may seem to go away for a little while, but really they just pop back up in increasingly unhelpful ways.  Instead, try working through the fear.  Look for solutions that acknowledge the core of it while still giving you room to move toward your goal.  This does not mean you should cave to your fears.  They may have something important to say, but they don’t have all the info.  If you cave to their demands you won’t be able to grow.

Is there a small first step I can take to test the waters?

This is really important.  When you look at a new/scary situation as one giant thing, you are likely to either freeze in your tracks or barrel in head first, swinging your arms and hopping for the best.  In either case, you don’t give yourself the chance to evaluate your success as you work through the issue.  Try this instead.  Take in the whole situation and then find a discrete piece to tackle first.  When you are done with that, stop and reflect.  Did you get the expected results?  Did anything happen that you weren’t expecting?  How can you incorporate what you learned on the next step?

Lather, rinse, repeat until your scary project is the newest part of your repertoire.

Share your stories

Personal Growth and “Crash and Burn” stories are both fair game.   If you have a method for tipping your personal scale toward growth, please share that in the comments as well!

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*I’m not talking about moral values or family values here–I’m talking about the ideas, philosophies, and beliefs you have chosen for yourself that help define who you are.  For more a more nuanced exploration of core values, start with Julia Fabris McBride, Ronnie Brooks and Judy S. Brown.

Loving your nonprofit job: The secret value of being mission-centered

photo credit: by jalalspages

The work is hard, the pay is bad, and no one else cares anyway.

That’s where I was last week. No big catastrophes, just a couple of grant rejection letters, volunteers bailing at the last minute, people incapable of reading their e-mail. Just enough “yuck” to kick-start the fantasies of the sort of job where you make lots of money and people do what you say because you can fire them if they don’t.

If you work for a non-profit you’ve been there. No matter how much you believe in the work, no matter how dedicated you are to the cause, some days you get bogged down in the crap parts of your job. Some days you are tired. Some days it seems pointless to continue fighting.

Assuming you don’t actually quit and become the next Donald Trump, what can you do?

Remind yourself of why you do it

When you are in “the bad place” it’s hard to remember that last week, you loved your job. You cashed a big check from a new donor, your volunteers worked tirelessly, and you received a letter from a college freshman thanking you for making her dream possible.  Yes, the work is hard.  No, it will never really be done.  But it is important, and by doing it, you are making a unique and essential contribution to the world.  During the inevitable dark times, you need a way to remind yourself of these brighter moments.  You need to reconnect yourself to the mission.*

Eventually you may be able to re-center yourself by force of will, but in the meantime, try using visual cues.

  • If you’ve got a good mission statement; tape a copy to your computer screen.
  • If your mission statement is management consultant gobbledygook, create a short hand version.  Jot 3-4 words that capture the essence of what you do on a scrap of paper and display it.
  • Keep copies of thank-you and “you are awesome” letters in a handy “pick me up” file.
  • Draw or clip pictures of the world you are working to create.
  • Collect desk-toys that reflect your mission in a playful way.
  • Find a touchstone that resonates with you.

For me, it’s a robot army.  Sure, the robots are two inches tall and made of cardboard, but they are big enough to remind me of the real robots being built across the city and the students who are being introduced to educational and career opportunities they may have never considered without them.

Plus, it’s hard to be grumpy when faced with cardboard robots.

Your turn

How do you keep yourself on track during the dark times?

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*One of the worst things to happen to the nonprofit community in the last few years is the take over of the word “mission” by for-profit management consultant types.  If you can no longer say the word without thinking of  “The Office”  try substituting the word purpose.