The Most Important Advice I've Ever Received

There was a season of my life when I was told I was playing the victim. Every week. 

Have you ever been told you're playing the victim? It's infuriating. It makes you want to…feel even more like a victim.

One of my college mentors must have figured out a way to package and eat the virtue of patience for breakfast - because his entire job entailed listening to hopeful young people whine about their uncertain futures.

Once a week I'd figure out a reason to meander into his office and lament for a half-hour about how scary it was not to see my future ahead of me. I’d complain that I'd put in the work, so I deserved to have more clarity and more options and more offers...

He'd swivel in his chair and listen. He’d never adopt an air of judgement or cut me off. When I finished he'd pause for a moment as if he was going to say something different than what he said the last week. After a long silence he'd stop swiveling the chair, lock eyes, and say kindly:

"Reagan - you're forgetting - it's not about you. When will you stop playing the victim and get out there and help somebody?”

End of lesson.

He passed almost 10 years ago and I wish like hell he was still around to guide me. When he died they couldn't fit all the people inside the church. The crowd literally spilled out the front door, down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk.

He ended his life in full possession of the things we're all after: influence, belonging, respect, love. He showed me and countless others how at the end of our lives, those few intangible elements are what the whole game is all about:

Influence, belonging, respect, love. 

He tried to remind me of this every time he told me my path, my goals, my desires - the grand story I wanted to tell with my life - none of it would come to pass if I kept the focus trained on myself. 

Over the years as I’ve endeavored to implement his guidance I often think in frustration: How am I going to get anything done if I’m concerned about everyone else? I’m trying to create a business to help other people for crying out loud - can’t I focus on my needs and my direction for a minute?

But I’m learning to see he never advised me to sacrifice my desires and hopes for a life of solitude in a monastery. He never said to let distractions and requests invade every minute of my day. What he wanted me to remember is the greatest stories ever told are about a character who, yes, wants something, has desires, and self-actualizes - but the character also (and more importantly) finds a way to use their life to save other lives. And more often than not, in the character's willingness to bring others along and make their life bigger than themselves, they find out what it is they were looking for the whole time:

Influence, belonging, respect, love.

More practically, when we learn to look at our life situation and our careers as a springboard for helping others we put into practice the timeless Zig Ziglar wisdom:

"You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want."

You see, it's a generative cycle that's almost too good to be true. We continue to miss it because the payoff isn't always visible or on the timeline we'd prefer; but I can tell you this - I've seen the difference in my life and in the lives of those for whom I have a great deal of respect. When we believe our lives are about us we get lost in thoughts and feelings and expectations. When we realize life is about others we're compelled to take action. And it is selfless actions that make up a wonderful life, not inwardly focused desires for control.

So what is the right action? How does one look outward? Here are a few mindsets I’ve found helpful:

  • A friend once said the need is the call. Look around and direct your actions to the needs present in your vicinity.

  • My business mentor said good business is simply this: Find out what people are already trying to do and help them do it in a way unique to your gifting. 

  • Christopher McCandless’ journey in Into the Wild, though exhilarating, was lonely. Near his life’s end, he penned: Happiness is only real when shared.

  • Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness reminds us we’re terrible judges of what makes us happy. Plans executed perfectly don’t create an extraordinary life, I’ve learned. When our lives aren’t about our plans, we invite adventure and live more meaningful stories.

Remembering it’s not about me has less to do with the specific practice and more to do with the right perspective. Do you believe your whole story is about you getting what you want or are you able to recognize that there's something bigger and more connected going on? Can you learn to see when we choose small actions every day to move us closer toward one another how our communities and lives collectively get better? Abandoning our expectations for our own lives truly is the tide that lifts all boats. 

Remember what we really want - even if you don’t yet believe it’s what you really want - influence, belonging, respect, love. We will live a story worth telling, and create the impact we're capable of creating, when we learn how to whisper to ourselves each morning: it's not about me.